Projective Identification: A Theoretical Investigation of the Concept Starting from 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms'1

By Goretti, Giovanna Regazzoni | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Projective Identification: A Theoretical Investigation of the Concept Starting from 'Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms'1


Goretti, Giovanna Regazzoni, International Journal of Psychoanalysis


This paper submits passages from four papers-'Notes on some schizoid mechanisms' (Klein); 'On identification' (Klein); 'Analysis of a schizophrenic state with depersonalization' (Rosenfeld); and 'Remarks on the relation of male homosexuality to paranoia, paranoid anxiety and narcissism' (Rosenfeld)-to a critical reading, enabling the theoretical premises which have produced the current, differing views on projective identification to be traced. These views revolve both around the role assigned to identification in the process and around the meaning of the expression 'to identify oneself with' which in 'On identification' goes from 'to feel similar to, or identical to the other' to 'to take another person as a model'. This legitimizes the inclusion of very different phenomena into the concept of projective identification. The author describes some uses of the term 'projective identification' and proposes the hypothesis that the process constitutes a way for managing otherness and the separateness of the object (be it external or internal, real or imaginary) that can compromise its reality to a greater or lesser degree. Covering a large set of phenomena, the author poses the question of whether it is useful to retain the term 'projective identification'. She proposes an answer in the last part of the paper.

Keywords: projective identification, intrapsychic, intersubjective, confusion, empathy, understanding, know-how, communication, non-verbal communication, verbal actions, otherness, pre-theoretical knowledge

In response to John Steiner (2000), Dale Boesky asked at the Santiago conference if the author was talking 'in a loose, shorthand manner' (2000, p. 260) when he said his patients put their feelings into him.

The question confirms the uncertainty that still surrounds the theoretical construct answering to the name of 'projective identification' and underlines its rudimentary linguistic aspect, even though, as a concept, it has been present in the literature for the past 60 years and adopted into the clinical practice of various theoretical frameworks far from the school in which it originated. Similar uncertainty is posed by the title of a letter by Massidda: 'Shall we ever know the whole truth about projective identification?' (1999, p. 365). While the 'whole truth' is perhaps inaccessible, in all honesty, we must recognize that 'the truth' we have available on the subject is still difficult to define. Almost every author who has written about projective identification has pointed out that the term is used to indicate a vast number of situations: 'too many different things by too many different people under too many differing circumstances' (Kernberg, 1988, p. 93). This does not facilitate scientific dialogue.

This paper aims to give a name and content to the 'too many different things' that can answer to the name of projective identification.

With this objective in mind, the need to turn back and reflect on the original formulations of the concept has made itself felt, also because, as Massidda (1999, p. 365) points out, 'Notes on some schizoid mechanisms' (Klein, 1952a2)-in which the term 'projective identification' is formulated for the first time-rarely appears in the bibliographies of the most important works on the subject and the long work 'On identification' (Klein, 1955) is even less mentioned. So these texts will be subjected to a critical reading, and a short reference will be made to two works by Rosenfeld that are almost contemporary to Klein (1952a), in which the concept of projective identification was clinically used. I am well aware that what we can today understand of its nature from the texts has been influenced by the great quantity of thoughts on the subject in various quarters and from various viewpoints since its formulation.

These texts do not stand out for clarity or theoretical coherence, but for the mass of ideas they contain. Some are merely implicit while others are perhaps not quite clear to their authors either; perhaps felt to be in conflict with prevailing theoretical stances and perhaps expressing conflict between authors (see Massidda, 1999, p. …

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