How Needlessly Obtuse Psychoanalytic Language Reduces Social Awareness
Why Words Matter 

Projective Identification as an unconscious defense mechanism

Projective identification is a defense mechanism that propels a person to get rid of aspects of his or her personality while attributing the unwanted, intolerable characteristics to someone else or group of other people. This manner of negotiating with the world is often out of the person’s awareness—it is an unconscious defense mechanism that allows someone who is experiencing unpleasant thoughts or feelings to dispose of them. Though an unconscious response, this does not excuse the behavior.

            Blame-shifting is similar, the difference is that shifting the blame to another person is most often a conscious act. In other words, when blame-shifting is in play, whoever is exhibiting this behavior is usually aware of it. It can be employed to distract or to manipulate.

            Many people are stuck in toxic relationships, whether suffering under the relentless yoke of a bad boss or enduring abusive treatment at the hands of a domestic partner. 

Projective identification and blame-shifting are the unconscious and conscious acts of dumping or shifting those negative feelings onto someone else. 

           On one level, the process works: the person doing the blame-shifting or projecting briefly feels better, and in some cases, the recipient senses something is off but isn’t quite sure what the issue is. When someone is acutely uncomfortable with a feeling, thought, or behavior, he or she projects—or shifts—it onto a target, claiming it was the recipient’s idea, not one coming from the blame-shifter.

           Sound tricky? It is. This exchange is elusive and can stealthily enter your life without announcing its presence. It involves the act of dumping negative thoughts, feelings, or ideas onto someone else, oftentimes without the perpetrator or recipient realizing it. What is clear to the perpetrator, however, is that certain behaviors result in desirable outcomes (an abusive boyfriend gets his girlfriend to stay home; a bad boss sucks extra work out of her associates) which reinforces the behavior pattern. 

            As the perpetrator continues to project onto another person, the victim becomes acutely aware that something is wrong. This person starts to believe these nasty untruths and may begin to feel guilty or bad. In other words, the receiver thinks the perpetrator is right. 

            Bullies often engage in this behavior. Imagine a bully calling someone a loser. Most often, bullies are victims of abuse themselves—perhaps someone in the bully’s life has called him or her a loser. Rather than finding a positive or constructive way to deal with those feelings, the bully shifts those negative feelings to someone the bully has targeted as the ideal recipient of his or her negative thoughts. The person called a loser may feel confused at the outset, but before long, the victim believes the bully is right. When this occurs, the victim is identifying with the thought or feeling that the projector sought to dispel, resulting in the bully gaining unprecedented power over how the victim thinks or feels. 

             If this all sounds like a form of mind control, that’s because it is. 

© 2024. Dr. Karyne Messina.  All rights reserved.

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