Projective Identification

It is in the nature of political bodies always to see the evil in the opposite group, just as the individual has an ineradicable tendency to get rid of everything he does not know and does not want to know about himself by foisting it off on somebody else. Nothing has a more diverse and alienating effect upon society than this moral complacency and lack of responsibility, and nothing promotes understanding and rapprochement more than the mutual withdrawal of projections.— Carl Jung

I was watching the weather channel the other day and saw a reporter on the scene of hurricane Florence. He seemed to be steadying himself against a rather formidable wind when, in the background, a couple of young people were casually strolling along in shorts and rain coats seemingly unaffected by the wind.

Why was the reporter putting on such a show? Psychoanalytic theory teaches us that everyone is to some extent, irrational. That being said, is there something that could explain why someone would exaggerate to such a comical extent? Is there a connection between that event and cries that all news now are “fake news”?

There is a complicated psychological defense called projective identification. This, which I made slight reference in my piece on projection, is an unconscious action we take in which we cast some intolerable aspect of ourselves into others as if the aspect is true of them and not of ourselves. We then harangue them in such a way as to provoke the behavior in them. Thus, constantly berating the media about being fake, a condition true of the individual making such an accusation, can have the effect of causing the media to begin to act in a manner that is fake.

Projective identification, then, is a dance between the one projecting and the one being projected upon. the one receiving the projection can begin to act in a manner of the projection if careful reflection is not  being utilized.  In psychotherapy, the primitive defense of projective identification informs the therapist of the emotional state of the patient in a subtle way and can be both informative and therapeutic if understood and interpreted appropriately. In our current political world, projective identification can  be a damaging behavior to  both sides, as Jung pointed out, if they don’t withdraw their projections and learn to “work through” the unwanted aspects in themselves.  Some of our political leaders lack the capacity to do that, but the media…come on guys.


—Stephen Taylor, M. D.

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