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by Robert Maxwell Young


The locus classicus of Klein’s concept of projective identification is a passage in her ‘Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms’, which appeared in 1946. Klein concludes seven pages on the fine texture of early paranoid and schizoid mechanisms as follows:

So far, in dealing with persecutory fear, I have singled out the oral element.However, while the oral libido still has the lead, libidinal and aggressive impulses and phantasies from other sources come to the fore and lead to a confluence of oral, urethral and anal desires, both libidinal and aggressive. Also the attacks on the mother’s breast develop into attacks of a similar nature on her body, which comes to be felt as it were as an extension of the breast, even before the mother is conceived of as a complete person. The phantasied onslaughts on the mother follow two main lines: one is the predominantly oral impulse to suck dry, bite up, scoop out and rob the mother’s body of its good contents. . . . The other line of attack derives from the anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self and into the mother. Together with these harmful excrements, expelled in hatred, split-off parts of the ego are also projected onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother. [Klein adds a footnote at this crucial point, to the effect that she is describing primitive, pre-verbal processes and that projecting ‘into another person’ seems to her ‘the only way of conveying the unconscious process I am trying to describe’.] These excrements and bad parts of the self are meant not only to injure but also to control and to take possession of the object. In so far as the mother comes to contain the bad parts of the self, she is not felt to be a separate individual but is felt to be the bad self.
Much of the hatred against parts of the self is now directed
Towards the mother. This leads to a particular form of identification which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object-relation (Klein 1946, pp. 7–8).

Six years later Klein adds the following sentence: ‘I suggest for these processes the term “projective identification” ’ (ibid.; see also pp. 68–9 where she spells out the complementarity of projective and introjective processes).
The concept is introduced to explain a quite early, primitive form of
unconscious phantasy and is depicted only in negative terms, albeit offered as the prototype of all aggressive object relations. (Note: this is a very large
claim.) Subsequent developments in her and others’ thinking will lead it to be seen as a mechanism used for positive and loving feelings, as well (p. 69). It will also come to be seen as a ubiquitous unconscious mechanism in human communication and internal thought processes, i.e. between people and between parts of a given person’s mind. Wilfred Bion depicted it as the
basis for all communications between therapist and patient. Moreover, after
reviewing the development of the concept, A. Torres de Beà writes,

These authors consider that projective identification is the basic mechanism of empathy and primitive communication and also of the defence mechanism which consists of dissociating and projecting anxiety in order to be rid of it. I agree with this and think also that what we call projective identification is the active element in every communication from empathy to the most pathological and defensive
(Torres de Beà 1989, p. 266).

