Projective identification is a useful concept to learn if someone is interested in investigating self and putting what is learnt into practice.
Essentially what it is, is when another person projects something that they are unable to carry or own about themselves into another person. One of the best examples of projective identification comes from the movie Good Will Hunting.
In the movie the therapist Sean (played by Robin Williams) loses his cool and grabs the client (Will) by the throat in an angry outburst. This is completely inappropriate behaviour for a therapist to engage in.
What happens prior to this is telling. Sean is trying to make a connection with Will. Will is trying to keep Sean at bay using rationalization and intellectualism as his main defences. Will is also looking for a chink in Sean armour which he finds in the form of a painting by Sean’.
Will is carrying a lot of anger. A part of the anger is that Will is forced to be in therapy through a court order. Will is not a willing participant and is actively looking for ways to sabotage the client – therapist relationship. Will is also carry a lot of repressed anger because of his abusive and violent upbringing. Will has a history of acting out.
The projection part becomes evident when Will says to Sean, “You are one step away from cutting your ear off”. Will is unconsciously referring to himself and his propensity for self-sabotage but because these feelings and the associated anger are overwhelmingly threatening to Will, he projects them on to Sean. Will goes on to mention that maybe Sean is in the middle of a big storm. Again a projected reference to what is occurring internally for Will. Will is actually the one who often feels overwhelmed by his feelings and thoughts – it is Will that is in the storm.
The identification part becomes evident when Sean strikes out at Will physically. Will is looking for Sean’s weakness and he finds it in the form of Sean’s deceased wife. When Will hones in on this Sean becomes overwhelmed with anger and states something along the lines of “if you disrespect my wife again I will end you”. Internally Sean identifies the anger as something to do with his wife, which is the identification.
Just to emphasize, there is nothing wrong with someone being angry and then standing up in order to protect their partner. But there are ways and then there are ways. It is the intensity of Sean’s behaviour that is the hallmark feature and the giveaway that something unconsciously powerful is going on. Not only does Sean overstep his therapeutic boundaries by being physically violent, but he also threatens murder.
If it was not such an unconscious mechanism, Sean could have reacted much more appropriately and used Will’s own behaviour as a connection point – a way into Will’s pain. Instead it turned out to be a rather abusive encounter. The abusive encounter is exactly what Will was trying to replicate. Unconsciously he was attempting to resolve his early childhood experiences with violence and boundary violation. He was testing to see if Sean was safe. It is no coincidence that the encounter was violent.
Quite literally, Will has taken over Sean’s mind and body for a short period of time. It is Will’s way of taking control. But of course as is nearly always the case it is equally self-sabotaging.
Projective Identification is important to be aware of as it happens frequently in interpersonal relationships, particularly in intimate ones. We not only project parts of ourselves we do not like or are threatened by onto our partners, but they in turn identify with it.
For example, it is not uncommon for one partner to carry the brunt of the emotional load of the relationship. The other person does not deal with emotions well and thus forces them onto the other unconsciously. The effect will eventually be to tire the other person out energetically and the relationship will begin to fragment.
Our way out is to be mindful of what is occurring at an unconscious level within the relationship. We need to own what is occurring for us internally and be conscious of it. We also need to have very good boundaries, but it is nigh on impossible to have great boundaries if we are out of touch with what is occurring at an unconscious level.