Projective identification is the cure for trauma. And it hardly ever works.

IMG_0319_edited-2Projective identification plays several different roles in trauma. It is the way trauma is transmitted, particularly from parents to child. It is the way in which trauma is cured, though this belongs to the realm of theory, not practice. I will explain.

Projective identification is most closely associated with the work of Melanie Klein, though there remains considerable debate over whether projective identification always involves an actual relationship, or whether it can take place entirely within a person’s imagination, between a self and its ideas of others (internal objects as they are called). Kleinians hold the latter view (Spillius and O’Shaughnessy, 2011). I am going to follow Thomas Ogden and argue that projective identification always involves interpersonal pressure. Projective identification has three steps:

a. The unconscious fantasy of projecting a part of oneself into another person and of that part taking over the person from within.

b.  Interpersonal interaction brings pressure on other to think and act like the projection.

c. The reintrojection of the projection after it is “psychologically processed” by the other. This processing by the other is unconscious, and may willing or unwilling, if the unconscious can be said to will. (p. 12)

For Ogden, the fantasy of controlling the other person from within is key to projective identification, and the result takes place not merely in the mind.

This is not an imaginary pressure, but rather, real pressure exerted by means of a multitude of interactions between the projector and the recipient. Projective identification does not exist where there is no interaction between projector and recipient. (p. 14)

Generally the pressure is unstated, and along the lines of “If you are not what I need you to be, you don’t exist for me,” or “I can see in you only what I put there. If I don’t see that, I see nothing.” (p. 16)

Projective identification as preface to understanding

In “Demystifying transgenerational trauma,” I considered the way in which projective identification is the medium for the intergenerational transmission of trauma. Here I want to consider why it is the theoretical cure for trauma that is almost never realized in practice.

Though projective identification is usually seen as an intrusion, it is most fundamentally a reflection of the desire to be understood.

All human beings seem to have the need to be shriven, that is, to be relieved of the burden of unknown, unknowable feelings by being able to express them, literally as well as figuratively into the flesh, so to speak, of the other so that this other person can know how one feels. (Grotstein, p. 202)

To be shriven is to obtain sacramental forgiveness. This works if we think of the Eucharist, in which the communicant orally introjects the body of Christ, in order to share in his purity and goodness, obtained for us through his suffering.

In everyday life, we look for others to perfectly understand our suffering, which seems to require that the other take on our suffering.

We each are projectors, and ultimately wish the other to know the experience we cannot communicate or unburden ourselves of until we have been convinced that the other understands. We cannot be convinced that they understand until we are convinced that they now contain the experience. (Grotstein, pp. 202-203, my emphasis)

It is easy to see how projective identification is aggressive. “Here, you take this experience. You suffer it. I can’t stand it any longer.” But there is another way to look at projective identification. That is that it is the most primitive and fundamental way of sharing an unbearable experience, and that an act of sharing may be an act of love.

The trouble with projective identification is that it wants what cannot be given: that the other know exactly how I feel, so that he or she can completely and perfectly understand. In fact, communication between people, even intimates, is more like a translation between languages. It’s possible to get the main idea, and even some of the subtleties, but there are no perfect translations, just as there are no perfect synonyms. Projective identification promises more, though I suspect that when perfect communication (communion) takes place, it is because the projector imagines that he or she has found what he or she wants because the recipient has come close enough to getting it right. The good enough projector meets the good enough recipient.

Why projective identification doesn’t cure trauma

The main reason projective identification doesn’t cure trauma is that it requires enormous time, dedication, and even love on the part of the therapist. To be able and willing to hold the horrible, unbearable feelings of others, to give them frame, form, and meaning takes enormous strength, perseverance, and care. If it is true, as Grotstein argues,

that it is as if all human beings, parents and children alike, are really children who wish someone to know their agony so that the tale can be told (p. 210),

then the therapist must be prepared to devote the time and energy of a parent.

Why isn’t therapy more effective in dealing with the symptoms of extreme trauma, such as the trauma of survivors of the Holocaust, and torture? Because it hardly ever goes far enough. Because the conjunction of a therapist willing and able to contain the trauma, coupled with the time to do it right, in which the unit of measure is hundreds of hours over years, is rare, and even then there is no guarantee.

