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Projective Identification and Narcissism

Is projective identification always insidious?

This post is in response to
How a Narcissist Conducts Psychological Warfare

The view that projective identification is one of the cruel weapons—albeit an unconscious weapon—in the toolbox of a narcissist is a creative and intriguing notion. It is interesting to look at the origin and history of the concept of projective identification to understand more about this process.

The child psychoanalyst and object relations pioneer Melanie Klein originated the concept of projective identification as a dynamic in the mother-infant relationship. Klein observed that the infant transferred or projected into the mother certain destructive impulses. This projection was pre-verbal and unconscious. Klein thought that projection occurs when the infant perceives the death instinct within himself. She thought of projective identification as a psychological defense, not as a form of aggression. Since Freud believed that projection originated from the deflection of the death instinct outwards, it was natural that Klein borrowed the term projection from Freud.

For Klein, the death instinct takes shape in the infant as certain types of representations or “bad objects” which threaten destruction from within. She is describing a primitive state of development in which the infant does not yet have a personality boundary separate from that of its mother. Klein calls this early state of fusion with the mother the “paranoid” (or the “paranoid-schizoid) position of infant development. The infant experiences a destructive impulse that he tries to externalize into the mother.

Klein, as well as later theorists like Winnicott, Mahler and Kohut, have pointed out the continuous psychological boundary between mother and child and between the child and the rest of the world. This diffuseness of personal boundaries is also found in adults and certainly in adults with narcissistic personality disorder. But fluid boundaries are also found in perfectly normal relationships, for example in people in love, in whom it is difficult to say which feelings belong to which person.

Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden applies the concept of projective identification to the therapist-client relationship. He calls this state empathy. Ogden writes: “Projective identification represents a component of all adult object relations, including the way in which the well-integrated analysand relate to his analyst and the way his analyst relates to him.”

Kohut famously used the concept of boundary-fusion or empathy in the context of the analysis of patients with narcissistic personality disorders, calling it the “narcissistic transference.” The narcissistic patient perceives the therapist as a part of his own self-system, not as a separate autonomous person. As Kohut puts it, the empathic analyst is drawn into the narcissistic web of another person’s personality organization. He uses the analogy of a mirror: the therapist mirrors with his own body the narcissistic patient’s feelings. The narcissistic transference, including projective identification of which the therapist is aware, is essential to the therapeutic process.

Projective identification is not always insidious, although as Dr. Leonard points out, it clearly can be so. This is especially the case in the context of a romantic relationship where boundaries generally tend to be diffuse, paving the way for the narcissist’s primitive unconscious processes to pass from himself to the empath. In this case, the empath’s antidote to the negative feelings projected into her consists in awareness of the process and creating firmer boundaries between herself and the narcissist.


Klein, M. (1946) "Notes on some schizoid mechanisms." Envy, Grattitude and Other Works. Delacorte Press.

Kohut, H. (1971) The Analysis of the Self. International Universities Press.

Ogden, T. (1982). Projective Identification and therapeutic Technique. Jason Aronsen.

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