Sunday, July 12, 2015

Demystifying Projective Identification

Projective identification is a process whereby unwanted split-off parts of the self are forced into the object so as to control the object from inside.  Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, Auchincloss & Samberg, ed. 2012

The concept of projective identification, significant in psychodynamic theory and therapy, is often presented in ways that reflect the confusions endemic within clinical theory. These confusions are especially apt to accompany discussions where a disposition or emotion is treated as a substance that can be moved from one place to another rather than as an aspect of a relationship. 

Let's start with an example and try to avoid this confusion. 

A supervisee, we’ll call Jack, told me he found himself feeling hostile and dismissive toward his client, we'll call Jill. Their last session had started, like many before, with her criticizing what had gone wrong the previous session, insistently pointing out lapses in his empathy and errors in his therapeutic technique. She offered this to be helpful, she said, and reminded him that she had assisted her previous therapists this way. He had come to expect sessions to open like this, annoyed by these critiques, but what especially upset Jack was that she then asked if he was sexually stimulated.  At that moment, he described feeling awkward and struggled against an urge to humiliate her.

Jack told me that after Jill's comments he did feel unpleasantly and inappropriately aroused, turned on without being attracted, and that he was angry and felt “held in place”, awkwardly self-conscious about his posture.  He said it reminded him of his mother forcing him to stand still and silently listen while she berated him.  I believe he was honestly surprised by his self-conscious posture and arousal, and after careful inquiry and consideration, suspected he was snarled in a projective identification consistent with both Jill's history and his own. 

Jill, a woman in her late fifties, had sat with many therapists over the years.  She came to believe all of them found her especially fascinating. She said her previous female therapist had stalked her and that another male therapist had fallen deeply in love. The available notes confirmed that she had leveled these claims and that they played a role in the termination of each therapy.  Unsurprisingly, she said her friendships with women had always ended when her friends turned on her in hostile envy, and with men when they became dangerously attracted. This was consistent with her early family life that included a sexually provocative relationship with her father that informed her combative relations with her mother and sister. The way Jill was valued by her father put her at odds with her sister and mother, a very bad start for Jill's appreciation of sexuality. I think this history is crucial in understanding why projective identification became a defensive strategy that allowed her to experience erotic desire without self-attribution and blame.  Her sexuality became a taboo value, a commodity of dangerous worth.  

Projection and projective identification are forms of transference that frequently typify relationships with certain difficult people. Briefly, let’s call transference an expectation that one person has of another shaped more by the past than by the actual and relevant characteristics of the present encounter. (Although looking closely at the encounter, almost invariably, we’ll likely see something that triggers the expectation). It’s called transference because something from the past is transferred to the present and informs, in a serviceable or unserviceable way, the current encounter.  Charles Brenner has pointed out that transference is ubiquitous in human relationships.  In the psychodynamic therapies, it is the job of the therapist is bring the transferences into awareness so that they are not unconsciously acted out.

Projection is similar. A person transfers to another not just an expectation, but also a disposition of their own they find so problematic they defensively disclaim it, while still self-deceptively indulging in the feeling.  If there is anything mysterious about projection it is the curious problem some people have in recognizing the source of what they feel. It is felt but not owned.  Since it is felt, but not as theirs, it must be coming from somewhere else.  What is at stake for the projector is the problematic significance of the disowned feeling.  The projector's behavior will correspond to this meaning. 

Projective identification is a variation of projection with this additional feature:  the projector attempts to manage or control the other person's behavior.  The disowned feeling must be controlled and, at times, maintained in the other person. Sexual pleasure and attraction fit this dynamic well.  Part of what is uncanny about projective identification is that the receiver of the projection often reports inexplicitly feeling what the projector expects. Jack, you will recall, was unexpectedly and uncomfortably turned on.  

Projective identification gets its name from the fact that what should be self-identified is instead identified in another person who, in some manner, feels the effects. 

