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Identity and Introjection

Who are you, separate from your introjections?

Key points

  • Introjection is when one person accepts another's expectation or projection and makes it part of their own self-image.
  • Children will use introjection in order to maintain a relationship with their caregivers.
  • Parents project issues onto their children that they have not resolved themselves.

Last time we talked about projection. Today we are going to talk about introjection. Introjection is that amazing ability we have to take in the expectations and projections of others, communicated to us either nonverbally or verbally, either covertly or overtly.

How introjection happens

Here is an example of introjection. Sam is 4 years old and dressing himself fairly well by now. Today, his mother is in a hurry and doesn’t have time to lay his clothes out for him, so she hurriedly tells him to go put on some “nice” clothes. She’s going to have to take her with him to the luncheon with her two best friends—single women with whom she used to work.

So, Sam, really excited to do it all on his own, picks out the loudest shirt and the coolest blue jeans he can find. He puts them on proudly and hurries out to show Mommy how fast he can dress in “nice” clothes. Mommy is talking on the phone with the babysitter, who has canceled at the last minute.

Sam comes into the room to show off his clothes to Mommy. But Mommy is already aggravated and is really upset now to see the clothes he’s chosen. She waves him back to his room with a face of utter disgust.

Sam, now defeated, decides that he doesn’t really know how to dress after all, so he just takes off his clothes and sits in his room waiting for Mommy to come dress him. By the time she gets there, she’s furious, because now not only has he not chosen correctly, but now he’s just sitting there looking at her like he’s “dumb” or something. Now Sam feels even worse. He can’t dress himself and he’s really kinda dumb. It must be true—Mommy said so.

This is a seemingly innocuous example of everyday routines in a household with a stressful mother and a young uncertain child. But if similar judgments and rejections happen frequently enough, young Sam could end up feeling defeated before he even starts his life. That defeatism is an introjection.

Sam has no way of understanding his mother’s need to look “together” to her pretty, socialite friends. Nor will he know that she’s now in a major hurry since the babysitter is not coming. What Sam knows is that Mommy didn’t like his choices and now she thinks he’s dumb. Sam has taken his mother’s issues and incorporated them into his view of himself—a view that will ultimately become in whole or in part, his identity.

Of course, Mommy didn’t really say that Sam was dumb, though she was very embarrassed at the thought of his appearing in front of her friends with a brilliant red cowboy shirt, cowboy boots, and blue jeans! Sam picked up on the feelings expressed through her body tension, her facial expressions—even the slightest tic of facial movement.

Children see their caregivers as "mirrors"

Children are highly intuitive and receptive, and “sensitive” children are even more so. But what they typically do with what they receive is wrap it around themselves as identity. Why? Because it’s their way of trying to control their environment while simultaneously accepting what they think are their mirrors.

Children are looking to their environments to define them. They look into the faces of their caregivers and they see mirrors. They do this, however, not simply to see themselves, but also because they fear abandonment. They feel that they must be whatever is in that mirror in order to maintain a relationship with their caregivers.

What they receive from those upon whom they utterly depend is overwhelming. Their sense of self goes with the undercurrent, and they become whatever they see in the mirror. So, what is projected onto them—because the parents have not resolved the issue themselves—the children accept as identity. They have not yet developed the ability to reject the projection.

The question is, how do we develop that ability? Next post. Wait for it.

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