top of page

*psycho/analytic corner* an example of projective identification in analysis

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

In the Tavistock seminars, Bion states peremptorily that the analytic situation is not simply a 'conversation' between human beings. It differs in that invisible but very powerful forces come into play, which goes beyond the messages exchanged through the verbal channel.

One way of defining them might lie in Melanie Klein's concept of 'projective identification.

Something, basically a condition similar to an emotional state, is passed from one subject to another in parallel with the expression of verbal content or only silences. The recipient of this something comes to identify with it, experiencing in the here and now its dominance in his or her mental set-up.

There is a reciprocity in the nature of the analytic situation.

It is not to be confused with the predominance of the imaginary axis of which Lacanian therapists speak.

Lacan's criticism of analyses based entirely on the imaginary register concerns the phenomenon of empathy as blinding the therapist to the patient and his unconscious dimension.

Bion, on the other hand, warns of the presence of reciprocity phenomena precisely so that analysts can practise seeing them, recognising them and using them for the purposes of advancing therapy.

To brand them as imaginary phenomena "tout court" aiming at a pure detection of a patient's issues by an analyst as a mere "logical function" is a myth and a limitation of Lacanian analyis. Whether one wants it or not, analysis takes place between human beings, always, and they are constantly subjected to pressure, loss of lucidity, and identifications.

The difference lies in trying to notice what is really going on in one's own mind, in a constant and renewed exercise of listening to oneself and to the patient. This not only greatly reduces the various blinders, but also promotes movement with respect to the inertia that threatens any psychoanalytic treatment.

A clinical example

Bion in this regard gives us a fine example of a difficult patient, one who dares not express any feelings of anger or frustration, who only talks about others, who seems psychically dead, as if in catalepsy. It is not surprising that he does not make any progress the analyst notes, interpretations are not even possible, precisely because there is a complete lack of a conscious and unconscious layer to lean on.

What is the projective element in this case?

Bion reports feeling deeply "frustrated". He, the analysis, experienced frustration on behalf of the patient.

The latter projects a part of themselves into the analyst, so that (s)he feels all of their unmentionable frustration.

Now, what does Bion propose with respect to the recognition of such projective identification?

He suggests using it to unblock the situation by interpreting it for the patient. "I think she makes me feel frustrated on her behalf so that I do not feel any feelings of frustration".

The immediate effect is an outburst of anger and aggression, also interpreted as the effect of an unwelcome 'inoculation' by the analyst towards the patient.

In the short term, in fact, the patient cannot improve because he begins to accept a part of himself that he was trying to keep detached from his person.

(S)He may then exacerbate self-damaging or, on the contrary, aggressive behaviour towards the analyst.

But if (s)he manages to tolerate such an encounter and to welcome the real related urticant, the defences are dampened and the field can gradually open up to a higher level of investigation, previously made inaccessible by the defensive aspect.

A heavy game

So seeing through one's defences, one's countertransference for Bion means being able to humbly recognise, session after session, the identifications at play. And it also means, in a certain way, letting oneself be transformed by the encounter with the patient:

"I generally have to point out to my patients that they cannot come to me for analysis without having to analyse me, willingly or unwillingly. They might not like it because they do not know what kind of anger I might manifest if they touch the right text' .

Having said that, the psychoanalyst does not mean to give free rein to counter-transferential feelings, nor does (s)he mean to put the patient in the analyst's position. The analyst's is an observation to be understood, not to be taken literally, to be grasped in all its paradoxicality.

Bion clarifies it by proposing another image, the metaphor of

two children playing, well instructed not to hit each other and to be good. Here, analyst and patient should do the same thing, and behave in the same civilised way. Knowing however that theirs is actually a rather heavy game.

That is, a game that leads one to unmask what in everyday life remains hidden, a game that pushes one to see in oneself and in others what one did not think, with all the potential for pain, fatigue, upheaval, anger and gratitude towards one's playmate.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page