But projective identification's effects are no mystery.  It is not an emotional contagion that one person has placed inside another akin to the injection of some voodoo drug. But it may have features of a “spell” since the person who “receives” the projection may feel like it is happening to him, not like he is doing it.  It might not be what he was trying to do at all, but he is still “stuck” with unexpected feelings. Keep in mind, in one way or another, people respond to the way they are treated including the possibility of becoming a version of what is expected, made all the more likely when the issue involves natural responses to the provocation. 

Consider the unfolding relational sequence between Jill and Jack:

Move 1. Jill and Jack's interaction stirs up an unacceptable sexual feeling in Jill that she cannot or will not acknowledge as her own.

Move 2. Jill is aware of this problematic feeling, but finding it unthinkable or intolerable, attributes it to Jack. He is, after all, the other person present. 

Move 3. Since Jill thinks Jack is harboring these problematic feeling towards her, she begins to treat Jack in an effort to defensively manage the sexual tension

Move 4.  Jack responds to Jill’s treatment of him.  It matters whether Jill’s attribution is consistent with Jack's assessment of his actual feeling toward her.  If Jill’s projection does not match Jack’s conscious intent and feeling, Jack will feel something is askew.  In any case, Jack responds in the manner he responds when treated as such. Naturally, this will include elements of his own conscious and unconscious transference and counter-transference reactions. He gets awkwardly and uncomfortably turned on. 

Move 5, etc. An ongoing improvisational pattern ensures. Each party responds to the other party’s move by incorporating the other’s response.  The projected expectation becomes more relevant as it’s assimilated into the actions that follow. And so it goes.

Projective identification can occur with any feeling that creates an intolerably vulnerable position.  The mixed emotions normal in complex relationships can be part of this pattern.  Feelings of hostility, envy, disgust, or love can be projected when people can't tolerate  ambivalence and engage in what is called splitting They act as if they can only have it one way or another. If, for example, they can only recognize their affection, they "split-off" their anger and resentment and project these feeling onto the person they depend upon and love. Since the toleration of ambivalence is generally required to sustain intimate relationships, projective identification is a problematic defense, a minefield for intimacy, producing relations that fluctuate from idealization to devaluation. 

Let's return to the observation that projective identification often produces an unexpected feeling in the targeted person.  Remember that projection is the unconscious attribution of one's own qualities onto another person.  Since projections involve problematic characteristics, it is understandable that sexual, aggressive, and competitive urges, feelings common and difficult for many of us, get involved. These feelings are often a social undercurrent muted by what is more relevant and appropriate to the interaction at hand.  If not brought to the forefront, these feelings might be ignored. Projection brings them to the foreground. After all, when treated sexually, people often get aroused, when treated with hostility or competition, it is no surprise when people react in kind. 

People prone to projective identification find targets everywhere.  Their vulnerability follows them but does not provide the opportunity to practice better self-control. It’s hard to adequately manage what can’t be acknowledged.  So instead, they try to control the target.  The result is often difficult for both parties. 

It is especially messy if both parties are not adequately aware.  When both people engage in projection and reactive control, this usually produces a positive feedback loop of errors compounding errors. Matters get out of hand.

In contrast, if a person’s transferences, projections, and identifications are met with a mindful and tolerant response, the improvisational engagement may take on features of a negative feedback loop and self-correct. The dampening of the projection can set the stage for a kinder, gentler set of expectations to emerge. Under these circumstances, over time, the projection can become less necessary. This is why therapists understand the importance of reflecting on their own feelings while at work.  Fortunately for Jill, Jack knew to sit still and reflect before acting from a state of confusing discomfort. 

The engagement between Jill and Jack involved Jill identifying her problematic feelings in the guise of their being Jack’s feelings toward her. It's as if she couldn't recognize herself in the mirror but was transfixed by a reflection that signaled hazard for her. Unfortunately, Jill is unlikely to competently handle what she can't recognize as hers to resolve. And this is made more complicated by pressuring Jack to collude.  

