Letting Negative Projective Identifications Come, and Letting Them Go

Michael Cornwall, PhD
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I was prompted to write this blog post on projective identification because I’m seeing and personally being negatively impacted by the high volume of them being launched daily on public and social media. Every day, the internet and the 24-hour news cycle are permeated with many stress-inducing, negative projective identifications.

In my experience, what gets called projective identification can be described in these examples:

First, if I’m not consciously aware that I’m feeling afraid and ashamed, because to acknowledge the existence of those blocked emotions to myself would make me feel too vulnerable, it’s possible that via projective identification I can somehow directly or covertly affect you so that you feel afraid and ashamed too.

The purpose of doing that is because in the instant I perceive that I’ve succeeded in inducing fear and shame in you, I can feel a palpable relief from my own fear and shame. That relief may come because I suddenly don’t feel so alone with what’s going on inside me, even though I can’t name those emotions to myself yet. It’s also possible the relief comes about by going from feeling internally victimized by my painful emotions to feeling unburdened by passing them off to another — much like the proverbial “hot potato.” Relief may also result from a kind of vengeful displacing of my own emotions of fear and pain by lodging them in someone else to carry and embody, much as an insecure bully likes to see the fear on the faces of those he torments.

Conversely to the above examples about unconscious fear and shame, if I’m feeling happy or hopeful but may not be able to allow that emotional awareness into consciousness because of an unconscious belief in my own unworthiness, I may say or do something in a way that induces happy or hopeful emotions in you. I can then feel relief as those emotions now are present in the interpersonal space between us, albeit seeming to reside in the other person, not myself.

This process, which has been called projective identification, was first noted by Freud’s follower Melanie Klein. It is a more complex phenomenon than what’s referred to in the old adage, “misery loves company.”

It’s also more complicated than simple projection — when a person simply projects unacceptable aspects of themselves onto someone else in a demonizing way, as in the common kind of self-deception projection that sounds like: “That person out there is very dishonest but I am never dishonest!”

As RD Laing described how the process of projective identification differs from projection:

“The one person does not use the other person merely as a hook to hang projections on. He/she strives to find in the other, or to induce the other to become, the very embodiment of projection.”1

I gradually learned as a therapist in the 80’s to be aware of when a person I was with seemed to be mysteriously able to create distressful or unbidden upbeat emotional states in me — states that they were themselves subjectively feeling, but weren’t fully aware of.

Sometimes, when they would project their unconscious anger, fear, guilt, shame, inadequacy or other difficult emotions through an almost inescapable and subtly imperceptible, hypnotic-like induction move, it would cause me to identify with those emotions and feel them too.

By first recognizing the possibility of being on the receiving end of such a complex and very often unconscious process, I learned how to let that projected emotional experience of another person come into me psychologically, and then to let it go out of me. It’s important to note that this so-called projective identification experience, for me, was qualitatively different than the more familiar experience of empathically tuning into another person’s emotional reality to better understand what they are feeling. That empathic process of “putting myself in the other person’s shoes” is the prerequisite for the next crucial step of feeling compassion.

But when a projective identification is sent out and internalized, it turns out that being aware of that unique experience can also be valuable for me to have a sense of what the other person might be experiencing internally.

The short term gratification and relief of them successfully getting me to feel what they were unconsciously feeling, as described in the examples above, was outweighed by my willingness to feel it in the service of helping them become more consciously aware of what they were in fact really feeling and projecting. But I never interpreted the emotional clues I was getting that felt like a projective identification was going on with proclamations based on some bogus authority, authority that would presumptuously set me up as the arbiter and know-it-all explainer of their subjective experience.

One especially memorable encounter that felt like a possible projective identification aimed at inducing shame and fear in me happened in the early 1980s. It highlighted the nature of both this powerful interpersonal and individually subjective experience of a projective identification being received and responded to in a therapy setting.

