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Posts Tagged ‘projective identification’

Among the many contentious ideas and concepts in psychotherapy is a particularly tricky concept called projective identification. At least, it’s been made out to be a particularly tricky concept; I’m not so sure that it is. Considering the phenomenon the concept is meant to describe, there is a great irony for me in the contention that surrounds it. This contention, I contend, is actually a case in point.

I’m going to rename projective identification as social dysmorphia. This isn’t a purely cosmetic exercise, but a cosmetic rehabilitation exercise. In a similar way to high profile criminals who, having been vilified relentlessly by the press, have their appearance cosmetically altered to allow them a new life, I hope to give projective identification social dysmorphia a chance to start a new life of its own, rehabilitated within the warm glow of gestalt’s field theoretical outlook.

To understand this concept, you simply need to contemplate the phrase: give a dog a bad name.

In google searching this phrase, I was pleased to find an explanation that actually captures my understanding of social dysmorphia very well. It may or may not be accurate, but it fits:

A catchphrase meaning that if one has acquired a bad reputation one will never be able to lose it. The full proverb is ‘Give a dog an ill name and hang him’, which can be interpreted in two ways: ‘If you can succeed in giving someone a bad name you will destroy him’ and ‘If someone has got himself a bad name he is as good as destroyed’.

In short, social dysmorphia is what happens when a person is shaped by a social situation to be something they are not because it’s what other people expect them to be. The idealisation of celebrities is a form of social dysmorphia; no one can live up to the expectations placed on a celebrity, but many celebrities fall into the trap of responding to the expectation. That’s the social dysmorphia trap: intense expectations are placed on someone by someone else, and the person with the expectations placed on them is moulded by them into something they don’t really want to be.

Projective identification has been a problematic concept because it involves the idea of one person (the client) putting disowned emotions into another person (the therapist) such that the therapist is then ‘forced’ by the client to feel something that isn’t theirs. Understandably, psychotherapy has reacted against this psychoanalytic concept because it sets up an easy exit for therapist responsibility: my client made me do it.

However, projective identification does attempt to describe an inter-personal process. When shifted into a field theoretical framework and considered as a social force, it starts to make a lot of sense. Social dysmorphia is the process of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang him (and viewed the other way round, it’s the process of getting a bad name in order to be hanged).

Have you ever walked into a social situation in which you didn’t know anyone but they already had an expectation of who you would be? Maybe you were the relative of someone and were introduced to their friends for the first time (‘oh we’ve heard all about you!’). Or you’ve done/said/made/written something and been introduced to a group of people who are familiar with your work (‘you’re something of a celebrity round here’). Or you simply happen to be placed in a category of person that has attracted the ire of a group (‘your sort ain’t welcome round here’).

The point is, when a person or group of persons have constructed a strong idea of who and what you are, they will project that idea onto you the moment they meet you (hence ‘projective’). And because we are social animals, part of you will respond to the expectations in order to fit in (hence ‘identification’). You’ll be invited to behave in a manner that resonates with the internalised version of you, and on some level you will feel a pull to behave in exactly that way. You’ll find yourself acting in ways that feel alien but that nonetheless you can’t seem to help because you’re not pretending, you’re actually feeling what you’re acting out of. You’re suddenly irritated with people despite being a fairly easy going person, or you’re suddenly really slack about things that you’ve always taken so seriously. And, importantly, you can’t account for the change. It feels like something has been done to you.

That’s social dysmorphia; the simple relational process of responding to expectation. In this way, husbands and wives transform into their spouse’s fathers and mothers; perfectly good managers transform into tyrants; and well-meaning therapists transform into the one person their client doesn’t want in the room.

One answer, of course, is to change your name, change your face, move far away and never come back… except these days you’ll probably get tracked down on Twitter.

An alternative answer is to know thyself. If you can become familiar with what the process of social dysmorphia feels like, and if you can gain a good awareness of the needs in you that serve as hooks for pulling you into those alien feelings and responses, then you can at least see it coming. Co-creation is an empowering idea here. You can choose to not respond in the ways you feel driven to respond in. The only way to then break the spell is to draw attention to it and (here’s the killer bit) hope everyone’s willing to let go of the co-created illusion.

And that part really is a killer, because it’s hard to give a dog with a bad name a better name. Look at how many people come out of young offender units or prisons with more criminal tendencies than when they went in. Or people who are hospitalised for mental health reasons and never make it out again, having swapped a fragmented sense of self for the relative stability offered by their clinical diagnosis.

I’ve often heard phrases like ‘now I’m not a racist, some of my good friends are black, but ‘. Projection is a modification to contact, meaning it’s a way of avoiding being in true contact with another person. Someone with strongly held racial prejudices will project a hostile image onto anyone fitting their idea of that race. When presented with the contradictory reality of the actual person behind the projected racial mask, the prejudices tend to fall away. But often that’s only as an exception to a general rule that remains comforting and keeps the projection alive.

Social dysmorphia is a natural extension of the human urge to be shaped by social forces, to find one’s place in the inter-personal realm. Its co-creation relies on a refusal by both sides to enter into contact, a reliance on the modified contact of projection over the full, vibrant, and often painful contact of two fully subjective human beings making and holding a connection with each other. If I view you as powerful because I find it easier to adopt a position of weakness, and you prefer feeling powerful, then together we will create an illusion in which you are powerful and I am weak. Then I can enjoy the comfort of all my familiar creative adjustments; I don’t have to accept the challenge of realising that I too am powerful and that you too are weak. Better the devil you know after all.

And that’s why I want to rehabilitate projective identification as a concept; because it’s useful, and in a gestalt setting it doesn’t allow for the abdication of therapist responsibility. Instead, we can talk about what both me and my client do to co-create a certain situation. And this is just a magnified version of what takes place in human interaction generally; the therapy situation is the social situation in microcosm.

Making good contact with ourselves, other people, our environment, is an active process. In a society in which much of our energy is focused on sustaining economic vitality, there is often not much left over for putting in the effort it takes to make and maintain contact with other people. Projections are easier to engage with because they are familiar, predictable, and ultimately under our control. And it can be easier to identify with what someone else is projecting onto us because if making good contact takes energy, imagine the energy it takes to challenge the projection that is blocking that contact! Sometimes it’s easier to go ‘fine, if you say I’m bad then I’ll just be really bad!’.

So I offer up a new life to projective identification as social dysmorphia. And if you’re worried by all that give a dog a bad name stuff, remember: you’re not a dog, that’s just my projection!

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