Projective Identification

These are words from a trauma therapist named Deirdre Fay. I think most of us are familiar with the phenomenon that she describes but I’ve never heard it described in this way before and I really think there’s some important additional observations that make it really useful and powerful. It reminds me of how Rick will often point out the intelligence inherent in our behaviours and thoughts…the intelligence of depression for example…how survival/thrival intelligence permeates and drives everything. How could it be otherwise? We are an organism who’s most basic blueprint is for survival so it stands to reason that even our most troubling and unwanted behaviours and thoughts would have this intelligence embedded into them, no? Especially those behaviours and thoughts that would typically get thrown into the category/concept of ‘Self-Sabotage’.

One of the ways the Divine has conspired for us to grow, develop and flourish is through the psychological defense of projective identification!

The mind is an amazingly adaptive mechanism.

What is “unconscious” in us, “unfinished” or maybe even “unacceptable” gets projected out into the other as a means for us to see it.

Instead of being inside us – now it’s out there, in someone else. Easier to see.

Also easier to judge, blame, be disturbed by the other.

What we don’t like in us is out there in them.

Instead of us being whatever we don’t like or find unacceptable – now it’s them.

Ah, the relief of it not being us!

….and the pain that it causes in relationship.

While we disowned and projected out our thoughts, feelings and sensations….the other “unconsciously” catches the projection and gets entangled in it.

Let’s try on this example: I want you to meet my needs (which I might not even have acknowledged to myself) and when you don’t I might get angry at you, letting you know you’re not doing it right.

Or, I might not even use words, I might roll my eyes, or frown, or tighten my shoulders, or turn away abruptly.

There can be even more subtle ways projective identification can happen.

If I don’t feel comfortable with the experience inside, consciously or unconsciously, the “energy” of it gets “projected” out into you or into a larger whole.

We’re then “infected” with that – and think it’s happening in us.

At extreme, more malicious levels, this is how “gaslighting” happens. Someone (even perhaps unconsciously) recognizes how our “buttons” get triggered and maneuvers it so we’re the one that holds the mess of it.

They get to be “free” of it – while we’re caught in the painful web, questioning ourselves.

Full of physiological distress.

Those of us who have more permeable boundaries, have more anxiously attached styles, will likely be caught in this web more often.

I realized years ago that I had become a “storehouse” for other people.


While we disowned and projected out our thoughts, feelings and sensations….the other “unconsciously” catches the projection and gets entangled in it.

Deirdre states this as if it’s a forgone conclusion and I don’t believe it is. I know I have for many years now acquired the skills and perceptions of being able to separate out ‘me’ from ‘them’ in most circumstances…sometimes I can get caught in it still but I have a pretty good facility with that and I think a lot of people do. It’s much more common I think to take on other’s projections in childhood which of course accounts for a lot of the emotional problems we deal with as adults. But, it’s useful to point this out…this is the yin/yang of the thing. We project outward onto others as well as project inward what has been aimed at us. If we intervene in that loop at any point (and add new/different information/perspective) we will change our emotional experience. For me this was really fundamental stuff to begin to get a grip on. …to be aware of ‘its’ various manifestations. Just becoming aware that I participate in this experience began to alter it. And it feels to me that acknowledging the intelligence that drives it is also really helpful…it’s not just a behaviour that I do but it’s an intelligent behaviour!!..that acknowledgment can aim me toward more ‘calming and confidencing’…

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Indeed. I see that and it’s now my assumption, that there’s an intelligence in the behavior. Look for it, and wow, so clear! Like perhaps when we first started using a microscope. WOW! So much there!

Emotional Freedom would seem to “require” that we be able to recognize projections we’re making, and projections cast on us, and pause and take right distance from them. To keep from being enmeshed and have an opportunity to look for the core needs – what matters to us.

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