The new client who came to see me one afternoon was in their late 20’s. When we met and sat down together for the first time they immediately asked me, “Where’s my patient chart, didn’t you bring it here in the room?”

“No,” I said. “It’s still in the chart room — I haven’t looked at it. I like to meet people without reading all the preceding opinions about them.”

“Then you don’t know that I’ve fired seven therapists in the past year!”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“You don’t even know what I am? What my diagnosis is?”

“No, I’m not really into viewing people as a diagnosis.”

They suddenly got up and came to stand over me a few feet away and in a very loud voice declared:

“Well let me tell you then: I am the most flaming and famous borderline personality in this whole chickenshit mental health system of yours! And to prove it to you, mister laid-back Cornwall, the next time I visit you here, I’ll get up on the roof of this clinic and put a shotgun in my mouth for you to see just before I pull the trigger! What do you say to that, Michael Cornwall?”

I felt fear, and felt my breathing catch and my muscles tense in my shoulders and stomach.

And I became very grateful that I’d previously spent several years as a therapist in a 20-bed medication and diagnosis free sanctuary with people who were all going through incredibly emotionally intense extreme and altered states. There, I learned out of necessity how crucial it was for my subjective emotional state to be open and receptive and in touch with genuine caring, in order to help people in extreme states feel safer, and for them to be free to express and traverse their powerfully emotional and symbolic transformational process.

So, I went ahead and relaxed my muscles, took a deep breath and said to the new client still looming over me:

“I’m very sorry you’re suffering now. I hope I may be able to be of some real help to you.”

“What! No calling the police right now to come grab me, after hearing about my suicidal ideation, intent and plan as you quacks like to call it?”

“No, no calling anyone.”

They just stared down at me.

Then they backed up and sat in their chair.

They slowly shook their head and began to softly laugh. “Where in hell did you come from? You’re supposed to be running for the door about now!”

“From a different place than your last seven therapists, I guess!” I said, and we smiled at each other and both laughed out loud.

After that we saw each other regularly for many months.

I guess this person was waiting for someone to let what some folks call projective identifications just come and then just go — waiting for someone who just simply cared about them and wanted to listen to them tell about their life and emotional struggles. Someone who believed in them and respected them and supported them making their own decisions and plans. Someone who didn’t pathologize or label them.

These old memories have come to mind for me lately when I feel myself absorbing the many projective identifications flying around on TV, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, cable news, the internet and in the newspaper every day. Those publicly expressed projective identifications, aimed at making us feel as intensely afraid or helpless as the persons sending them are feeling, do work temporarily on me. I do feel afraid when I take them in.

But I can feel some relief when I recognize them for what they are and intentionally let them go again, emotionally.

Unlike with the people who come to see me for therapy, I don’t feel compassion when strangers, talking heads and politicians make me feel afraid on purpose — even when they’re doing it to make themselves feel better.

But for me, I know that those politicians and many others who are using projective identification are outside of my inner circle of trusted loved ones, and that I can identify and resist their negative projective identifications, even when they escalate into blatant gaslighting and outright demagoguery. Understanding that negative projective identifications are happening helps me to keep my balance and perspective. That search for balance and perspective looks to be very necessary while going forward each day into the tumultuous future ahead.

Show 1 footnote

  1. Laing, R.D. Self and Others. Penguin, 1969. p.111

26 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with ParaPatty, this *is* a good one, Michael. And I think this article is particularly timely and relevant because you are cracking an important code.

    “Understanding that negative projective identifications are happening helps me to keep my balance and perspective. That search for balance and perspective looks to be very necessary while going forward each day into the tumultuous future ahead.”

    Yes, indeed, we need our most powerful tools and inner resourcefulness to navigate the current and upcoming conditions. We are changing, and it’s been a long time coming.

    In addition to perspective and balance, I would add speaking the truth of our heart as one of our most powerful inner resources which can help move things along with clarity and integrity. I value and respect very highly transparency and authenticity because they trump gaslighting.

