That Sneaky Devil, Projective Identification

The feelings we feel may not always be our own

Posted Sep 17, 2016

“At times I could murder him!” says Richard, complaining about his lazy son who’s refusing to go to school.

Amy is about to say goodbye to the class of six-year-olds she’s been teaching for over a year. “I don’t know why I’m suddenly feeling so cross with them,” she says.

“I’m just disappointed,” says Gurdip reflecting on her relationship with the girl who’s been seeing her regularly for therapy. “Disappointed and frustrated!”

For parents, educators and therapists – indeed, for human beings – ‘projective identification’ explains so much. The theory goes that we’re on the receiving end of other people’s projections all the time: accused of all sorts of things that are untrue and sometimes lauded for things that are also untrue. Usually, these unconscious projections bounce off us: we know that we’re not that bad and not that good. But the projections stick (we ‘introject’ them) when we’re susceptible to believing or feeling them in the first place. So if, as parents, educators, therapists, we live with a perpetual sense of inadequacy, for example, knowing that we can’t do it for all the people all of the time, then when children project their own sense of inadequacy onto us, we’re susceptible and likely to introject it, feeling the inadequacy as if it was our own.

Projective identification makes sense of so much that we find ourselves feeling when we’re with children and young people. It’s really a technical term for wind-ups. They wind us up. So in Alan’s relationship with his lazy son, who really wants to murder whom? How much does ‘murderous’ actually describe his son’s feelings towards Alan? And yet the lazier his son’s behaviour, the more murderous Alan finds himself feeling.

Similarly, Amy’s six-year-olds are preparing themselves to say goodbye to their beloved teacher. They’re behaving especially well, bringing her little presents in their desire to be remembered. But unconsciously, what’s happened to their inevitable anger with Amy for leaving them? If they can’t acknowledge it for fear of alienating Amy, my guess is that they’ve found ways of giving the anger to her, getting her to feel it on their behalves and, at worst, getting her to act it out. “I shouted at them,” she admits, “which I’ve never done before. And now I feel terrible!”

Knowing that we might be feeling other people’s feelings on their behalves helps us to take things less personally and resist the temptation to act out those feelings. Gurdip the therapist, unaware of what’s going on, could unwittingly take her disappointment and frustration out on other people in her life or on the girl herself.

Or she could stop and wonder about her feelings. She might well worry about disappointing and frustrating all of her young clients; such worries might be part of any therapist’s experience and Gurdip might well be susceptible to those feelings. So if the girl herself hasn’t been able to voice her own disappointment with therapy, her own frustration with the fact that nothing much seems to have changed as a result of going to see Gurdip, then that sneaky old devil projective identification might have started doing its work, getting Gurdip to feel disappointed and frustrated on the girl’s behalf.

I sometimes think that projective identification should be taught compulsorily to everyone involved or working with children and young people because – unchecked - its effects can be so destructive as people unwittingly make each other feel terrible.

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