One can see why Bessel van der Kolk turns to yoga and neuroscience, why Dori Laub emphasizes the therapeutic efficacy of testimony, and Cathy Caruth conveys no sense of the length and loving commitment that is required to make experiencing the other’s trauma useful to the victim (I refer here to previous posts).


The treatments most widely available, the treatments approved by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), include cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprogramming). Group therapy is sometimes available. All are relatively short term treatments, designed to fix the ailing organism. All actively discourage the therapeutic relationship that results it reverie, in which the analyst contains and helps organize the unbearable feelings being projected into him or her before returning them, via reintrojection, in more organized form (Bion, pp. 65-85; Grotstein, p. 134).

If reverie is the relationship under which projective identification heals trauma, then one must conclude that almost the entire trauma establishment, from its intellectual leaders, to the largest trauma treatment program in the world, run by the VA, is organized against it. A shortage of time, money, and the will to admit horror into one’s inner world, is mobilized against reverie. So why then bother mentioning it? Because like utopia, reverie serves as a standard by which to measure the degree to which individuals and organizations fall short.

In the case of reverie, organizations will always fall short. So too will individuals, but some will try, some will come close, and an ideal standard helps us recognize when we are fooling ourselves, imaging that something as life shattering as trauma can be overcome with tricks.


W. R. Bion, Second Thoughts. Jason Aronson, 1984.

James Grotstein, Splitting and Projective Identification. Jason Aronson, 1981.

Thomas Ogden, Projective Identification and Psychotherapeutic Technique. Jason Aronson, 1982.

Elizabeth Spillius and Edna O’Shaughnessy (eds.), Projective Identification: The Fate of a Concept. Routledge, 2011.

United States Department of Veterans Affairs, Treatment of PTSD. Available at:


Comments (6)

  1. Matt

    I thought this was a fascinating post and a really thoughtful take on the almost-always-maligned projective identification.

    I wrote a paper recently in which I argued that “communion” could be distinguished from “communication,” whereas you argue that communion is communication’s perfect” form.

    The idea was that perfect communication, if it could exist, would preserve the boundaries of the self, the possibility of relatedness, and the possibility of ‘thinking,’ while communion seems to involve boundary-loss and merger, or the incorporation of one into another, as your example of the Eucharist perhaps shows.

    But maybe the distinction was too bright, not acknowledging the degree to which even everyday, ‘rational’ communication relies upon reverie, projection, identification, re-introjection, etc.

    Still, aren’t there many cases where we ‘share’ experiences via projection in order to avoid thinking and communicating about them? Where the other can not return us a de-toxified version of our experience not only because the demands on the other (the witness, the analyst) are too great, but because, as much as we might long for relief, we are also not really prepared to receive an altered version of our experience back?

    …maybe because part of the stuckness of trauma has something to do with the inability or unwillingness of the victim to “think” it, in the sense of making it available to be modified, comprehended, re-shaped either internally or in a communicative relationship?

    I guess I am wondering if there are cases in which we commune specifically in order not to think or understand or be able to communicate.

    There is the Camus play, ‘Le malentendu’ [The misunderstanding], I wrote about in a couple of places, where an estranged son returns home to his unfeeling mother and sister and, instead of communicating with them about the pain they have caused him, he hides his identity and causes them to misrecognize him. Of course, they kill him and it’s a sort of tragic farce, but the point is that I think the son wants to commune with his family’s emptiness and grief, a grief that he grew up with, a grief he misses even though it is part of why he left, and a grief that is in many ways a lasting trauma for him. He does not want to communicate about it, he does not even want them to know it is he. Knowing that he is their son and having to communicate and understand what has happened to him and to them would make it impossible for him to re-immerse himself in the ‘shared experience’ of loss and misrecognition that he longs for. He wants to commune with that, to lose himself in it, and even perhaps to die in it. Of course, this is a play, so it is not clear how much reality it contains. But I have found it persuasive and useful in thinking about some theory and some cases.

    Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post(s), as usual!!!


    Matt, as usual you force me to think and rethink.

    The standard label for someone who does not want or is not able to reintroject a metabolized projection is that he/she is practicing evacuative identification. The goal of projective identification isn’t to be understood by another. It is to place an unbearable feeling in another and be done with it. “I can’t stand this anymore. You take it. I’m out of here.”

