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Field, N. (1991). Projective Identification: Mechanism or Mystery?. J. Anal. Psychol., 36(1):93-109.

(1991). Journal of Analytical Psychology, 36(1):93-109

Projective Identification: Mechanism or Mystery?

Nathan Field

It is interesting to recall the fate of certain key concepts in psycho-analysis. When Freud first identified transference, he viewed it as a form of resistance, and only later came to value its therapeutic potential. He took the same attitude towards countertransference, seeing it as an obstruction to the freedom of the analyst's understanding of the patient, but in this case it was left to others, notably Paula Heimann, to recognise how it could be used creatively. Perhaps it is the turn of projective identification, generally regarded only as a pathological mechanism of defence, to be considered in a more positive light.

A Puzzling Aspect of Projective Identification

The mechanism was originally described by Melanie Klein in her paper Notes on some schizoid mechanisms in regard to phantasied attacks by the infant on its mother (Klein 21).

(It) derives from anal and urethral impulses and implies expelling dangerous substances (excrements) out of the self onto the mother or, as I would rather call it, into the mother … 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 against the mother. This leads to a particular form of aggression which establishes the prototype of an aggressive object relation. I suggest for this process the term projective identification (Ibid.).

Let us consider a characteristic example. In Normal countertransference and some of its deviations, Money-Kyrle describes how his paranoid-schizoid patient arrived feeling vague, useless, too ill to go to work … in brief, somewhat depersonalised.

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