Molnos, A. (1998): A psychotherapist's harvest

PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION

The main difference between projection and projective identification is that the former belongs to intrapsychic dynamics, while the latter describes a very primitive form of relating. In terms of feelings experienced by the projector there is a clear difference between the two phenomena. When projective identification is at work, the projector feels at one with the other person. An "I am you" feeling. This is not the case in simple projection. Also, for the receiver, projective identification is far more disturbing and more difficult to deal with than a simple projection.

In psychotherapy we talk about projective identification when a person projects a denied part of himself not so much on to but "into" another person and ends up by powerfully controlling the receiver from within like a glove puppet (Cynthia Rogers, 1987). The denied part can be good or bad. Projection and projective identification can occur not only because one has to get rid of intolerably bad bits of oneself. The projector may be unable to own his positive qualities, his assets, because of guilt or fear of envy, retaliation, abandonment, loneliness or fear of harming someone important. By a process of projection or projective identification those good bits can be attributed to or deposited into someone else.

It is important to note that, with his fantasy of inhabiting the receiver, with his attitude and behaviour, the projector exerts enormous pressure on the receiver to accept the projection. If the receiver does not resist the projective identification, he is said to be in projective counter-identification with the projector.

We can say that projective identification is a primitive, pre-verbal mode of communicating and relating. The infant cannot say how he feels; instead he makes his mother experience the same feeling. Both are deeply connected with each other. The healthy mother will react in a way that will facilitate the infant's psychic growth. The same happens in the therapeutic setting.

This same process can be used to therapeutic effects. The crucial point is that the individual therapist or, in group therapy, the group and its conductor should withstand the powerful and profound pressure towards blurring the ego boundaries. This pressure is present whenever projective identification is in operation. After they withstood this pressure, they will be able to work through the projective identification and reflect it back in a translated form. Then the result will be greatly therapeutic.

The process as it occurs in child development or in therapy can be dissected into three phases (Ogden, 1982):

1) The projector rids himself of unwanted bits;

2) Deposits them into (not just onto) the receiver;

3) Recovers a modified version of his projected bits.

Without this third phase, the process is not therapeutic or helpful to the projector.

See also index: DEFENCES, DEFENCE MECHANISM, FANTASY, INTROJECTION, PROJECTION, TRANSFERENCE