Day 277 - 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, feeling or attribute. For instance, if George does not feel good about his own body image, he may see Mary and and think to himself, "Hmmm, it looks like Mary has put on a lot of weight." Now, if Mary has in fact put on a lot of weight, George would simply be observing reality accurately. If Mary has not gained weight, we could safely assume that George is projecting his own perceived unattractiveness onto Mary. George, by projecting onto Mary, 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 George. Mary may be walking past George and not have a clue what is going on regarding George’s perceptions of her.
"Projective Identification" becomes a two-person process. Let's use the above scenario, but this time let's have George and Mary interact. Let's say that George meets Mary, greets her, and then comments to her "You look like you've put on weight." Mary, quite understandably, may feel hurt, and/or angry, and/or embarrassed by this comment. The cause of Mary’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 Mary has indeed gained weight recently, her uncomfortable feelings in the wake of George’s comments may simply reflect his own feelings about the state of her own body. If Mary has not gained weight recently, we might say that she has become identified with George’s projection of uncomfortable feelings about body image. Thus, Mary comes away from the interaction feeling hurt, angry, and embarrassed, when she in fact has nothing to feel hurt, angry, or embarrassed about. She literally gets stuck "holding the bag" of uncomfortable feelings that do not even belong to her in the first place.
Assuming Mary has not actually gained weight, we could say that she has every right to perhaps be offended by George’s somewhat rude comment, but it would make no sense for her to worry about her body image, since there is apparently nothing to worry about. Despite this, it is easy to imagine how Mary may go home and begin looking in the mirror, worrying about the way her clothes fit, or anxiously schedule her 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." (Drs O’Learys website www.drs-oleary.com)
Forgive the long quote here but they do an excellent job of explaining this concept...oh and I changed the names from the good doctors O’Leary’s website to George and Mary to further illustrate a point in male/female relating.
Even with a degree in psychology and a life time dabbling in it, I was somewhat shocked at how prevalent this concept is and how much it influences and impacts our relationships...all of them.
I just started reading this book called “Love Between Equals” by Polly Young-Eisendrath. It is pretty revolutionary. She is laying down everything in a much better organized fashion than I have been talking about lately, about seeing the relationship as a spiritual path. She believes that this process of projective identification is one of the reasons that so many people have such a hard time in relationships. They aren’t even aware that they are doing it and it is being done to them. Her premise is that you must both first see this and work to stop it or at least notice when you are doing it, in order to get beyond this almost knee jerk reaction in a loving relationship.
Why this must be done is outlined super clearly above in the examples between George and Mary. You can see how this process, especially when it goes unaddressed and is underground is super damaging to intimacy. I believe that both people in any intimate partnership must first identify that they are both doing it and then be willing to take a minute to see how it shows up in their lives. Practice identifying projective identification as it appears on a daily basis then be willing to be accountable for it.
This idea and process is revolutionary to being able to ground an intimate relationship in reality instead of delusion. And from my perspective, relationships are mostly grounded in a shared delusion a great deal of the time. It is almost as if we all make this agreement at the outset of a loving relationship that we will not view ourselves or the other person through a reality based lens, instead we both seem to agree “I will cosign your bullshit if you agree to cosign mine.” Is it any wonder that the divorce rate is so high? I am actually shocked that it is not higher!
As a divorce lawyer, certified divorce coach and mediator, I believe that the crash of reality and delusion is where most marriages come to an end. It is on the rocky shores of projective identification where the agreement to participate in each others’ delusions, crashes into the idea that what is really going on in a marriage causes there to be a marital shipwreck which leads to this ultimate crash and ruin. This is what happens immediately prior to the ending of all relationships in my opinion. There is a moment where one or both of the participants sees a truth that has likely been there all along but they are unwilling to continue believing the delusion and are instead willing to see the truth. And that is where all relationships end...the moment one or both partners decide to really see the truth of their participation in projective identification.
This is such great information and I believe that Ms. Young-Eisendrath is really onto to something here. I can’t wait to move on in this book. I think she has some pretty revolutionary ideas about relationships that can and will help us all if we are willing to see our constant projections onto others and how that projective identification keeps us stuck and gives us the illusion of safety when in reality all we are really sharing with the other person is the same delusion.
I am totally geeking out on this...more tomorrow with some real life examples to drive the point home. I can’t wait!