  2. I found out tonight that my step-mother died about a week ago.

    I hadn’t seen her for over 25 years.

    In your terms I guess she used protective identifications a lot. Or as a friend of hers said, ” Suzannah put the knife in when you were feeling vulnerable.” That’s why I hadn’t seen her for 25 years.

    She had a hard life and I know her life story well enough to know some of why she felt so bad that she was horrid to people around her and why she drank herself to a relatively early grave.

    Once I was sleeping in a squatted building on my own when some people broke in and wanted to smash it up. For a while I talked them down.

    Sometimes I can let the threats come and go, reflect on them, reflect them back with empathy for myself and the other person. Sometimes I can’t. For some people, such as my step-mother, I was and maybe will never be able to.

  3. Fascinating Michael. Thanks for sharing this knowledge obvious honed from years of experience . I like that you connect this to the use of projections via the elite media too. The irrational fears of ‘terrorists’ for example, and I say irrational because the public are much more likely to be the victim of State sanctioned violence than any terrorist attack. But the wolf is circling the flock. Cut to an adverisiment for benzodiazepines lol.

      • In Australia we’re coerced into voting (fined if you don’t, makes our elected leaders seems popular and legitimate). I told the Electoral Commission that as long as people are being tortured by public officers they can just ask my doctor who I should vote for. Which doctor? I dunno because they can appoint themselves your doctor without even meeting you. Project my civic responsibility onto others 🙂 But still we are bombarded with political propaganda.
        I’d say more but I’ve left a toddler in the bath with my 38 special and …….

        The fines for not voting have the result in some cases of people being ‘jacked up’ and owing hundreds or thousands in fines. Eg they cancel your drivers licence and car registration without you knowing and police then charge you with further offences. Nice little cash cow for the State and its generally poor homeless people who are caught in the trap.

  4. It’s a complex phenomena of being, Michael.

    In my experience it’s a way of seeing with an expectation of recognition. Like looking at the sky and seeing the word clouds, while failing to notice this sense of being my mind, has dissociated my sense of being.

    No wonder Jesus cites Isaiah’s concise comment on the paradox of human motivation and perception; seeing they see not, and in no wise perceive.

    Which reminds me of a great line in DAVID Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas; what is a critic, but one who reads quickly but never wisely.

    Are you maturing like fine wine?

    My friend.

  5. Michael I am sharing this one in a blog post of my own. I just blogged about this.

    In my work in customer service most of our customers are kind, polite, and gracious. However, we do get ones we call “irate.” This is the common term in the industry. They even yell or swear at us into the phone. Some are extremely rude and blameful. I’ve had some call from their cars and then blame me for THEIR background noise. The list goes on.

    We get trained in this. As home workers we are told to empathize, or at least sound that way. We are told to force an empathetic attitude even if we do not feel it and what we are really thinking is, “I really am about to sneeze,” or some such thing. Or, as of late,”Darn I need to turn on the fan.”

    We have learned not to take these irate customers personally. They may say they’re pissed, but who are they really pissed at? Me? For an error made by UPS? They do, and they even blame us for their own errors.

    We have figured out that more often than not, these customers are projecting whatever is going on in their lives onto us, because we are there to pick on! I had one, early on, crying over the phone over a pair of flip-flops we couldn’t get to her in time for vacation. I knew something else was happening. Maybe it was a really important date, or maybe this was just the last straw for her in a long line of recent misfortunes she had experienced. I weathered the storm by realizing that, and also later on, joked to myself that my best flip-flops were from the dollar store! Of course, saying that would have gotten me fired. Maybe she will stop at a five and dime on vacation and find the perfect pair she has always wanted…..

