Projective Identification

“Everything I had learned or assimilated from my parents I now regarded as unreliable, and needing to be rethought from scratch. In fact, I probably went further-I felt that everything my parents believed was by definition wrong, and that if I ever felt myself in agreement with my parents I should immediately recant. Everything… needed to be jettisoned. But in a way what they said wasn’t the problem: what I was more worried about was the attitudes, prejudices, beliefs I might have picked up from them subconsciously or before I was old enough to even know what I was learning. Effectively, I had to question everything I believed, and never accept my own instincts. It required constant vigilance; it was intellectually exhausting.”

Lynn Barber, An Education

I learned about projective identification in my third month of therapy. The session started off as usual. My therapist asked how my week went. I told her it was horrible. I explained the details of a recent fight I’d had with my mother at a family gathering. The meltdowns that occur in front of others are by far the worst. Witnesses viewing our ugliest moments!

She yelled at me for not talking enough to family, for not being loyal, for not being like her. I don’t know why I was surprised by the ridiculous nature of it, but I was. Why didn’t I walk away? She was using her go-to criticisms, her favorite attack. I was familiar with these tirades. They occurred often through the years.

As an adult I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, and aspects of agoraphobia. It got so out of hand that it affected my professional life. I knew that she was not logical, but I still assumed that something was wrong with me. She projected all her fears, insecurities and hatred onto me. Her thoughts became my own. She was relentless.

Projective identification differs from simple projection in that projective identification can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereby a person, believing something false about another, influences or coerces that other person to carry out that precise projection. In extreme cases, the recipient may lose any sense of their real self and become reduced to the passive carriers of outside projections, as if possessed by them.

That’s it, isn’t it? Possession. That need for ultimate control and ownership. She was able to control my thoughts. It was like I was her object that she could mold and shape.

But when I was detailing the latest mom disaster to my compassionate and concerned therapist, I started to feel foolish. It was all so trivial! I fully realized it in that moment. I was wasting my time on someone who is not logical. I was trying to please a toxic human being.

You have to get away from them. Practice self-care. Have empathy for yourself. Find ways to separate your thoughts and recognize when someone else has tried to hurt you. If they are a narcissist, they’ll drag you down and destroy you. Don’t let them.