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 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. Does a person insert their feelings into another person or is it a matter of conscious and unconscious treatment and response, a reaction to an action rather than something that literally gets under the skin? 

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 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's the job of the therapist to 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 inability 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 personal 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. It must be maintained  when in some way it's crucially valued by the projector such that even if disowned it cannot be discarded. 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 that it is something happening to him, not that 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 ensues. Each party responds to the other person'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. 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, showing 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.