What is Projective Identification?
Projection is the unconscious act of attributing something inside ourselves to someone else. Usually, but not always, the "thing" we are projecting is an unwanted emotion or attribute. For instance, if John does not feel good about his own body image, he may see Mark and and think to himself, "Hmmm, it looks like Mark has put on a lot of weight." Now, if Mark has in fact put on a lot of weight, John would simply be observing reality accurately. If Mark has not gained weight, we could safely assume that John is projecting his own perceived unattractiveness onto Mark. John, by projecting onto Mark, is also distorting his own ability to perceive reality clearly.
Projection occurs inside one person's mind. In the above example, the projection is occurring inside John. Mark may be walking past John and not have a clue what is going on regarding John's perceptions of him.
"Projective Identification" becomes a two-person process. Let's use the above scenario, but this time let's have John and Mark interact. Let's say that John meets Mark, greets him, and then comments to him "You look like you've put on weight." Mark, quite understandably, may feel hurt, and/or angry, and/or embarrassed by this comment. The cause of Mark's uncomfortable feelings, however, should be scrutinized closely, because it is at this moment that we must decide if this pair are accurately perceiving reality or if they have entered into a shared delusional state. If Mark has indeed gained weight recently, his uncomfortable feelings in the wake of John's comments may simply reflect his own feelings about the state of his own body. If Mark has not gained weight recently, we might say that he has become identified with John's projection of uncomfortable feelings about body image. Thus, Mark comes away from the interaction feeling hurt, angry, and embarrassed, when he in fact has nothing to feel hurt, angry, or embarrassed about. He literally gets stuck "holding the bag" of uncomfortable feelings that do not even belong to him in the first place.
Assuming Mark has not actually gained weight, we could say that he has every right to perhaps be offended by John's somewhat rude comment, but it would make no sense for him to worry about his body image, since there is apparently nothing to worry about. Despite this, it is easy to imagine how Mark may go home and begin looking in the mirror, worrying about the way his clothes fit, or anxiously schedule his next gym workout. If the situation played out in this fashion, we could begin to see the dangers in identifying with the projections of others: we literally begin to lose our ability to trust our own perceptions, views, thought, and feelings. We begin to lose a fundamental grasp of the contents of our own minds. This speaks to the fundamental importance of being able to trust one's self, and to form effective boundaries in the face of projections that are launched at us.
And launched they are, all the time, by virtually everybody. All of us project; we all have aspects of ourselves we wish to be rid of, and we all have unconscious dynamics, so it's inevitable that we engage in this reality-bending endeavor. We all also have weaknesses in our interpersonal boundaries, which means that we are vulnerable to identifying with certain types of projections. When this happens, we enter a shared space of delusion with another person. For obvious reasons, it's not wise to proceed through life sharing a belief in lies.
Many important relationships in people's lives can be partially or wholly built on projection and projective identification. One common coupling that contains this dynamic is the pairing of the constantly frustrated critic with the seemingly incompetent, bumbling partner. Employers and employees, married and dating couples, and parents and children often bring this matrix of projective identification to their ongoing relationships, much to everyone's discomfort.
Part of the point of psychotherapy is to begin wondering what life would be like, indeed what life would feel like, if the respective partners in the couple could step out of their projecting or identifying roles. What would actually happen if the boss didn't know it all? Or if that chronically incompetent employee could actually succeed once in a while? It is often hard for the chronically "wronged" spouse in a marriage to take a look at his or her contribution to an ongoing problem. However, the old adage of needing two to tango is often applicable in such sustained problematic relationships.
Of course, it's not surprising to think that stopping the problem in such relationships involves stopping the projective process, which in turn means helping someone accept and work on the distasteful aspects of him- or her-self that have been previous not thought about but simply projected. Who wants to look at one's own ugly parts?Hopefully all of us. It seems the only way to live a logical and sane life, and certainly to be in logical and sane relationships, is to learn to contain our unwanted feelings, not pass them off to someone else.