He concludes that it is ‘the mechanism basic to all human interaction’
(p. 272).
Indeed, projective identification is the single most influential concept originated by Klein. It plays a central role in the two basic stances taken up by the mind at all times and at all levels of development from infancy to maturity and on to senescence: the paranoid-schizoid and depressive positions. The former is characterised by extreme splits, part–object relations, punitive and brittle guilt feelings and violent projective identifications. The depressive position also includes splits but not extreme ones, whole object relations (‘concern for the object’), reparative guilt (the urge to make reparation for the damage done to the object) and taking back projective identifications, i.e. taking responsibility for our feelings. Irma Brenman Pick writes, ‘Constant projecting by the patient into the analyst is the essence of analysis; every interpretation aims at a move from the paranoid/schizoid to the depressive position’ (Brenman Pick 1985, p. 158). The tacit injunction to our patients – ‘Take back the projections’ – is a useful way of characterising the goal of helping her or him to dwell as much as possible in the depressive position.
I believe that projective identification is the most fruitful psychoanalytic concept since the discovery of the unconscious. Of course, as soon as something like that is said, competing claims are made, for example, the significance of the Oedipus complex. Suffice it to say, then, that it is very important. Elizabeth Spillius describes it more modestly as Klein’s most popular concept  (Spillius 1988, vol. 1, p. 81), and Donald Meltzer called it the most fruitful Kleinian concept over the past thirty to forty years (Meltzer 1991). R.D. Hinshelwood suggests that as well as being a, if not the, most fruitful Kleinian concept, it is also the most confused and confusing one (Hinshelwood 1991, pp. 179–208). Thomas Ogden presents the ideas of Harold Searles, Robert Langs, A. Malin and James Grotstein and describes projective identification as the essence of the therapeutic relationship. Therapy is said to consist of dealing with it. It is the basic unit of study of the therapeutic interaction (Ogden 1979, p. 366). He also tells us that Bion ‘views projective identification as the most important form of interaction between the patient and therapist in individual therapy, as well as in groups of all types’ (p. 365). In ‘Attacks on Linking’, Bion says, ‘Thus the link between patient and analyst, or infant and breast, is the mechanism of projective identification’ (Bion 1967, p. 106). In the course of a careful review of developments of the concept from its initial formulation in 1946, to the present, Hinshelwood says that for Bion it became ‘the basic building block for generating thoughts out of experiences and perceptions’ (Hinshelwood 1991, pp. 189–90). At this same level of generality Segal has described projective identification as ‘the earliest form of empathy’ and ‘the basis of the earliest form of symbol-formation’ (Segal 1973, p. 36). Looking to later developments and more broadly, Hinshelwood describes Bion’s notion of ‘container-contained’ as ‘an attempt to raise the concept of
projective identification to a general theory of human functioning – of the
relations between people, and between groups; of the relationships between
internal objects; and of the relationships in the symbolic world between
thoughts, ideas, theories, experiences, etc.’ (p. 191).
This same mechanism is seen to be operative at the heart of autism by
Meltzer and his co-workers. He also describes it as ‘the mechanism of narcissistic identification . . . and the basis of hypochondria, confusional states, claustrophobia, paranoia, psychotic depression and perhaps some psychosomatic disorders’ (Meltzer et al. 1975, p. 228). It is also the sovereign defence against separation anxiety (Grinberg 1990, p. 64). Relinquishment of excessive projective identification is described as the precondition of achieving a fully dimensional inner world (Meltzer et al., 1975, pp. 226–7). As Meltzer says in his essay on ‘The Relation of Anal Masturbation to Projective Identification’,

The feeling of fraudulence as an adult person, the sexual impotence or
pseudo-potency (excited by secret perverse phantasies), the inner loneliness and the basic confusion between good and bad, all create a life of tension and lack of satisfaction, bolstered, or rather compensated, only by the smugness and snobbery which are an inevitable accompaniment of the massive projective identification.
(Meltzer 1966, p. 104)

In his book on claustrophobic phenomena Meltzer describes it as central to
the most social Darwinist forms of ambitious, competitive, survivalist conformism, in his concept of ‘the claustrum’, in which patients use excessive projective identification as a desperate defence against schizophrenic breakdown (Meltzer 1992). Another Kleinian, Leslie Sohn, recalls that the original thoughts on projective identification in the British Psycho-Analytical Society conceived of it ‘as a defence against intolerable envy and as an outcome of hatred of dependence’ (Sandler 1989, p. 190).
Elizabeth Spillius begins her overview of the concept by telling us that ‘the
term has gradually become the most popular of Klein’s concepts, the only
one that has been widely accepted and discussed by non-Kleinians – especially in the United States’ (Spillius 1988, vol. 1, p. 81). The problem is that she goes on to say that ‘it is often discussed in terms that are incompatible with Klein’s conception’ (ibid.). Hinshelwood draws a similarly disconcerting conclusion when he writes, ‘There appears to be no consensus on the value of the term “projective identification” outside the Kleinian conceptual framework’ (Hinshelwood 1991, p. 204). It is in danger of degenerating into what he calls ‘a catch-phrase for all interpersonal phenomena’ (p. 196), a fate similar to that which befell the concept of object relations at the hands of Greenberg and Mitchell, who mistakenly reduced all objects to people so as to bring Klein into closer affinity with American psychoanalytic ideas and those of Harry Stack Sullivan (Greenberg and Mitchell 1983; cf. Kohon1985).
Having sketched the origin and scope of the concept, I shall devote theremainder of this chapter to what is intended as a tour de force of the kinds of projective identification, including examples, which have appeared in theKleinian literature and some debates about them.
 A number of people have told me that they had trouble getting their minds around the concept of projective identification and have said that the following example was helpful to them. Imagine a fly fisherman (I have in mind some lovely scenes from the film A River Runs Through It), casting his line gracefully through the air in a lazy arc across the waters of a lake. The line hits the water some distance away, penetrating it and teasing fish to the surface in the hope of catching one. It lures the fish to the surface, hooks it and reels it in. The fisherman is doing the projecting. The fish swimming around some distance way is the repertoire of responses in the personality of the person being projected into. The response which the casting of the line evokes would not otherwise have risen to the surface. It is lured to the surface; the response is evoked. That is the moment of identification in projective identification.
Relinquishing now the fishing analogy and elaborating the example further, we have unconscious feelings that we want to disown or, alternatively, want to entrust to someone. We unconsciously project them into that person’s unconscious and call up what we want to evoke from their range of potential responses. We thereby create a symbiosis and impoverish our own egos (hence the ego-strengthening therapeutic value of ‘taking back the projections’). You cannot evoke any old response; it has to be a potential one in that person’s personality. Freud adumbrated the concept and illustrated my point when he was talking about the projections of jealous and persecuted paranoiacs, of whom it is said that they project onto others that which they do not wish to recognise in themselves. He continues,

