Projection and projective identification


If you hear the word projection, what do you think? If you are an artist you might think of an image being reproduced on a screen through optical means; if you are a financier you might think of a future projection for a rate of growth; if you are an actor you might think of projecting your voice distinctly to an audience. All these definitions have something in common, and might help us to understand the psychological definition of projection – they all involve something being moved from one place to the other. The psychological definition means that a person projects his or her feelings or attitudes onto someone else.

In understanding human relations, projection is an important process. It affects the way we relate to each other at quite subtle levels. Let’s have a look at how we begin projections at an early age. We are all familiar with a little child having a tantrum. The child might scream, cry, stamp his feet and hit out at his carer. This is often accompanied by an angry, ‘I hate you, go away.’ What is the child doing? If adults behaved like this, they would be considered to be in some sort of trouble. Generally they don’t behave like this because they have learnt to hold on to their feelings and deal with them. Children find this harder to do. The child who hits and shouts at his carer is projecting his anger onto his carer. Have you ever been in the position of the carer? How does it make you feel? Tense? Stressed? Angry? If so, the child has successfully projected his feelings onto you; as the child begins to calm down, you are left feeling irritated and upset.

Of course, we all find it hard at times to hold on to our feelings. Have you ever been in a discussion or argument with anyone who is becoming a bit heated and upset? How annoying it is if that person tells you to calm down when it is obvious she is the stressed one. Immediately it makes you feel stressed. That person has successfully projected her feeling of stress onto you as she tells you to calm down – it is easier for her to think that you are stressed than that she is.

We can also project good feelings onto other people, sometimes in an attempt to keep the good feelings safe from other more scary feelings inside. So in that instance someone might speak about their best friend as a good, kind person, whilst putting herself down. The best friend might be very happy to maintain this split between them, as it suits her. This is an example of projective identification, which occurs when the person receiving the projection identifies with it and then becomes quite overtaken by it. A more secure best friend might address the unreality of the situation and the idealisation of herself, and put things right between her and her friend.

This can be a complex subject, but once thought about it helps parents to understand how children function. Children often project and are often projected into. Bullying is a classic example of this. The bully often bullies because inside he feels insecure and afraid. It is easier to project this fear into other children, thus relieving himself of an intolerable feeling of insecurity and fear. In turn, a victim can become overwhelmed by the bullying, lose self-esteem, confidence and live in a world of fear. The victim has become insecure and afraid, just like the bully; the victim is in projective identification with the bully.

Ultimately, this technique of relieving oneself of intolerable feelings doesn’t work. The bully needs to keep bullying; if he stops for too long, those horrible feelings of fear return. That is when adults are needed to help the bully and the victim to think about their feelings and to make them feel safe in the knowledge that feelings can be tolerated, whatever feelings they are.

Dr Angela Evans

Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist

Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists


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