This is where Jack’s job is crucial. Jack’s stance toward Jill’s projections offers her an opportunity to develop new perspective.  Jack, “in possession” of the projection, can provide a corrective response that demonstrates these otherwise difficult feelings can be managed. Jack can engage Jill, empathically and with concern, show she is valued apart from the commodification of her sexuality. 

Jack sought supervision to understand his role in this, wanting to be mindful not to act it out. His honest attention to what he was feeling and “remembering” (his counter-transference), served as a cautionary guide. He showed professional courage describing his reactions with the hope that his natural responses wouldn’t be condemned. Talking this over helped.  He didn’t need to rigidly hold himself in place, nor did he need to discredit or ignore the erotic stimulation. Instead, he needed to be careful and caring in the sessions that followed. He mostly was.

Some cautionary notes and reminders on the interpretation of unconscious motivations can be found in the entry: On the Interpretation of Unconscious Action and Self-Deception.  Also the posting, Bad Faith, Self-Deception and Unconscious Motivation: Restrictions in Effective Choice provides a map of how disowned action restricts effective social behavior. The posting, Emotional Competence, Self-Experience and Developmental Patterns, describes emotion as a form of intentional action and describes conditions that correspond to healthy or pathological expressions of emotional behavior and psychological defense. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The 37th Annual Meeting of the Society for Descriptive Psychology

37th Annual Meeting
Society for Descriptive Psychology

October 22 - 25, 2015
American Mountaineering Center
Golden, CO
The Society for Descriptive Psychology is a Community exploring the Person Concept: The interdependent conceptual framework of Person, Behavior, Language, and World to create common ground for the Human Sciences.

This year's diverse topics range from clarifying the concept of Social Justice, discussion of appropriate treatment approaches for the variety of Dementias, and the place of embodiment and biological "explanation" in Descriptive Psychology. Other presentations will examine the concept of Alief, elucidate science denialism, explore the contribution of Descriptive Psychology to conflict resolution, and present a variety clinical cases that are conceptualized using a Descriptive Psychology framework.  

The goal of this year's conference is to continue the exploration of Descriptive Psychology as a conceptual approach to a broad range of topics within the behavioral sciences, neurobehavioral sciences, social sciences, and humanities, continue building the Descriptive Psychology Community, and to promote further discussion about new approaches to disseminating Descriptive Psychology concepts and applications.

Registration Information

Attendees will be able to earn up to 13.5 Continuing Education credits during the meeting.

Registration on or before September 15th includes the Banquet and meals.

The fee for the Banquet will require a separate payment of $80 after that date.

In-person registration will be available at the American Mountaineering Center on the days of the program.

October 22-25


3:30 - 5:25                 Board meeting  (AMC Drumwright Board Room) 

5:30 - 6:30                 Check in/Meet and Greet (AMC)
A light dinner buffet will be served
6:30 - 7:00                 The Conference will be convened
Introduction of the President

7:00 - 8:30       Presidential Address: Social Progress and the Just Choice
Wynn Schwartz, Ph.D.
William James College and Harvard University

Abstract: Among the intrinsic motivations, the weighing of ethical and moral reason stands along side aesthetics as quintessentially humane attributes that mark personhood in a way self-interest and pleasure cannot. Further, ethical and moral perspectives guide the varied notions of justice and fairness central to any liberal and cosmopolitan view of social progress.

What I’d like to explore is the problem of making a “just” choice or judgment:  what facilitates or interferes. Since my concern is also with the idea of social justice and progress, I’ll need to examine the politics of negotiation and agreement.

To explore these questions, I’ll modify certain conceptual tools from Descriptive Psychology, notably the Judgment Diagram, to map out and clarify some of the dilemmas of social justice and progress.  Since actual social engagement involves personal and interpersonal conflict, ignorance, and self-deception, I’ll develop a model of negotiation that involves at least two actors with limited options given their values and the blind spots in their observer-critic characteristics. All this is complicated since social conflict has ideological, religious, class, race, age, gender and, as recently argued, species biases and interests that might not be reconcilable.