Certainly they do this; but they do not project it into the blue, so to
speak, where there is nothing of the sort already. They let themselves be guided by their knowledge of the unconscious, and displace to the
unconscious minds of others the attention which they have withdrawn
from their own. Our jealous husband perceived his wife’s unfaithfulness instead of his own; by becoming conscious of hers and magnifying it enormously he succeeded in keeping his own unconscious (Freud 1922, p. 226).

Brenman Pick illustrates this point further in saying that

the patient does not just project into an analyst, but instead patients are
quite skilled at projecting into particular aspects of the analyst. Thus, I
have tried to show, for example, that the patient projects into the analyst’s wish to be a mother, the wish to be all-knowing or to deny unpleasant knowledge, into the analyst’s instinctual sadism, or into his defences against it. And above all, he projects into the analyst’s guilt, or into the analyst’s internal objects.
Thus, patients touch off in the analyst deep issues and anxieties related to the need to be loved and the fear of catastrophic consequences in the face of defects, i.e., primitive persecutory or superego anxiety (Brenman Pick 1985, p. 161).

In drawing these illustrations from Brenman Pick’s important article on ‘Working Through in the Counter-transference’ I am coming upon a point
which surprised me when I first realised it: that Klein did not grasp that countertransference is a species of projective identification. As I see it, the
approach adopted by Brenman Pick takes it as read and as normal that
powerful unconscious feelings are moving from patient to therapist and back
again, through the processes of projection, evocation, reflection, detoxification, interpretation and assimilation. These feelings are all normal, as it were, in the processes of analysis. More than that, as she puts it, they are the essence of the therapeutic process.
Kleinians have not always taken this view of countertransference. Klein had begged her protégé Paula Heimann not to deliver her first paper on countertransference and told Tom Hayley in the late 1950s that she thought countertransference interferes with analysis and should be the subject of lightning self-analysis (Grosskurth 1986, p. 378). According to Spillius, ‘Klein thought that such extension would open the door to claims by analysts that their own deficiencies were caused by their patients’ (Spillius 1992, p. 61). Having said this, it is important not to be too literal about the use of the term ‘countertransference’. Klein’s subtle interpretations of her patients’ inner worlds – especially their pre-verbal feelings and ideas – only make sense in the light of her ability to be resonant with their most primitive feelings, and Bion’s injunction to ‘abandon memory and desire’ is made in the name of countertransference, whatever term we attach to the process. Indeed, it can be said that his writings are about little else.
It took a considerable time for ideas about the concept of countertransference to reach the point that its congruence with projective identification become apparent. Freud had seen countertransference just as Klein did – unworked-through neurotic material in the therapist. In the period after the Second World War a number of people began to see it in broader terms. I am thinking of D.W. Winnicott on ‘Hate in the Countertransference’ (1947) andMargaret Little (1950, etc.). Among Kleinians, Paula Heimann wrote two important papers in which she argued that we can learn from the countertransference (1949–50), but saw as the goal of doing so the reduction of instances of it (1959–60). Roger Money Kyrle (1956), however, saw it as normal, and that view has come to prevail among Kleinians. This position is best argued by Brenman Pick in the article quoted above.
The form of projective identification most often referred to in the literature is when one person projects into another, whether a therapist or someone else – mother, friend, enemy, object of affection, etc. – and evokes unconscious feelings. These may or may not be processed and may or may not lead to altered behaviour. In the case of projecting into a therapist, the therapist’s task – often a difficult and sometimes a nearly impossible one – is to experience the countertransferential feeling without intemperately reprojecting it, make sense of it, detoxify it by neutralising the violent feelings involved, interpret it internally, and formulate it into an interpretation which is of some use to the patient. This is an analytical version of what a parent or other loved one does in dealing with the distressed feelings of those near and dear to them, for example, comforting a baby, soothing a toddler, counselling an adolescent, sorting out feelings with a lover.
American analysts have taken up the concept with enthusiasm and have written extensively about it. Although the best of this work is interesting and rich in clinical examples, these writers have often tended to concentrate on the interpersonal form of the mechanism at the expense of the
purely intrapsychic one. In my opinion this impoverishes the concept and
does not allow sufficient scope and space for the inner world and internal
objects (Grotstein 1981; Ogden 1979, 1982; Scharff 1992). The key issue
here is whether or not a real, external ‘other’, who has been affected by
the projection, is essential to the concept. British Kleinians say no; some
American interpreters say yes. Spillius’ summary is helpful in clarifying this matter:

