Why We Make Others Feel Bad: understanding projective identification

Apr 4, 2024


Art Credit: Jano Tantongco, jano.tantongco@gmail.com


How do we invisibly transfer our emotions to others, and what magic lies in revealing this unseen dance?

Projective identification, first highlighted by Melanie Klein through observations of infant-mother interactions, is a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory. It describes the process where an individual unconsciously projects disowned feelings, desires, or self-aspects onto another, manipulating the relational context to evoke these projected feelings or behaviors in the other, thus creating a validating feedback loop.

This concept is fundamentally relational, involving a dynamic interplay between the projector and the receiver, who often unwittingly embody the projected content. Unlike simple projection, projective identification affects relationships on conscious and unconscious levels, pressuring a receiver to participate actively in the projection process.

Klein showed that infants use projection to cope with emotional turmoil, externalizing overwhelming feelings to achieve emotional regulation. The caregiver’s response to these projections significantly influences the child’s emotional development and capacity to manage internal conflicts later in life.

The complexity of projective identification involves the projector disowning and attributing aspects of themselves to another, unconsciously inserting them in the other person and pressuring that person to express these traits or emotions. This nuanced process often occurs outside both parties’ conscious awareness, making it a subtle and intricate psychological maneuver.

Misunderstandings of projective identification arise from its subtle nuances and the challenges in direct observation. Its application across various psychoanalytic schools has led to diverse interpretations, sometimes diluting its original meaning and depth. Misinterpretations can oversimplify Klein’s foundational work, applying infant observations directly to adults without considering the complexities of adult psychological life.

Jungian psychology broadens the discussion, situating projective identification within the collective unconscious and archetypal patterns. This perspective recognizes it as a personal and collective phenomenon, emphasizing its potential for individuation and deeper self-knowledge by integrating projections.

In therapy, projective identification offers a unique opportunity for intervention. Therapists can identify and understand patients’ projections, guiding them toward self-awareness and resolving underlying issues. The therapeutic relationship becomes a space to explore and alter projective identification patterns, facilitating personal growth and healthier interpersonal dynamics.

Therapists must maintain a balance of empathy and detachment, avoid countertransference, and use insight into projections to promote psychological growth. This work enhances interpersonal relationships, emotional intelligence, and empathy, improving communication and deeper connections.

Understanding and managing projective identification within communities can foster empathy, dialogue, and mutual understanding. Reflective practices and dialogue about projection experiences can transform conflicts into opportunities for growth. Cultivating a culture that values vulnerability and authenticity helps mitigate its adverse effects, enhancing communal harmony and individual well-being.

Projective identification is a critical psychoanalytic concept that illuminates how individuals navigate emotional life through projections. It has profound implications for therapy, interpersonal relationships, and community dynamics, offering pathways to more integrated and authentic ways of being and enhancing our capacity for empathy, connection, and psychological resilience.


I am walking in the streets of the small town I grew up near. It is a completely dark and moonless night. There are no streetlights and no lights in the windows of the houses. It is also very quiet; I can’t hear any human life. I feel like something terrible may have happened. I find myself near the evangelical church my family attended as a child. I try to enter the side door, which leads to the church basement. It’s locked, and I can’t get in. While fiddling with the handle, I begin to hear the panting and clicking toenails of a large dog walking in the street close by. I can’t see it because of the darkness. As I sense the dog getting closer to me, it starts to growl deeply. I am very frightened, and I wake up.


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  1. Sharon

    Hi, I listened to this episode with great interest. I was a victim of projective identification for several years in an intimate relationship. It was profoundly confusing and debilitating. I found your discussion about this phenomenon to be confusing and without a clear message about just what projective identification is. When Lisa spoke about being made to feel clumsy even though she isn’t usually and then actually being clumsy around the person, or when she said, “It is like being put under a spell,” I thought, “Yes, that is what it is like.” When Joseph said it was “strange,” I also thought that was accurate. When Deborah spoke about her client, I thought she missed the mark completely and confused things. What she described was not projective identification at all. maybe it was projection or transference, but not PI. For me, a key to identifying projective identification is that the perpetrator becomes free of uncomfortable feelings or identity as the victim is infused with it. The perpetrator seems totally fine, while the victim is angry, confused, ugly, mean…or whatever the perp is attempting to offload. I think it is important to understand this point and differentiate this from simple projection. Perhaps we could say that PI is a profound form of gaslighting. Gaslighting is encouraging someone to believe something that is not true, but PI is profound because the perp injects their self-hate and allows the victim to believe it is theirs. As a victim, the experience was to feel so confused and internally toxic to the point of being disabled. When I could get away and differentiate and feel my natural self again, it was like a purification of turbidity. So, I wanted to comment also because I felt that the intensity and damage of PI was not expressed. It seemed like you all left it at “we all do this all the time,” like it’s no biggy. For me it was big. When my relationship ended, I was left feeling like a toxic waste dump – really. I could only heal when I really understood what happened to me.

  2. Gregory Duncan

    I enjoyed the episode and the role-plays. Don’t forget about dual projective identification!

    There is also something called the SET method (Support/Empathy/Truth), which is good for interacting with people when they are very reactive.


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