    I don’t know how on earth I can stand being yelled and sworn at, but this is my job and it’s part of the job, for which I am paid. We learn, but it takes time and it’s only human to get upset by it every now and then. Only one time that happened, when the customer hit too low below the belt and insinuated that I am stupid, among other things. It was hard to deal with that. What makes up for it all are the wonderful customers who come next, who thank us profusely for our problem-solving skills and say we’re the best.

    I ask myself why these customers don’t bother me, but an insulting remark from a complete stranger on Facebook really ticks me off. Why is that? Possibly the content, which is often an accusation of having a mental disorder.

    These stranger bullies on Facebook are doing nothing but projecting. I’ve been accused of paranoia by someone who, I later found out, was paranoid herself. I was accused of lying by liars, accused of abuse by a person who was abusive toward me (and I had not been toward her), and so on.

    I am not sure how to deal with the know-it-alls except that such attitudes tend to soften over time. You see a lot of that on Facebook.

    I wonder if those accusing public figures of mental illness are actually worried about their own “mental status,” whatever the heck that is. According to Paula Joan Caplan, most people want to be assured they are not mentally ill, that what they are feeling and experiencing is understandable.

    As customer service rep, I know not to accuse, nor comment on a person’s character. I try to tell customers their anger is understandable. If a customer receive the wrong item, I might joke about the time I received basketball shoes instead of running shoes (me? I’m too short!). Or if their item was lost I joke about how my BICYCLE got lost by UPS. That, to me, is so funny (did it roll out of their storage area?) that the customers usually relax and know they’re not going to be accused of dishonesty.

  6. “I felt fear, and felt my breathing catch and my muscles tense in my shoulders and stomach.” Its a very visceral account of personal experience, that seems to speaks volumes about the muscular tensions and vascular pressures that create the cerebral tone of our body-mind, Michael? And I wonder if you were aware within that temporal (of fleeting moment) experience, of the affect on your heart-rate and your cerebral blood-flow?

    In another blog here on MIA there is mention of psychiatry’s ‘gas-lighting’ behavior, which is a term that to my mind, reflects the subconscious nature of our Projective Identifications, which can either be perceived with a negative or positive bias?

    What Gas. What Light and Where? Gas, as the oxygen we breathe and transform into oxygenated blood? Light, as the the metaphysical energy of our conscious awareness, fired by our heart and its reciprocal influence on the charge and discharge nature of 100 million brain cells?

    Which, when contemplating the reality of inner experience versus the literacy and numeracy skills of consensus reality, begs the question; what is psychotic experience if it is not what psychiatry says it is?

    Is it the metempsychosis of self-differentiation experience, or as Tolle say of the first law of enlightenment: the experience of ‘how,’ “you are not your mind.”

    BTW: There is new book by Peter Kingsley on one of your mentor’s Carl Jung and I wonder if your term ‘psychological-blindness’ will get an explanation in this two volume tome? The promo reads: Catafalque (2-Volume Set): Carl Jung and the End of Humanity.

    Catafalque offers a revolutionary new reading of the great psychologist Carl Jung as mystic, gnostic and prophet for our time.

    This book is the first major re-imagining of both Jung and his work since the publication of the Red Book in 2009–and is the only serious assessment of them written by a classical scholar who understands the ancient Gnostic, Hermetic and alchemical foundations of his thought as well as Jung himself did. At the same time it skillfully tells the forgotten story of Jung’s relationship with the great Sufi scholar, Henry Corbin, and with Persian Sufi tradition.

    The strange reality of the Red Book, or “New Book” as Carl Jung called it, lies close to the heart of Catafalque. In meticulous detail Peter Kingsley uncovers its great secret, hidden in plain sight and still–as if by magic–unrecognized by all those who have been unable to understand this mysterious, incantatory text.

    But the hard truth of who Jung was and what he did is only a small part of what this book uncovers. It also exposes the full extent of that great river of esoteric tradition that stretches all the way back to the beginnings of our civilization. It unveils the surprising realities behind western philosophy, literature, poetry, prophecy–both ancient and modern.