Projective Identification

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In the paranoid-schizoid position described by Melanie Klein, the ego may split off intolerable experiences by dividing itself, and locating parts of the self in external objects. Typically, though not always, it is "bad" parts of the self which are expelled in this way, but they are then feared as "bad" objects. This process is called-projective identification.

The term is first used in a footnote added in 1952 to Klein's paper on schizoid mechanisms (1946/1952). The concept of projective identification arose from psychoanalytic treatments that she and certain colleagues were conducting with seriously disturbed schizoid and schizophrenic patients (Scott, 1946; Rosenfeld, 1950; Segal, 1950).

Klein described states of vagueness, blankness, apathy, and futility as a result of the mind being split up and parts of it annihilated. She distinguished splitting of the ego from the way repression may remove a word or memory from consciousness, typically in the parapraxes. Frequently she noted that something of what the patient has lost is still experienced by the patient, but as attributed to some external object, perhaps in the analyst. In that sense, a piece of the subject's personal identity has been projected into someone else's. She linked this self-directed annihilation of parts of the mind to the death instinct, and viewed it as clinical evidence of the death instinct in, for example, the common schizoid experience of feeling that parts of the mind are missing. The associated form of projection very specifically interferes with the sense of self and identity.

As an expulsive process, unwanted bad objects are expelled in an anal phantasy; however, annihilated fragments of the self are also caught up in the expulsion. The result in phantasy is a complex situation in which the parts of the self give a special quality to the object into which these bad things are physically evacuated (the "lavatory mother"). The object retains a special reference to the self, and is not properly distinguished from the self. It is felt to be the bad self, and that means the self that is engaged in attacking itself. Projective identification is, therefore, characteristically the process by which the death instinct is split and displaced by projection into the external world. Klein regarded it as the prototype of the aggressive objective-relationship.

The term has been the focus of great attention in the years since it was first described clinically in psychotic patients. It has also been expanded considerably in meaning. Two features have been greatly investigated: firstly its interpersonal aspect; and secondly its normal occurrence in mild form in everyday life.

Not long after Klein's description of this mechanism, it was realized that in the interpersonal dimension the patient re-finds that part of himself in another person. A process occurs in the object (introjection) in which their intrapsychic world actually takes on those aspects the patient has disowned. Then the relationship with the other person conforms to the phantasy that underlies projective identification. In the psychoanalytic setting this interaction between two intra-psychic worlds has revised the phenomenon of counter-transference: Parts of the analyst come to be entangled with those parts of the patient's own self which they seek to project into their psychoanalyst (Money-Kyrle, 1956; Brenman-Pick, Irma, 1985).

Projective identification is a core feature of the paranoid-schizoid method of defense; it has also come to be recognized as an invariable occurrence in the primitive stages of development. This normalization of the concept has enlarged the scope of the term "projective identification" until it now covers a whole catalogue of different phantasies, many of them widely divergent from the one Melanie Klein originally presented (Rosenfeld, Herbert, 1983).

In particular, the degree of violence by which the self is split and projected is variable. Loosely, the ego that is more mature, secure, and centered upon a good internal object, is less violent in projecting parts of the self.

Instead of using projective identification as a means of desperately expelling an internal catastrophe, it can become an unconscious method of communication, a non-symbolic communication aimed at making the object (the psychoanalyst) feel the experience of the patient very directly (Bion, 1962). In this view, it is the method by which an experience is passed directly on to others. In ordinary conversation, if someone lacks the emotional impact engendered by limited projective identification, they are regarded as flat and tedious.

Moving further along a conceptual axis toward a still lesser degree of violence, there is a relationship in which the ego no longer splits itself, but nevertheless can see itself in the other person. Insight is achieved through "putting oneself in another's shoes." This benign form of projection into someone else is the foundation of empathy. There is thus a spectrum of different "uses" of projective identification: expulsion, non-symbolic communication, and empathy (Hinshelwood, 1994).

The influence of one person (the patient) on the intrapsychic world of another has in time become accepted by psychoanalysts outside of the Kleinian group. Joseph Sandler (1976) has noted the way in which the patient mobilizes certain affects, and even behavior, in the analyst. He has called this "role-actualization," and regards it as a formulation of projective identification in an ego-psychology conceptual framework.

In some schools of psychoanalysis (notably contemporary ego-psychology), the responsiveness of the object and the interpersonal interaction have been elevated to a position as the most important aspects of this concept, over and above the intra-psychic defensive aspects (Ogden, Thomas, 1982).

Melanie Klein's own assessment was that these kinds of processes are so remote from consciousness that it is hard for people to grasp them. As phantasy activities, they are seen as, improbably, having a definite effect in the real world. The "omnipotence of fantasy" as described by Freud in the Ratman case (1909d) fell short of claiming a real effect in the interpersonal world. Such a claim for projective identification is therefore disputed by many. However, the notion is accepted widely, and by psychoanalysts of varied schools, many of whom do not accept the theory of the death instinct on which Klein originally based her interpretation.

Robert D. Hinshelwood

See also: Aggressiveness/aggression; Alpha function; Archaic mother; Arrogance; Claustrophobia; Counter-transference; Heroic self, the; Identification; Infantile psychosis; Internal object; Love-Hate-Knowledge (L/H/K links); Nonverbal communication; Psychotic defenses; Psychotic part of the personality; Symbiosis/symbiotic relation; Symbolic equation.


Anderson, Robin. (1992). Clinical lectures on Klein and Bion London, Karnac Books.

Bion, Wilfred. (1962). Learning from experience. London: Heinemann; New York: Basic Books.

Brenman-Pick, Irma. (1985). Working through in the counter-transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 66, p. 157-166 ; republished in Spillius (Ed.) Melanie Klein Today 2, London, Routledge, 1988, p. 34-47.

Freud, Sigmund. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE 10, 151-318.

Hinshelwood, Robert D. (1994). Clinical Klein: From theory to practice. New York:Basic Books.

Klein, Melanie. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 27, p. 99-110; republished 1952 in Klein, Heimann, Isaacs and Riviere (Eds.) Developments in psycho-analysis, Hogarth; 1975 In The writings of Melanie Klein III, 1946-1963, London, Hogarth, p. 1-24 .

Money-Kyrle, Roger. (1956). Normal countertransference and some of its deviations., International Journal of PsychoAnalysis, 37, 360-366.

Ogden, Thomas. (1982). Projective identification and psychotherapeutic technique. New York, Jason Aronson.

Rosenfeld, Herbert. (1965). Psychotic states : A psychoanalytic approach. London, Hogarth; repr. London, Karnac Books, 1985.

Sandler, Joseph. (1976). Dreams, unconscious phantasies and "identity of perception." International Review of Psychoanalysis, 3, p. 33-42.

Scott, Clifford. (1946). A note on the psychopathology of convulsive phenomena in manic-depressive states. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 162-155.

Segal, Hanna. (1950). Some aspects of the analysis of a schizo-phrenic. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 31,4.

Spillius, Elisabeth. (1988). Melanie Klein today. London, Routledge.

Further Reading

Feldman, Michael. (1997). Projective identification: The analyst's involvement. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 78, 227-243.

Sandler, Joseph. (Ed.). (1988). Projection, identification, projective identification. London: Karnac Books.

Steiner, John. (1993). Psychic retreats. Pathological organizations in psychotic, neurotic and borderline patients. London/New York: Routledge.