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Understanding Boundaries: What Is Projective Identification?

What to do when you lose your boundaries.

Photo by Comstock for Photo Images via Canva
Feeling uncomfortable? Don't know why? Learn more about projective identification.
Source: Photo by Comstock for Photo Images via Canva

By John Burton, M.D.

In uncomfortable situations with another person, it is sometimes difficult to know where the discomfort comes from—us or them.

Who hasn’t had an experience dealing with someone they dread? I’m not talking about a person being openly offensive or frustrating. I’m referring to the kind of interaction where there might not be an obvious problem or conflict, yet one is left feeling uncomfortable, uneasy. We can’t put our finger on the cause—making it all the more unnerving. We may stop acting like our usual selves. It feels difficult if not impossible to find a constructive way out of these awkward situations. Psychoanalysis has several concepts to describe this dilemma. One is called “projective identification.”

Projective Identification was first described by psychoanalyst, Melanie Klein. Here is how it works: Person A has a feeling they’d rather avoid, and so they project it, unconsciously, onto Person B. Many times, the projection fails, because the other person refuses to “accept” the projection. However, in some cases, Person B resonates or somehow identifies with Person A’s projection and ends up acting or feeling in ways that combine both Person A’s projection and Person B’s feelings. And then we have Projective Identification.

An Example

Valerie is a successful personal trainer who loves her work. She has helped countless clients achieve their fitness goals. Her new client, Tom, wants to lose weight and increase his core strength.

After their first meeting, Tom sent Valerie several texts. She answered them but felt a bit overwhelmed by his neediness. At the second session, Tom appeared sullen. He also had made none of the changes she suggested.

Valerie found Tom’s lack of enthusiasm frustrating. She also had a tendency to blame herself if clients didn’t improve, wondering if she was doing something wrong. During their second session, she experienced an uncomfortable feeling: She wanted the session to be over. She tried to ignore the feeling and encouraged Tom to keep up the good work.

She later got a long text from Tom saying he didn’t feel the sessions were helping, that he felt Valerie was “just treating me like a paycheck,” and that he needed to work with someone else. Valerie questioned whether she did look at her clients like a paycheck – feelings and thoughts she didn’t typically have with other clients. She felt confused – not sure where things went wrong with Tom, and not sure of her own behaviors.

Could this be a case of projective identification? Let’s go through the steps.

Step One: Name the Emotion

Valerie told her therapist, “I feel like I just can’t do anything right.” That is Step One. Often though, we don’t pay attention to uncomfortable feelings as they are happening. Instead of realizing we are anxious or frustrated, we might lose our temper with the next client or feel a knot in the stomach or neck pain “for no reason.” If you are feeling out of sorts, stop and reflect.

Step Two: Accept the Feelings and Don’t Judge Yourself

Give yourself the freedom to have your feelings, whatever they might be. This can be difficult, especially if a feeling doesn’t align with how you like to view yourself. For example, people who are motivated to help others, pride themselves on their helpfulness.

If such a person has a negative experience when trying to help someone, they might disown or push away these bad feelings. Valerie felt bad about herself for not enjoying time with her client. "A truly dedicated trainer shouldn’t feel this way," she thought. Her therapist said Valerie was not a bad person for having the feeling that she didn’t want to help Tom. When she stopped judging herself, she was able to understand her own experience and better understand that Tom was projecting his feelings of inadequacy onto her.

Step Three: Feelings Are Data

When you have named your feelings and stopped judging yourself, you can ask, “What does this feeling tell me?” Put simply, the feeling emerged from an interaction between you and the other person. It contains information about you, but also about the other person. This data is valuable.

Valerie stepped back from the feeling that she was not doing anything right—and then realized something powerful. What she was feeling about herself was actually reflecting how the client felt about himself: undesirable, hopeless, and doubting his own motivations. A case of projective identification. As Valerie identified and accepted her feelings and considered the data, she stopped feeling upset and defensive. She was then able to better understand and help Tom in a way he needed but couldn’t communicate or ask for directly.

Valerie texted Tom to set up a meeting. She learned a bit more about him and realized he didn’t just want to lose 10 pounds and increase his core strength. He was also feeling quite down about his appearance. What Tom really wanted, but couldn’t or didn’t know how to say, was to feel attractive and confident in his dating life. Once Valerie understood this, and Tom felt understood, he was able to follow her advice without further need to express his negative self-esteem unconsciously through projective identification.

To summarize, when you find yourself repeatedly uneasy and unsuccessful in negotiating an interpersonal situation, take a step back to think about where this feeling is coming from. It may not necessarily be just about you.

John K. Burton, MD is Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and the Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research at Columbia University. He is the creator of The Psychonaut Show podcast and has a private practice in Manhattan.

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