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* Psycho/analytic corner* What is Projective Identification ?

Projection is the unconscious act of attributing something inside ourselves to someone else. Usually, but not always, the "thing" we are projecting is an unwanted emotion or attribute.

In psychoanalysis, projective identification is a defense mechanism in which the individual projects disowned aspects of the self onto another person, and that person internalizes the projected qualities and believes himself to be characterized by them appropriately and justifiably.

The main difference between projection and projective identification is that the former belongs to intrapsychic dynamics, while the latter describes a very primitive form of relating.

In this sense, when projective identification is at work, the projector feels at one with the other person.

This creates an "I am you" feeling.

This phenomenon, usually pretty common between those in a close relationship with one another, was observed and named by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein as Projective Identification.

It has long gathered a reputation for being a complex, misunderstood, and difficult concept and one which most therapists give a wide berth.

Yet Wilfred Bion, who pioneered group work in the years after WW2, described projective identification as being the single most important phenomenon in individual psychotherapy.

Projective Identification: history

Klein coined the term “projective identification” in 1946, to outline a primitive defence leading to aggressive object relations in the infant, and to psychotic processes in adults (Klein, 1946). The term described how the infant expels ‘bad parts’ of the ego into the mother, in an effort to possess and control (Gabbard, 1995, p. 476).

The idea of projective identification was hence conceived as an intrapsychic fantasy (Spillius, 1994), although Klein stressed that projected contents should be conceptualised as going into, rather than on to, the mother, implicitly recognising an interpersonal dimension of the process (Klein, 1946).

Segal (1964) introduced the idea of ‘introjective identification’ to explain the recipient’s identification characterising projective identification, but did not consider the phenomenon as interpersonal.

The interpersonal interaction underpinning projective identification was made explicit by Bion in 1959, when he redefined the concept to mean a form of communication in the mother-infant relationship (Bion W. , 1959) and theorized its non-pathological function (1962). Bion compared the analytical relationship to the mother-infant one (1959), in which the caregiver, functioning as a psychic container, takes the infant’s state of mind into her own mental space and converts an unthinkable experience into a form that can be integrated into the infant’s mental functioning.

Elaborating on Bion's construct, Ogden (1979) visualized projective identification as a three-step process, whereby (1) a wish to get rid of unconscious contents is generated within an individual. (2) Via interaction, such contents are placed onto the recipient, who feels the pressure to think, feel and behave congruently with the projection. (3) The recipient processes and contains the projected contents, which are re-introjected by the individual.

However, these three aspects are dialectical rather than sequential: the recipient identifies with the projection and, simultaneously, experiences it as part of the self.

This allows an interpenetration of subjectivities that, in analysis, allows patient and analyst to enter a state where they are simultaneously separate and ‘at one’ with each other.

Jung’s concept of participation mystique (1921), involving a state of fusion in which the subject ‘cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object, but is bound to it by a direct relationship, which amounts to a partial identity’ (1921, para. 781), is very close to projective identification (Gordon, 1965, p. 146): both the concepts describe a process in the service of drives towards fusion, which characterise primitive unconscious states.

In 1946, Klein outlined the idea of parts of the self being placed in and identified with another person, whilst Jung explored the same phenomenology in the analytical relationship (Schwartz-Salant, 1988), which he imagined as a third area containing the processes of transformation (Jung, 1946).

Differently from Klein, Jung’s work hardly had any impact on psychoanalytic thinking, but in fact he was a pioneer in understanding the interpersonal nature of the process.

Phenomenology of Projective identification in psychotherapy

Whilst projection and identification presuppose a subjective experience of other-ness , and thus a state of separateness, projective identification could be viewed as the psychic equivalent of fusion (Gordon, 1965, p. 128).

As Gordon observes (1965), its goal is the undoing of boundaries. In this sense, we might describe Projective identification as ‘a fusion involving the mixing and muddling up of inner and outer world’ (p. 146).

In analysis, it ensures that what is within will unfold in the inter-subjective field; mediating what Loewald (1960) calls the transmission of “intrapsychic externalizations”.


If a patient experiences his analyst as a powerful parent within the transference, this perception is reversed once projective identification comes into the relationship.

The analyst will experience - and, cometimes, enact- states and feelings that, projected by the patient, are not completely familiar to him/her.

This way, the analyst is nudged into acting in concert with the projection, becoming susceptible to the “or else” that looms behind the pressure to comply with a projective identification.

As Ogden stresses (1979):

this threat is the muscle behind the demand for compliance: “if you are not what I need you to be, you don’t exist for me”.’ (p. 360).

Implicit in the concept of projective identification is that any analyst would respond in approximately the same manner (Gabbard, 1995, p. 479).

Bion describes this peculiar experience as consisting of ‘… two closely related phases: in the first there is a feeling that whatever else one has done, one has certainly not given a correct interpretation; in the second phase there is a sense of being a particular kind of person in a particular emotional situation’ (Bion W. , 1961, p. 149).

In my opinion, the phenomenology of projective identification resonates with Jung’s idea of dissociative gap (1934): , I suggest that projective identification charges the relationship with an un-symbolised affect, acting in a way that is similar to a complex and creating a dissociative gap between selfhood and the ‘me’ experienced at that given moment (Jung, 1934) by the therapist.

Since complexes are apparent in relational dialogue (Jung, 1934) they could, by implication, be also integrated relationally.

Unconscious aspects of the analyst might be triggered in response to partial aspects projected by the patient (Gilteson, 1952), in a way that is not available to reflective thought: to avoid a complementary countertransference response, the analyst must be open to experience such type of reaction in a way that is inflated by neither his ego nor by his unconscious.


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