Projective Identification – a fancy term to denote a phenomenon we’re all very accustomed to experiencing.
You know the scenario. You’re really angry with your partner. Let’s say he forgot to pick up the kids from school for the 3rd time or he forgot to balance the checkbook again leading to a bounced check. There’s no doubt that he is in the wrong, yet when you confront him about it, he responds, “that only happened because you interrupted me last night while I was trying to plan my day.”
In a flash, his wrongdoing has become your wrongdoing. His feelings of guilt, for a moment at least, have become your feelings of guilt.
Projective identification is comprised of two components. The first, projection, refers to the psychological displacement of emotion from one person to another. In our example, your partner’s guilt becomes yours through his manipulation of the event.
The second word in the term, identification, refers to the fact that even though your partner’s guilt has been projected onto you, the guilt still belongs to him. Even more important, unless your partner develops the ability to accept criticism without projecting he relies on you and others like you to regulate himself emotionally leading to an identification or bond with you that lasts as long as the guilt emotion remains with you.
Let’s try another example. Have you ever met someone who thinks that everyone and everything else is better than they are? As an example, how about the teenager who becomes infatuated with a certain TV actor. I mean INFATUATED. Every programme, every biographical fact, every appearance by this TV actor is known by the adoring teenager.
This teenager has projected his own sense of self-worth onto the TV star leaving himself depleted of value. As a result, the teenager needs to remain linked to the TV star psychologically in order to remain balanced and whole thus cementing the identification.
Projective identification is incredibly important for sex addicts and their loved ones to keep in mind. The distortion caused by this mechanism, as the addict tries to cover his tracks or grapple with the demands of relationship intimacy , can wreak havoc on the addict’s life.
To thwart sex addiction, we must move away from the abuse of defense mechanisms like projective identification. Instead, we should strive to negotiate difficult moments with an expression of our true feelings and point of view. In doing so we establish a boundary telling people who we are and what’s important to us. It’s an important step towards health.
But, it’s a step we can only take through awareness of our overuse of projective identification.
How do we become aware? We listen to the feedback of others when they tell us they don’t feel the way we’re accusing them of feeling. We should also work to become aware of harmful patterns of behavior that may be driven by projective identification – repeated arguments, the losing of friends, feelings of discomfort with oneself for one’s behavior.
Better health means paying attention and taking control.