Projective Identification: The Psychological Seesaw

Have you ever argued with a loved one who accused you of exhibiting the same behavior they exhibited during that argument? That’s known as “projection.”

Picture a couple arguing at a restaurant. The woman criticizes her husband for speaking disrespectfully to their server. She tells him that he has a bad habit of speaking down to people, especially to people in service roles. Her husband defends himself, telling her that he has no idea what she’s talking about. But for the rest of dinner, the man sits quietly and wonders if he’s unknowingly being rude to the people around him. After they finish their meal, the woman curtly demands their check from their server while complaining about slow service. She behaves exactly the way that she accused her husband for behaving. She perceives her husband as rude, but she has no awareness of her own rudeness. Whereas she’s certain about herself, the husband becomes confused about himself. Both are swayed by their individual internal realities.

“Projective identification” is a psychoanalytic term that describes the unconscious phenomenon that exists between the woman and her husband. People can use projective identification to rid themselves of unacceptable aspects of themselves—these can be in the form of their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, fantasies, values, or attributes—and they unconsciously place those unwanted parts of themselves into other persons. Projection involves one person unconsciously putting unwanted parts of the self into the other person. But projective identification requires the person who receives the projection to unconsciously accept the projection, which becomes a part of their own psyche. In this way, the projector and the receiver each play a vital role in this relationship.

Projective identification is similar to the dynamic between two people sitting on a seesaw. When someone is unable to tolerate some aspect of themselves, they’re unconsciously driven to elevate themselves from a low position to a high position. Down goes the receiver on one side of the seesaw, and up goes the projector. It’s almost as if the projector is weighed down by negative parts of the self, and they hand those parts off to another person, weighing down the receiver. It’s like the mind is saying, This doesn’t belong to me. You hold it.

Projective identification can potentially do harm to both people because it impoverishes their thinking and their concepts of themselves. When a person is inundated with negative projections, they feel weighed down. Projective identification is a potent form of communication, but it can also be a vicious circle that leaves both people disoriented and confused.

One of the greatest benefits of psychodynamic psychotherapy is that it can help people understand unconscious motivators. A psychoanalyst is trained to recognize the symptoms of projection and to help patients work to gain insight and greater awareness of themselves. It’s also useful to the analyst for understanding a client’s dilemmas and for helping the client gain insights about themselves.

The next time you catch yourself feeling superior and judgmental about someone else’s behavior, stop and get curious about yourself. Ask yourself this: Is it possible that I’m the one projecting? It’s not easy to recognize ugly parts of yourself, especially when it’s unconscious. But if you can at least ask yourself that question, then you’ve taken your first step toward increased self-awareness. Your psychological seesaw has begun to level out.

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