Considerable controversy has developed over the definition and use of
the concept. Whether there is a difference between projection and projective identification is perhaps the most frequently raised question, but others have been important too. Should the term be used only to refer to the patient’s unconscious phantasy, regardless of the effect on the recipient, or should it be used only in cases in which the recipient of the projection is emotionally affected by what is being projected into him? Should the term only be used for the projection of aspects of the self, or should it also be used for the projection of internal objects? What about the many possible motives for projective identification; should all be included? Should the term be used only in cases where the patient has lost conscious awareness of the quality and part of the self he has projected, or does it also apply to cases in which such awareness is retained? What about the projection of good qualities and good parts of the self; should the concept be used for these as well, as Klein so clearly thought, or should it be reserved for the projection of bad qualities, which has been the dominant tendency? Is a specific bodily phantasy always involved in the projection, as Klein thought, or is it clarifying enough to speak of the phantasy in mental terms?
Of these many questions, by far the most discussion has been devoted
to the question of whether and how projective identification should be
distinguished from projection. . .  In these discussions the most usual
basis for the distinction between projection and projective identification
is held to be whether or not the recipient of the projection is or is not
affected emotionally by the projector’s phantasy. . .  But to restrict the
term projective identification to such instances greatly diminishes the
usefulness of the concept and is in any case totally contrary to what
Klein herself meant by it. The English view is that the term is best kept as a general concept broad enough to include both cases in which the recipient is emotionally affected and those in which he is not. . . The many motives for projective identification – to control the object, to acquire its attributes, to evacuate a bad quality, to protect a good quality, to avoid separation – all are most usefully kept under the general umbrella (Spillius 1988, vol. 1, pp. 81–3).

Hanna Segal’s definition seems to side with those who call for an external object which is affected: ‘In projective identification parts of the self and internal objects are split off and projected into the external object, which then becomes possessed by, controlled and identified with the projected parts’ (Segal 1973, p. 27). Bion also includes projection ‘into an external object’ (Bion 1992, p. 159). Unless we assume that they are written from the point of view of the projector’s phantasy, these definitions do not embrace both sides of Spillius’ broad approach, which allows for projective identification into an internal object as well as into an external one. It is important to emphasise that projective identification can occur wholly inside the unconscious of the projecting person and need not be involved at all with behaviour that elicits a response from another person. The ‘other’ can dwell exclusively in the inner world of the person who creates the projective identification and supplies the response from his or her phantasy of the dramatis personae in the mind. In this case it is a relationship between one part of the inner world and another. Where behaviour is involved, the process of eliciting the unconsciously desired resonance from the ‘other’ can be very subtle indeed. Betty Joseph has made the detailed understanding of these interactions an area of special study. In particular, she draws attention to the patient’s uncanny ability to ‘nudge’ the therapist to act out in accordance with the patient’s projection – to evoke the disowned feelings from the therapist’s repertoire and induce the therapist to experience and perhaps reproject them (Joseph 1989, esp. chs 7, 9–12).
There are further elaborations:

