Projective Identification

John believes that his 17-year-old son Brad plays video games too much. After dinner, John steps into Brad’s room and asks politely, “Have you finished your homework?” Brad glares and says nothing; John immediately feels infuriated.

“Projective identification” is a very technical term, but it is a useful mental mechanism to understand for everyday life, because it is one of the main ways we communicate. According to Thomas Ogden, projective identification is a three step process:

  1. Person A attributes an an aspect of her mind, usually unwanted, to Person B (this is projection);
  2. A acts toward B in such a way, unconsciously, to make B think and feel in accordance with A’s thoughts and feelings;
  3. B acts upon the projected material, (this is identification), thus confirming A’s belief that the thoughts and feelings are not really hers.

When you think and feel a certain way in the presence of another person, and it does not feel like you, it’s not! The other person’s mental contents are coming alive inside you. Once you recognize this, you can sidestep the projections and not act upon them. Let others have their own thoughts and feelings, good or bad.

In the clinical example above, Dad can recognize that his son feels angry about something, and Dad does to have to feel that anger himself. It’s time for John to try a new method: maybe he can feel curious and ask Brad how video games relate to the rest of his life.