    But, I think there must be lesser forms of unwillingness or inability to reintroject a metabolized projection. In fact, “metabolized projection” is a pretty unclear concept (actually a metaphor), to say the least. I think there must be various combinations of misunderstood metabolites, so to speak, coupled with an unwillingness or inability to take it in. Probably the digestion metaphor is misleading. In any case, people are very good at destroying thought, including the unspoken thought of others, by fragmentation, inattention, and the like.

    Bion’s work on the emotional basis of thought in terms of container and contained, alpha and beta elements has not been surpassed as far as I know. Maybe this is all that can usefully be said at an abstract level. All the rest is feeling, and mostly beyond useful words. But perhaps there is important work I am unaware of.

    About the desire to commune (rather than communicate) with emptiness and grief. I think my attraction to (and fear of) desolate landscapes has to do with the way they mirror, almost in musical form, a similar desolation I sometimes feel. The mirroring is really all I want.

    The trouble with this is that sometimes I think depression can become a friend, a friendly presence, one that will always be there and never disappoint. In the end that’s not good.

    These are not particularly well organized thoughts, but hope they are relevant. Fred

  3. John

    It is from a place of severely depleted ego function from which the defense of projective identification arises. And, in my clinical experience, severe trauma leaves one in a deeply depleted, and deeply vulnerable state. Thus, a need for safety and defense arises. Projective identification is a defense but it is not a passive defense. It is active; it is a communication just as you describe. Perhaps only contemporary Kleinians still adhere to the importance of paying attention to this form of communication in clinical settings as they are the objects receiving these split off projections! But, just because many clinicians are not paying attention to projective identification does not mean they are not receiving projective identification as a communication. Through negative countertransference, these clinicians then view these communications as evidence of personality disorder or these clinicians react to the projective identification through an enactment that can be re-traumatizing for the individual.
    Contemporary Kleinians view all individuals, from infancy through adulthood as object-related (other theoretical orientations may discuss this phenomenon through the primacy of attachment). Projective identification seeks control in a primitive sense (and certainly trauma often is a loss of control), but also seeks attunement and understanding, and through understanding, a secure base. And, just as lack of attunement by caregiver in infancy can lead to empathic failures that adversely affect attachment leading to anxious, avoidant or insecure attachment styles; lack of attunement by mental health provider (think VA clinician using Prolonged Exposure (PE) Therapy) can lead to empathic failures. One solution may be that proposed by Heinrich Racker (1968) a relatively conscious and/or preconscious identification with these communications through concordant and complementary countertransference. By adopting a benevolent and empathic stance as proposed can those traumatized individuals feel better understood, less alone, and as if there are places of safety and goodness in the world still.

    • John, I think you make a good point. Reverie takes so much time, care, and attention that it rarely gets a chance to work. Nevertheless, there is a vast distance between cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy, the VA “gold standards,” and sensitive and empathetic listening and being-with. The creation of a safe space for traumatized people to talk about and sometimes act-out their experiences is in itself quite an accomplishment. The understanding need not be perfect, reverie may not occur, but care does. Sometimes that is good enough. But it still takes time and an attitude approaching love. Fred

  4. PIisnotallbad

    I have a severe childhood trauma from violence and extreme intrusiveness, chaos, neglect and all other issues including sexual abuse by not my mother (the predator) but by others and the society I grew up.

    I am in therapy now for the first time. I learned (never a word from my therapist though), that I use a very strong projection identification but even though every writing talks about how negative this; I think your website is the only one that mention love is form of IP communication.

    I used it positively. Clinically speaking, I always in my life assumed others have more empathy, more love, more understanding, more vulnerabilities, more of every single positive quality you can than of. The question is how can that be? How did I even notice that in others so much? Because I projected all my positive qualities onto others. And I ended up depleted because all that is left in me is I am difficult, I am not lovable, I am not empathic but I love all that I see in others and I am quite functional precisely because I see all my good parts in others and react to them. The bad side is I never see others as they are, only as I projected. So I lived in silo in my head.
    I recognized I do not exist without others. If there is no one, I am nothing to project to see myself or even to think I am seeing others. It is very lonely to use IP automatically and as a result of trauma.
    As a result of trauma, I said, because I learned how to do this so I could always read my abuser, my mother’s face (the other) so I knew how to situate myself at all times. In order to survive, if she was angry, I needed to read so I could be soft, agreeable, or cute. If she was sad, so I could help, care and be there. If she was happy, I would be just as happy but not too happy as not to create jealousy etc. So I learned not to feel for me but to feel for her and I just took that to a new level as an adult until I sent to therapy.

    In therapy, I noticed I wanted my therapist to attack me so I could feel defenseless. I could not read him to react to him so I became depressed. Because he did not want to be angry and abuse me so I could feel at home being defenseless. I become angry and reacted in splitting. Extremely exhausting endeavor.

    I am lucky to wake up from all these transferences to know that I need to move back and stop wanting to read others to see what they think or feel and be alone! I slept on it. I dreamed about how to be this way. It is not easy to all of sudden stop being “other” oriented vs self-oriented.

    But now I am at toddler level of my own orientation. I don’t finish others’ thoughts or words or feelings.
    I do not agree everyone who uses projective identification in narcissism and aggressive. Actually those who are using it in controlling or manipulative (IMHO) are not aware of that. Those who are aware of that are in corporation who use this as politicians’ campaigns and advertisement etc. But average joe/jane who uses IP is using as survival mechanism not as I am smarter than you and if they use it so aggressively consciously, then life will catch up with him in a harsh ways so sooner or later, they end up in hospital for depression or other pathology.

    I think more people use this in positive way of protecting their good parts and feeling depleted as a result which is still bad at the end.

    PI is also used in how we teach children. It is not all bad.

    Now, can this cure trauma? I think not if the therapist is using PI to the client because that will create a scenario where a client may feel the therapist is taking over or attempting to take over – SOMETHING THAT TRAUMATIC PERSON DID NOT ALLOW AS CHILD. If my mother could not take over me and I learned how to mold myself to her needs, why would I allow a therapist to take over me? Esp. now that I am adult. It makes no sense to me.
    The way, I believe this may work in trauma is to make it conscious to the client they are using this technique in unhealthy way and show them directly or indirectly how this is impacting their lives. The therapist has to be experienced to know what IP is and the client MUST be open and curious to learn and he/she is in therapy for truly wanting to change in a fundamental way.

    For me to think of another way of relating and interacting without PI, I dissociated completely at the first thought because that to me was dying. If I do not react, I do not even know what am I without reacting to others? I am dead. Nothing! But I also accept to be dead and nothing and I had the weirdest sensation in therapy when I accepted that.
    Now I have a great husband whom I have been subtly controlling in using PI without knowing. Now that I know, I told him to challenge me if I cross that line of interjecting and reacting and reading minds. I can see his real beauty not what I was projecting on to him. I also for the first time I can see his limitation and where I gave him my good parts to make him seem better than he was.

    It is like a new movie. our relationship is changing in a more positive and fantastic ways.

    My motivation is to help others in trauma as a therapist and I will not be able to do so if I cannot challenge myself to go that mile.
    Now, I am practixing and learning how not to be others oriented manually but eventually it will become automatically and subconsciously. I am already able not to read others facials or react right away. Simple thing that many people do but not for those who had to learn how to act and react to an abuser and also for those of us who also identify with the aggressor in order to survive. There are a lot of values embedded to my inborn qualities. Separating them is a life time quest.

    A good PI uncon or consciously, is good only if you are teaching or loving and allowing others to do the same.

    A good PI is unconsciously is giving away good parts to others and depleting yourself = some pathology maybe. You will not allow others to do the same to you hence its danger. You are controlling others with kindness at the expense of you depletion. Co-dependency etc.

    You are controlling others with kindness at the expense of you depletion. Co-dependency etc.Co-dependency etc.

    Bad PI unconsciously – personality disorder. Trauma. Borderline.
    Bad PI consciously – politicians, advertisement, groups, work more in global level.

    There could be many other combinations of course. but my point is some are good not all bad. Just want to dispel the reputation of PI.

    pi/ip = Identification Projection or vice versa


    Dear PIisnotallbad, what a thoughtful comment. Projective identification started out as a “bad” defense in the work of Melanie Klein, but I think it is also the way we fall, and stay, in love. It’s such a subtle, rewarding, and dangerous way to relate. You seem to have distinguished most of its meanings, and are able to choose and evaluate when it is life-affirming and when it is life-destroying. I wish you the best. Fred

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