Projective identification has manifold aims: it may be directed towards
the ideal object to avoid separation, or it may be directed towards the bad object to gain control of the source of the danger. Various parts of the self may be projected, with various aims: bad parts of the self may be projected in order to get rid of them as well as to attack and destroy the object, good parts may be projected to avoid separation or keep them safe from bad things inside or to improve the external object through a kind of primitive projective reparation. Projective identification starts when the paranoid-schizoid position is first established in relation to the breast, but it persists and very often becomes intensified when the mother is perceived as a whole object and the whole of her body is entered by  projective identification (Segal 1973, pp. 27–8).

Mutual projective processes are powerfully described in an essay by Tom Main. He provides excellent analyses of projective mechanisms in individuals, couples and large and small groups:

Although projective processes are primitive attempts to relieve internal
pains by externalising them, assigning or requiring another to contain
aspects of the self, the price can be high: for the self is left not only less
aware of its whole but, in the case of projective identification, is deplenished [sic] by the projective loss of important aspects of itself. Massive projective identification of – for instance – feared aggressive parts of the self leaves the remaining self felt only to be weak and unaggressive. Thereafter, the weakened individual will remain in terror about being overwhelmed by frightening aggressive strength, but this will now be felt only as belonging to the other. Depending on the range of this projective fantasy the results will vary from terrified flight, to appeasement, wariness and specific anxieties about the other, even psychotic delusions about his intentions.
The above instance concerns only the projector’s side of the projective
relationship: but projective processes often have a further significance.
What about the person on the receiving end of the projection? In simple
projection (a mental mechanism) the receiver may notice that he is not
being treated as himself but as an aggressive other. In projective identification (an unconscious fantasy) this other may find himself forced by the projector actually to feel his own projected aggressive qualities and impulses which are otherwise alien to him. He will feel strange and uncomfortable and may resent what is happening, but in the face of the projector’s weakness and cowardice it may be doubly difficult to resist the feelings of superiority and aggressive power steadily forced into him. Such disturbances affect all pair relationships more or less. A wife, for instance, may force her husband to own feared and unwanted dominating aspects of herself and will then fear and respect him. He in turn may come to feel aggressive and dominating toward her, not only because of his own resources but because of hers, which are forced into him. But more: for reasons of his own he may despise and disown certain timid aspects of his personality and by projective identification force these into his wife and despise her accordingly. She may thus be left not only with timid unaggressive parts of herself but having in addition to contain his. Certain pairs come to live in such locked systems, dominated by mutual projective fantasies with each not truly married to a person, but rather to unwanted, split off and projected parts of themselves. Both the husband, dominant and cruel, and the wife, stupidly timid and respectful, may be miserably unhappy with themselves and with each other, yet such marriages although turbulent are stable, because each partner needs the other for pathologically narcissistic purposes. Forcible projective processes, and especially projective identification, are thus more than an individual matter: they are object-related, and the other will always be affected more or less (Main 1975, pp. 100–1).

None of the above descriptions sufficiently emphasises projective identification into parts of one’s own mind, a topic well expressed (in the context of envy) by Joseph Berke, whose book The Tyranny of Malice (1989) can be seen as a compendium on splitting and projective identification:

Projection and projective identification are activities that influence different parts of the self. These, of course, include phantasized or internal representations of actual relationships. Thus a person can indeed feel under attack because he is attacking mental images of his own father or teacher or therapist.
However, a more ominous reaction occurs when, beset by envy, the envier tries to preserve himself from himself by splitting up and projectively identifying his spite and malice with and into parts of his own mind. Consequently the envier contains a multitude of envious others all threatening to attack him from within. These exist as split off and extremely hostile representations of his own envious self or of envious parents and parental substitutes (Berke 1989, p. 67).

