Understanding Experiences of Projective Identification

Over 50 years ago in a small town, Iowa, Jane Elliott taught her third graders a lesson about racism. First she told them people with blue eyes were smarter than those with brown eyes. The blue-eyed children quickly felt superior and those with brown eyes felt lower self-esteem. The next day Elliott reversed things by saying brown-eyed children were smarter. They immediately started viewing those with blue eyes as inferior — and those with blue eyes felt their inferiority.

This exercise illustrates the psychoanalytic concept of projective identification. When people are seen as inferior, bad, or blameworthy, they commonly incorporate these judgments into their self-image. In the traditional understanding of projective identification, this interpersonal process begins with the “projecter” having a characteristic that is so unwanted (eg, hostility or laziness) that they literally cannot see it in themselves. However, since the undesirable characteristic nonetheless exists, the “projecter” sees it in others, often in others who are in some different way. When people are particularly susceptible to being “identifiers”, they take on these projections. Once identifiers begin to believe the projections are true about themselves, the projected characteristics affect their behavior, which then serves as evidence that the projected characteristics are essential parts of the identifiers’ personality. Projective identification underlies most prejudice, and far more. It is ubiquitous in our lives.

For example, alcoholics often reject responsibility for their behavior and blame it on those around them. Strong “identifiers” often begin accepting the alcoholic’s blame and feel guilty. We call them codependent. On a more mundane level, I once thought my wife was overly anxious about an upcoming dinner party. In this case, she did not identify with my projection and ask if I felt any anxiety. I realized I did but minimized it out of embarrassment. In this case, projective identification failed.

We all project and identify all the time, although some people lean more toward projecting and others, perhaps with a more empathic bent, tend more toward identifying. The following shows how I viewed a recent interaction with animals through the lens of projective identification.

I recently re-read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). Despite his pedantic efforts to be clever and extravagantly poetic language (both characteristic of the era), Melville cut to the heart of many important truths. Captain Ahab perfectly illustrates excessive human pride and how it often fixes on dominating nature. Ahab held deep contempt for the brutish and violent nature of whales. And yet it was Ahab himself who was most brutish and violent. When Moby Dick successfully defended himself (or herself?) from the onslaught of Ahab’s harpoon, the whale turned to leave without doing further damage. But Ahab relentlessly pursued and was responsible for the life and death struggle, though he saw Moby Dick as the aggressor. Eventually, Moby Dick took on the role Ahab had assigned to whales and rammed the whaling ship, killing all but Ishmael, the lone survivor left to tell Melville’s tale.

(For those who dismiss Melville’s novel as pure fiction, I refer them to the documented story of the whaling ship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.)

Ahab’s view of whales is in complete contrast to my own experience at San Ignacio Lagoon, halfway down the Pacific coast of Baja, Mexico. The five-mile-wide lagoon stretches 16 miles into the desert and provides a calving area for gray whales. Local fishermen feared and avoided the whales until a boatman was approached by a curious “monster of the deep”. The encounter was peaceful. Over time, fishermen found the whales posed no threat and even encouraged their young man to approach the small boats to be petted. Today most of the lagoon is a protected sanctuary for breeding whales. Boats are permitted on only one-tenth of the lagoon, and yet whales routinely voluntarily come to meet and greet the boats. It should be emphasized that no inducement, no food, is offered to the entice of the whales.

I vividly remember reaching out to touch a whale’s head and looking into its huge eyes only a few feet away from my own. We were looking directly at each other, and it was impossible not to see that we were consciously greeting one another. Mothers pushed their young up close to our boat and then watched from a short distance away as we played together. From time to time, these 39-foot, 60,000-pound mammals would pass beneath our boat, gently scratching their backs against our keel and bouncing us about. One flip of their tail and we would have all been swimming, but there is no record of this happening in San Ignacio Lagoon. When out of the lagoon’s safety and on their way to and from feeding grounds in Alaska, the grays keep their distance from humans, knowing only too well the danger we might present out there.

I was left wondering who I would think of as the projector and identifier. Perhaps it was the whales in San Ignacia who presumed humans were well-meaning. Once treated this way, local fishermen befriended the whales. Perhaps it was the other way around, or a mixture of both. The result is a profoundly different relationship between humans and whales. My experience was so awe-inspiring that it reached spiritual dimensions. On a psychological level, I experienced how it is not only the dark underbelly of our souls that can be projected onto others. The lightness of our better nature can also be projected and identified with those we least expect.

At the same time, I saw that increasing my own willingness to identify with others’, even other species’, presumption of goodwill creates a different world. Learning not to fear that which is “other” takes bravery and cautious good sense. However, when it opens new and unexpected relationships, the empathic chambers of our hearts expand beyond the confines of mere reason and the limitations of past experience.

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