I’ll employ well known themes in the philosophy of justice, in particular John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, Hannah Arendt on moral dialog and negotiation, along with Anthony Putman’s work on community and irreconcilable values. Additionally, I’ll provide some thoughts of my own on inclusion and empathy and conclude with a hypothesis on the inevitability of social progress and reaction.


8:15 - 9:00                 Breakfast
(served in the AMC Conference Room)

9:00 - 10:00    Why is Behavior Not Reducible to Biological States of Affairs?
Ray Bergner, PhD

                                    Abstract: This talk, after very briefly reviewing Ossorio’s conception of behavior, uses his formulation to demonstrate why human behavior per se is neither explicable in terms of, nor reducible to, biological states of affairs, and thus why the claim from certain quarters that the science of psychology will be superseded by that of biology — that in the end it’s “all really biological” — cannot be justified. 

10:00 - 10:10            Break

10:10 - 11:10            To Be Announced
                                 Anthony Putman, Ph.D.

11:10 - 11:20            Break

11:20 - 12:20   Difficulties in Establishing a Working Definition of Social Justice
Matthew Cohen, M.S.W.
                                    Abstract: This discussion will revolve around the two basic American concepts of Social Justice: one that focus more on groups and is defined in terms of basic human rights; the other that emphasizes individuals and focuses on buying power in the market place. Using the two poles we would like to open up a discussion that can help us synthesize these two, figure out what is missing and establish a more precise working definition that can inform fields such as Social Work, Politics, Criminal Justice

12:30 - 1:30              Lunch
(served in the AMC Conference Room)


1:30 - 2:30    Free Will, Persons, and Alief
               Ryan Scherbart, PhD

Abstract: There appears to be substantial agreement among descriptive psychologists that a person is more than mere physiology.  A person, they say, is something over and above a highly organized bio-chemical system of cells, tissues, organs, bones, fluids, neurons, synapses, neurotransmitters, etc.  Persons are not 'meat machines'.  Human bodies -- fine -- are just physical objects; however, this is not the case for persons.  I will not so much argue that persons are merely physical beings but rather will suggest that those who claim otherwise face difficult, perennial questions about causal interaction between physical and nonphysical things and questions about free will.  These queries are intended to promote fruitful discussion.  I will provide an overview of how philosophers have generally grappled with these issues, including a presentation of my own work on free will and the concept of alief.  

2:30 - 2:40                 Break

2:40 - 3:40      The Internet as a Medium of Community
The Boston Study Group

3:40 - 3:50                 Break

3:50 - 4:50   Significance and Aggression:  A Reconceptualization
                     of "Anger Management Training"
                     Erol Zeybekoglu, MA

Court-ordered anger management clients usually have some precipitating incident of aggression in their history that is thought to have resulted from a loss of emotional and behavioral control; and yet many clients contend that their aggressive behavior was both deliberate and intentional. This course will help explain the social significance of anger, aggression, and hostility within a given community by utilizing a parametric analysis of intentional action to describe violent offenses. It will assess “status-dynamic” risk factors for recidivism of violent behavior, and discuss the clinical implications of re-conceptualizing anger management treatment by comparing theoretical approaches for anger management training.

5:00-7:00                   Free time for dinner on your own and enjoying Golden.


7:00-7:30                   And the Beat Goes On
Carolyn Zeiger, PhD

Abstract:  This is an informal opportunity for conference participants to briefly share the ways they are using Descriptive Psychology, invite discussion or just give an update on their continuing work.

