How Needlessly Obtuse Psychoanalytic Language Reduces Social Awareness
By Karyne E. Messina, Ed. D. © 2019
A number of important terms known only to a handful of psychoanalysts could help make a real difference in the lives of many people if only they were a part of everyday language. One term that falls into this category is projective identification (1), which was initially used by Melanie Klein in 1946 to describe a theoretical, unconscious process that happens in infancy. Later, Klein used this concept to describe a certain type of defense mechanism that occurs in adulthood.
Today, the term explains a number of maneuvers and can emerge in surprising ways that often are not obvious. One example goes something like this: A person who is acutely uncomfortable with a feeling or thought can have a need to “get rid” of it so he or she will project it onto someone else. The receiver of someone else’s projected thought feels that something odd has occurred but doesn’t know quite what it is. The ‘sender,’ on the other hand, feels relief. He or she often also has a fantasy of keeping track of the receiver to stay connected to the dispelled thought. It is a way for the sender to monitor or control the receiver. In the mind’s eye of the projector, it is as if he or she and the receiver share one mind rather than having two separate minds.
This mechanism occurs in bullying. For example, a bully might call someone a “loser.” The person receiving this projection initially may feel confused. However, before long he or she can come to feel like a bona fide loser. When this occurs, the receiver is identifying with the thought or feeling that the projector sought to dispel. The twist in this dynamic is the likelihood that at an earlier time someone made the bully feel like a loser. Since that is not a comfortable feeling, the bully wants to get rid of it, so he or she projects it onto another person.
Another example frequently happens on social media. One girl who has a bad reputation may claim that another girl has had sex with lots of boys in school and is promiscuous. If this is posted on Instagram or Twitter, various issues can arise. Initially the labeled girl may only feel stunned by the accusation. However, when she is shunned, laughed at and dropped by groups of friends, the victim can begin to question herself. She might start to feel badly about herself, which can be a part of depression. This adolescent may also begin to experience feelings of hopelessness culminating with thoughts that can include some type of self-harm. Making suicidal gestures or even attempting suicide can result in some cases when severe depression emerges.
This scenario can be thought of as one form of projective identification, but does it clarify anything to know this term? Does the label help? Knowing the terminology more than likely is not beneficial. However, understanding the process itself might be useful to the victim of the attack, especially if it was easily recognizable and was associated with words that are familiar.
For example, if the mechanism in question were to be defined as a ‘one-mind process,’ and was known to represent the thinking of only one mind or one person, even if the original idea was eventually voiced or copied by many, might we all be better served by being more informed about what is occurring?
Another word that could help people communicate if only it were understood is mentalization. Unfortunately, it is unknown to most people yet it is an extremely important concept, one I have called the “two minds process.” It applies to two people or many who are able to share thoughts and feelings in a respectful way. It is a concept that could be very helpful if people only knew what it meant.
Why not focus on promoting the idea that it is important to allow people to have their own opinions without judging? If this concept were stressed in schools, parenting courses, conferences, on websites and in printed material of all types, the meaning of the word “mentalizing” might not be shrouded in mystery. Better yet, I suggest that we try to promote the principles that are inherent in mentalization without perpetuating the use of the word itself. If the public knew what it meant to ‘mentalize,’ we might all be better off. Why continue the use of a word that was coined over 2000 years ago that is so vitally important to all people but is known to only a few specialists? Putting its meaning in the public eye or redefining it in simpler terms seems important, especially given the less than transparent state of affairs in many parts of today’s world, where respecting the views of others seems to be a thing of the past.
Being able to mentalize or in common parlance, have a philosophy that incorporates ‘two minds,’ seems to be something often read about but practiced with much less frequency than at any other time in our recent history.
I contend that mental health professionals would be most helpful if we updated powerful words and concepts that could allow people to understand what is happening to all of us today in our divisive and divided world.
Perhaps years ago, when esoteric ideas could be bandied about within psychoanalytic circles without having a charge to describe and define them more clearly, projective identification and mentalization fared well as words from the annals of history. However, the world has changed. I think it is incumbent on all writers, authors, journalists and therapists to help clarify what is happening as much as possible while using clear and precise language so everyone can understand the destructive forces that are in play. We cannot afford to let a “one-mind process” prevail. We must start to demand that our leaders engage in a “two minds process” (2) which incorporates a respectful way of communicating between two people or among many. Our survival may depend on it.
(1) While projection identification was originally considered to be an unconscious process, some psychoanalysts now think it can to be a conscious process (Zinner, 2001).
“A recent surge of interest in the concept of projective identification has stimulated me to put on paper my observations of the current status of this concept and some of the controversial issues projective identification has generated. In addition, I shall propose the following: 1) Projective identification governs to a significant extent all of our perception of and behavior towards others, and 2) there is a line of development of projective identification that spans a dimension from primitive to mature forms. Where any individual lies on this dimension determines whether his/her use of projective identification is pathological (defensive and problematic) or adaptive” [This quote came from a personal copy of a paper that was published in 2001].
(2) I proposed this term temporarily as an addition to or replacement for the words mentalization and mentalize in non-clinical settings so the public can learn about the power of the concept.
Allen, J., Fonagy, P. & Bateman, A. 2008. Mentalizing in clinical practice. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Andrews, T. 2017, June 1. Trump revives “Crooked Hillary” nickname. Clinton fires back with “covfefe.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2017/06/01/trump-revives-insulting-crooked-hillary-nickname-on-twitter-clinton-fires-back-with-covfefe/?utm_term=.41666dc9b68b
Klein, M. (1946). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27, 99-110.
Zinner, J. 2001. A developmental spectrum of projective identification, pp. 28–34. In Proceedings of the International Conference of the Society of Psychoanalytical Marital Psychotherapists. Oxford, UK, Society of Psychoanalytical Marital Psychotherapists.
Dr. Karyne Messina
is a licensed psychologist and a certified psychoanalyst. She is a supervising and training analyst at the Washington Baltimore Center for Psychoanalysis. She is currently on the medical staff at Suburban Hospital—Johns Hopkins Medicine—in Bethesda Maryland. She was formerly the Director of the Meyer Treatment Center at the Washington School of Psychiatry. Prior to her work as a psychologist and psychoanalyst, Dr. Messina was the Director of Continuing Education for Women at George Washington University. She has recently written a book published by Routledge entitled: Misogyny, Projective Identification and Mentalization: Psychoanalytic, Social and Institutional Manifestations. Recent article: Dr. Karyne E Messina: Making a Difference forWomen and How they Are Viewed in Society . Empowering Professionals (Vol. 19)