This process leads to an over-severe and envious superego and saps the
individual’s progressive and creative capacities.

In order to avoid such a psychic catastrophe, whereby a host of inner
enviers assault each other, the afflicted person may utilise projective processes to deflect these enmities outward. The net effect is like picking out a pack of piranhas and throwing them into the air. Because of the action of projective identification, when these vicious little enviers land on something, and they always do, the envious person (fleeing from his own envious selves) inevitably converts elements of external reality (benign people, places, or things) into malevolent entities (witches, evil influences, bad omens). But instead of solving the problem, this manoeuvre compounds it, for the individual feels threatened by malignity emanating from within himself and from without. Thus the envier becomes the envied, and the hunter becomes the hunted (ibid.).

Donald Meltzer’s book, The Claustrum (mentioned above), is entirely
devoted to projective identification into internal objects. He is at pains to
reveal the evolution of his thinking. He had for some years been uncomfortable with a bias in Klein’s paper ‘On Identification’ (1955) and came to ‘discover the real reason for my dissatisfaction: the tendency of Mrs. Klein’s paper to continue treating projective identification as a psychotic mechanism and one which operated with external objects, primarily or exclusively’ (Meltzer 1992, p. 13). He emphasises that an important part of mental space is inside internal objects (p. 118) and that entry into projective identification is a ‘ubiquitous phenomenon in early childhood’ (p. 118). More generally, he concludes that ‘the existence of one or another infantile part either living in projective identification or easily provoked to enter the claustrum of internal objects is fairly ubiquitous’ (p. 134; cf. p. 153).
There is an aspect of projective identification to which I want to revert
before moving on to a broader canvas. I have already mentioned it in my
analogy to fly fishing. I have already stressed the intrapsychic form, where
both parts are played inside the inner world. I now want to draw attention to
a feature of the process when it occurs between people. In much of the
literature on this topic, reference is made to ‘projecting into the ‘other’,
whether externally or internally. I believe that there is an important distinction which is, as yet, not fully worked out. It concerns putting something into another person as distinct from eliciting something from the repertoire of their responses, exaggerating it and evoking a reprojection of that aspect of their personality. The process is one of the projection finding a home and of unconscious collusion on the part of the person receiving the projection. In my opinion this is by far the most common manifestation of the interpersonal form of the process, as distinct from being invaded by something entirely alien, a strange feeling in oneself. What is strange in the case of evoked and exaggerated feelings is the intensity. The recipient reprojects a degree or strength of feeling that is surprising, but, though an exaggeration or enhancement, it is still his or hers.
The person who has made most of this point is Harold Searles, who is not a Kleinian and does not stress the term. His writings have centred on the
honesty required to acknowledge the patient’s prescience. In describing his
findings in his first paper on the subject, he says of himself that he

has very regularly been able to find some real basis in himself for those
qualities which his patients – all his patients, whether the individual
patient be more prominently paranoid, or obsessive-compulsive, or hysterical, and so on – project upon him. It appears that all patients, not
merely those with chiefly paranoid adjustments, have the ability to
“read the unconscious” of the therapist. This process of reading the
unconscious of another person is based, after all, upon nothing more
occult than an alertness to minor variations in the other person’s posture, facial expression, vocal tone, and so on, of which the other person himself is unaware. All neurotic and psychotic patients, because of their need to adapt themselves to the feelings of the other person, have had to learn as children – usually in association with painfully unpredictable parents – to be alert to such nuances of behavior on the part of the other person (Searles 1978–9, pp. 177–8, 1979; Young 1992).

 In my view, much of the striking originality of Searles’ work stems from this important insight, one which has been grasped independently by some Kleinians, for example, Irma Brenman Pick (1985, esp. p. 41), Betty Joseph (1989) and Michael Feldman (1992, pp. 77, 87), but its implications are far from being taken in by most writers on the subject. There is too little awareness of how nearly fully interactive the processes are, and I believe this is a remnant of objectivist attitudes on the part of therapists, who do not grant the fundamental role of the countertransference in therapy, as in the rest of life.
Kleinian ideas are difficult of access, partly because they are largely about unconscious, pre-verbal and pre-conceptual psychodynamics. Moreover, it cannot be said that Klein wrote with conceptual clarity to match her profound understanding of the inner world and its vicissitudes. For a long time practically the only way to learn about her ideas was to work with them and to get supervision from people who had worked with her or with the supervisees of people who had worked with her. Kleinians travelled, most significantly, to Los Angeles, Italy and South America, where they gave seminars and supervisions. The effect in South America and Italy was electric, while in Los Angeles it almost led to the disenfranchisement of the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute from the American Psychoanalytic
Association, so strongly did the orthodox Freudians take exception to this
alien way of thinking (see Kirsner 2000, ch. 4). Splits in the institute and the
formation of a breakaway one resulted from this sectarianism.
This situation of paucity of expository writings changed dramatically in the late 1980s with the publication of two volumes of key Kleinian papers
edited by Elizabeth Spillius, Melanie Klein Today (1988), one volume of
which was subtitled Mainly Theory and the other Mainly Practice. A year
later there followed a book which, in my biased opinion (I had the idea to do
it, commissioned Bob Hinshelwood to write it, edited it and published it), is
the single most helpful secondary source in the Kleinian literature: A
Dictionary of Kleinian Thought, admirably and exhaustively compiled by
R.D. Hinshelwood. The models for this volume were Raymond Williams’
Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976) and The Language of Psycho-Analysis by Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis (English trans., 1983). Hinshelwood set out to provide, and largely succeeded in providing, conceptual definitions and historical accounts of the major and minor concepts in the Kleinian literature. The book was revised two years later in the light of criticisms and is currently being re-written by a committee – in some ways a good thing and in some ways regrettable. Hinshelwood’s chapter on projective identification remains the best single account of the concept and its ramifications, as the book is of so much of Kleinian theory.
More recently there have appeared several other helpful secondary sources, some of which contribute subtle understandings of Kleinian and post-Kleinian concepts. In her Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context, Meira
Likierman appropriately confines her discussion of projective identification
to Klein’s ideas but gives a sophisticated rendering of them based on a close
reading of Klein’s works (2003, pp. 156–61). My book, Mental Space (1994,
on which I have drawn in this essay), devotes several chapters to projective
identification in its interpersonal, intrapsychic and social aspects. I argue that projective identification lies at the heart of many group, social and political processes, for example clubs, gangs, sports, team supporters, class, racism, nationalism, political parties, class conflicts, fan clubs, idealization of music and movie stars, charisma, religions – any process where feelings are strongly felt and projected into others.
My book is a largely theoretical and conceptual exploration, while Inside Lives: Psychoanalysis and the Growth of the Personality by Margot Waddell (2000, revised 2004) is widely regarded as the most evocative rendering of Kleinian and post-Kleinian concepts and includes a number of clinical vignettes which vividly illustrate projective identification (e.g. pp. 167–70, 199–200). The appendix provides a particularly helpful discussion of projective and introjective processes (pp. 253–8).
The Dictionary of the Work of W.R. Bion, by a Venezuelan psychoanalyst, Rafael E. Lopez-Corvo, suffers from the brevity of its entries and a translator who did not make sure of using the accepted English equivalents of his Spanish terms. His one-page entry (Hinshelwood’s is thirty pages long) on projective identification in Bion stresses its use by the psychotic part of the personality, where it is employed to evacuate the unconscious of whole aspects of ego functioning (2003, pp. 220–1).
There are much more extensive discussions of projective identification in Introduction to the Work of Donald Meltzer by Silvia Fano Cassese (2004), an Italian psychotherapist who attended Meltzer’s lectures, supervisions and seminars for many years during which he frequently taught in Florence. Her entire first chapter is devoted to ‘Projective Identification with Internal Objects’. She discusses Meltzer’s ideas on massive projective identification, intrusive identification, adhesive identification and folie à deux, and introjective identification.
I will close with a vignette from my own clinical practice in which projective identification and countertransference are as one. I saw a man for a considerable time who appeared on the surface to be successful. He had attended an excellent school and one of the best universities in the country, from which he graduated with highest honours. He trained in his father’s profession and worked for a leading firm. Yet he thought of himself as unable to handle his responsibilities and kept resigning from jobs and moving down the pecking order of employment and finally worked in a job ancillary to his profession. He also failed to sustain a relationship with a woman, always ending relationships soon after they began. His grounds for rejecting them were usually somatic – too thin, too hairy, one even too representative of a way of being characteristic of a certain region. He even got to the point that he could begin and end several potential relationships in an evening of telephone dating.
He came from a family that was, on the surface, also successful, but behind this was a struggle on his father’s part to stave off bankruptcy that extended over many years and was ultimately avoided, but they had to sell the grand home and ostentatious car. His mother had always felt that my patient’s own spontaneous efforts were never good enough and had employed tutors for him at every stage of his education. He ended up with a very angry ‘not good enough’ internal object. His younger brother had responded to the family dynamics by setting himself very low career expectations.
My patient had been in therapy for a decade before coming to me, but his therapist finally threw in the towel, saying that he had too much hate in him, which the therapist had been unable to shift. Needless to say, I was at an early stage declared not good enough, either. Whenever I made an interpretation of which I was particularly proud, he would say in a rather weary, patronising voice that it was not quite right. I soldiered on, only to learn that he had embarked, without discussing it with me, on another course of therapy in parallel and in competition with his work with me. He also went through the introductory year of several therapy trainings, only to declare each, in turn, a disappointment.
Needless to say, the effect of all this was to make me doubt my abilities and to make me exceedingly frustrated and eventually angry and demoralised about his refractoriness. On the other hand, he kept coming, brought good material and dreams and even imitated my taste in transport. But he frequently put me on notice and threatened to leave imminently, saying what a disappointment I was to him.
Now comes the culmination of the intense countertransferential part
where he succeeds in putting into me and evoking within me his disowned
feelings that I eventually acted out. It so happened that my young daughter
was at that time being cared for by a woman who lived a few houses up the
road. My partner and I liked to walk together to pick her up at the end of the
working day just after I saw the patient I have described. However, this
became impossible, because on each occasion – and completely inconsistent
with the general tone of our relationship – I would become so bad tempered
and rejecting during our short walk that an argument would invariably occur
in the couple of minutes it took to reach the childminder’s house. More
accurately, I would always pick a fight completely unreasonably. My only
recourse was to stay at home and clear my head so I could greet them warmly when they returned.
I wish I could end this story by saying that steady interpretation of a
detoxified understanding of his distress over not having unconditional love
finally diminished his rejection of self, his abilities, his girlfriends and his
therapists, but it did not. You could say that the well was poisoned or that
there was in his inner world a father that failed and a mother that continually
found fault. My interpretations somehow got converted into inadequate parenting. In the course of our work I once increased his fee. (I had been making allowance for his need to pay off some debts.) His response was to say that in the light of what he got for his money he was already being overcharged. One day he fired me and moved to another country in search of an adequate therapist and a worthy training. He returned some years later, saying that I had been right all along and embarked on intensive work, only to go away again within weeks, having decided that what he really needed was a female therapist.
I trust that this account starkly illustrates the power of projective identification and offers a convincing example of countertransference as a species of this fundamental Kleinian concept, one that lies at the heart of our understanding of human nature.
I have attempted to offer definitions and examples of the various aspects of the concept of projective identification. I hope I have managed to convey the scope and richness of the concept and justified the claim that it is basic to all communication. I am confident that the concept of projective identification will continue to undergo important clinical and theoretical development at the intrapsychic, interpersonal, group, institutional and political levels and look forward to discussions and elaborations of the concept in the psychoanalytic literature.


(Place of publication is London unless otherwise specified.)

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Reprinted with minor revisions from Other Banalities: Melanie Klein Revisited, edited by Jon Mills. London & N. Y.: Routldge,2006, pp. 60-76. This essay draws on my earlier writings on projective identification and can be said to be an epitome of them with an updated view of the literature on the concept.




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