7:30 - 8:30                 Society Business Meeting
Moderated by Wynn Schwartz, PhD
SDP President

The major topic, as introduced and moderated by Wynn Schwartz, President, SDP, will be discussion of strategies for fostering the survival of Descriptive Psychology and the Society for Descriptive Psychology


8:15 - 9:00                 Breakfast
(served in the AMC Conference Room)

9:00 - 10:00     Descriptive Psychology, Personhood, and Neurocognitive Disorders - Lessons Learned, Next Steps
                        Aladdin Ossorio, PsyD

10:00 - 10:10            Break

10:10 - 12:10            Clinical Case Presentations
PsyD students from the University of Denver
Graduate School of Professional Psychology
Sponsored by Sonja Holt, PhD & Fernand Lubuguin, PhD
12:30                          Lunch (on your own) and afternoon free for personal business, meetings, and recreation


7:30                            Society Banquet
Announcements and Celebration


8:15 - 9:00                 Breakfast
(served in the AMC Conference Room)

9:00 - 10:00  The Social Practice of Satire:  Power, Place, and Politics
Charles Kantor, PhD and Jane Littman, PhD
Abstract: The massacre last January of cartoonists in Paris sparked a debate about free speech vs. hateful speech, reminded us of the tradition in a free society of the right to offend, and warned us about the boundary between civil discourse and violent action. Satire as a form of expression has a long history of challenging power in cultures and is arguably not only a common social practice but perhaps a fundamental practice in person communities. This presentation will explore the above issues through group discussion with the DP community and work toward a further understanding of degradation, accreditation, and the statuses of persons in communities.
10:00 - 10:10            Break

10:10 - 11:10   Conflict Resolution – Using Descriptive Psychology to Negotiate Relationship Change
Paula Holt, Esq., LLB

11:10 - 11:20            Break
11:20 - 12:20            Sense and Significance in the Human World
Tee Roberts, PhD

Abstract: Making a distinction between the Performance of a behavior and its Significance is essential for the scientific study of human behavior.  The validity and value of the distinction is first demonstrated by a set of empirical studies, dealing with sex roles, intrinsic value, developmental disabilities, and alcoholism treatment.  Then two methodological devices — parametric analysis and calculational system — are introduced. The use of the devices is illustrated, culminating in the presentation of a concept of Behavior in which both Performance and Significance have a place.  The implications of the package as a whole for neuroscience are briefly discussed.  (This is a shortened version of a presentation given in March, 2015 at the first International Convention of Psychological Science in Amsterdam.)

12:30 - 2:00              Lunch
                                    (served in the AMC Conference Room)

12:30 - 2:00              Board Meeting
                                    (AMC Drumwright Board Room) 

Further Information about the Society, Descriptive Psychology and Student Support
Information on The Society for Descriptive Psychology can be found on the Society's website: 

Please consider supporting student presentations by donating to The Student's Fund. The Society for Descriptive Psychology is a 501(c)(3) organization. Donations are tax deductible, but please consult with your tax advisor.  A PayPal button that directs you to a donation site can also be found at:

A brief orientation to Descriptive Psychology can be found in the postings, People Make Sense: Foundations for a Human Science and A Short Course in Descriptive Psychology.

Peter Ossorio's masterwork, The Behavior of Persons,  and his  volume of status dynamic maxims, Place, are now available in paperback from the Descriptive Psychology Press.

Registration Information

Attendees will be able to earn up to 12.5 Continuing Education credits during the meeting. 

Registration on or before September 15th includes the Banquet and meals.

The fee for the Banquet will require a separate payment of $80 after that date.

In-person registration
will be available
at the American Mountaineering Center
on the days of the program.

Information about Lodging

Lodging is available at the Golden Hotel and the Hampton Inn. Call the hotels directly to make reservations.

Conference Discounts are available at:

The Hampton Inn (303-278-6600) under "Society for Descriptive Psychology" $109/night

The Golden Hotel by the deadline of 9/21/15 (303-279-0100) under "Society for Descriptive Psychology" $162/night for a King Suite, or
$192/night for a Deluxe Double Queen Suite with a sleeper sofa, sleeps 3 people – a great option for students or anyone who wishes to share a room and save (equates to $64 a person/night)

Other hotels in the area that have competitive rates:

Table Mountain Inn: