Relationships, Part 21: Projective Identification

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If you read the last post in this series and thought projections were tricky, wait till you see what I’ve got for you now. You are ready to explore projective identification.

It works like this. Someone projects a quality on to you and, even though the quality does not describe you well, you go with it and end up exhibiting that quality, regardless.

Here’s an example. A woman is in a bad relationship. Her boyfriend abuses and humiliates her. She still has ties to him because she is afraid to leave. Then you come along. You meet her and thought she was cute. She see you’re a decent human being. She may be right, but she doesn’t know you well. Starting with the little bit she was able to gather, that you are decent, she adds that you could be her savior. The savior part is a projection. She feels she needs a savior and doesn’t think she could be her own. She’s so beaten down and humiliated she can’t stand up to the guy. So she finds a savior, and it’s you.

Now, you didn’t go around looking for a damsel in distress, but you’re a decent guy and you like to help when you can. Pretty soon you’re going along with this savior gig, not because it’s really you, but because she gave you the role and you took it. Next thing you know, you’re giving her a place to stay, listening to her problems, and standing up to the man to defend her. You might do a good job of it and actually save her, but you also might just get your ass kicked, be unable to get her to leave, and realize how the last guy got so enraged, not that it justifies his actions. The day will come when you wonder how you got involved in this mess, how you signed up to be a knight in shining armor.

That’s projective identification.

That’s only one example, of course. There are also men who, for whatever reason, need to be saviors and they go out looking for damsels in distress. They project distress onto women who end up identifying with it. Sometimes people who need to be saviors meet people who believe they need to be saved. You’d think those couples would be happy, but they’re not. Once one damsel is saved, he’ll go out looking for another. Once a savior gets her in a good place, there will be something he does that causes her to feel victimized.

Projective identification gets involved in child development, too. My father grew up admiring writers. The closest thing he had to a male role model was a man of letters who was his mother’s employer. His mother, my Grandmother, was a house maid and they lived on the estate. He may never have thought he could be a writer himself, but when I was still a kid and showed him something I wrote, he took an interest. I was no more a writer at the time than I was a baseball player, an arithmetician, a child scientist, or anything else; but I accepted the role because, what did I know, my Dad was saying I’d grow up to be a writer, so I guess I will. And I did.

That’s projective identification.

I’m lucky that I never felt I was being forced into a mold that didn’t suit me. Today, I don’t write to please my Dad, I write to please me. It all worked out, but it started with projective identification.

People change us in ways that we are often not aware. Therefore, whenever you feel that you’ve been caught up in something, taken along for a ride and you want to get off, take a few deep breaths, and look around. Look for projective identification.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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