Thursday, July 17, 2014

Robert Waska - Klein's Projective Identification and Jung's Participation Mystique

"Contemporary Kleinian thinking includes the idea of projective identification as the core of all transference phenomena and most patients’ internal world of phantasy conflict. Klein’s discovery of the paranoid-schizoid position, the depressive position, and projective identification have set the stage for contemporary clinical understanding of our patients’ struggle with object relational issues.

Jung’s concept of participation mystique  involves a mystical connection, or identity, between subject and object in which the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to a partial identity. It is a transference relationship in which there is an influence directed at the person or thing. As a result, there is an identification with it. Participation mystique involves a non-differentiation of subject and object and hence a primitive unconscious state. This is also a characteristic of the mental state of early infancy and of the unconscious adult mind. Jung’s concept is very similar if not identical to the Kleinian notion of projective identification, especially in terms of the blurred reality between self and other, the influence upon object, and the subsequent identification that takes place. Modern Kleinian treatment utilizes the concept of projective identification as central to understanding human functioning and the moment to moment clinical situation. Steiner states:

[Klein introduced] the concept of projective identification (Klein, 1946), in which splitting is followed by projection of the split-off fragments, which are consequently disowned and attributed to someone else. The motive for projective identification can be so varied (Rosenfeld, 1971) that it is always necessary to specify in detail what the particular aim is at any time. The result, however, although varying in extent, is always a denial of separateness between self and the object, and a consequent depletion of personal resources, as well as a distortion of the object, which is experienced as if it contained the disowned attributes.

One of the most important consequences of the theory of projective identification is that it enables us to formulate the aim of psychoanalysis in new terms. According to this model, the aim of psychoanalysis is to help the patient to achieve an integration and to regain parts of himself that have become unavailable because they have been split off and projected.

Projective identification is not always pathological and with a suitably receptive object can serve as an important form of primitive communication (Bion, 1962). It is a vital part of all human interaction but serious and chronic pathology results if projections become irreversibly bound to the objects they enter and cannot readily be restored to the self.

Betty has elaborated the term by focusing on moment to moment subtle interaction between patient and analyst in which the patient manages to manipulate and shape the analyst into feeling and thinking in certain ways that are congruent with the patient’s phantasies about self and object. These are interpersonal patterns, particular ways of talking, and certain styles of relating that push and pull the analyst to adopt certain feelings, attitudes, and approaches that are enactments of the transference. This understanding of projective identification is very similar to Jung’s idea of the “influence” upon the object that creates certain identifications in the participation mystique dynamic." (pp. 97-98)

Chapter excerpt from Robert Waska (2014). Modern Kleinian Therapy, Jung's Participation Mystique, and the Projective Identification Process, Chapter 4 in Mark Winborn (Ed.). Shared Realities: Participation Mystique and Beyond. Fisher King Press, 2014.

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Full sample chapter available at the Fisher King Press link.


  1. Thank you for writing your commentary. I was happy to see the topic of your discussion concerned Projective Identification. My clinical and personal experience has repeatedly demonstrated its usefulness, both therapeutically and in resolving conflict. I agree with your observation that a similarity exists between Klein’s and Jung’s conceptualization of this defense and am amused by the idea that Jung added an element of mysticism to it. I consider projective identification a mysterious phenomenon. I can’t help but wonder how psychic energy travels from one person to another and no matter how often it occurs, it never fails to amaze me.
    In light of the therapeutic potential of interpreting projective identification, I wonder what your thoughts are about a connection between projective identification and violence in children. Do you believe these concepts apply toward children too? That is, when a child’s unmentalized affect becomes too painfully confusing they are expelled through the process of projective identifaction? Or, when the pathology is severe enough, an inability to reason leads them to commit unthinkable acts of violence, sometimes even homicide?
    I have seen on occasion a child’s mood shift almost instantly from fearful rage to sadness or calm in response to timely mentalized affect interpretations. . I am also aware of the promising research conducted at UCL, Yale, Menninger Clinic and CUNY. With this in mind, how it is that mentalization based interventions remain so unpopular in the states. There’s great deal of discussion about gun control and increased access to mental health services to reduce child violence but I don’t hear about the promise of mentalization as an intervention outside universities conducting research, scholarly journals and books that are written on the subject. Alghough the literature is out there, I don’t see the necessary connections taking place. At least, not on the grand scale they should be. This deeply concerns me. We are talking about innocent children and from the looks of things they simply aren't safe anymore when sent off to school. Is this not absurd?
    To do my part, I will take action and begin publishing my writing about thoughts, knowledge, and my ideas about responding to the crisis with the hope someday it will catch on enough that I can do more. A lot more! In the meantime I would love to hear your opinion on this matter. Thank you and look forward to reading your blogs in the future. Thank you for taking the time to read my questions and concerns. Dr. Jeannine Gohman, Psy.D.

  2. Dear Dr. Gohman,

    Thank you for your comments. To clarify, I am responding as the editor for this blog which occasionally features my writing but more frequently features the writing of other psychoanalytic and Jungian authors. The passage you've commented on was written by a prolific Kleinian analyst/author Robert Waska.

    The concept of projective identification certainly applies to children as the concept was proposed initially in 1946 by Melanie Klein based on clinical observations in her work with children. However, you seem to be linking several process which are distinctly different. Projective identification is an inherently psychological process that was conceptualized initially as a defense mechanism for evacuating psychic contents that are phantasized as being threatening or threatened. It is also conceptualized more recently as means of unconscious communication. In your discussion you've linked this psychological process with pronounced shifts in mood or affect and with violent acting out. Conceptually projective identification would refer to a different domain of experience than shifts in mood or violent behavioral acting out.

    I too feel encouraged by the efficacy of mentalization (Fonagy) based treatments. I wish you good luck with your work at encouraging and developing mentalization based interventions for children at risk.

    Best Wishes,

    Mark Winborn, PhD, NCPsyA

    1. After reading your response, it occurred to that my ideas were spring form a few papers written by Fonagy on the connection between violence and mentalization. Below is an excerpt and link to the first article that elucidates Fonagy's thoughts. I hope it better clarifies what I was trying to say.

      Perpetrators of Violence Against Women: An Attachment Theory Perspective

      Fonagy writes....Why should emotionally charged interactions trigger a regression to nonmentalistic thinking? Schuengel (1997) has recently provided evidence for Main and Hesse’s (1990) hypothesis that caregivers of infants whose attachment is disorganized, frequently respond to the infant’s distress cues by frightening, frightened, or dissociated behavior. The infant’s emotional expression triggers dissociation, a temporary failure on the part of the caretaker to perceive the child as an intentional person. The child comes to experience his or her own arousal as a danger signal for abandonment. It should not surprise us then that fear of abandonment in such children can become a trigger for nonmentalizing functioning; it brings forth an image of the parent who withdraws from the child’s attachment cues in a state of anxiety or rage, to which the child reacts with a complementary dissociative response.

      Thus far, we have skirted around the central implication of this model. I have explained that internalization of the caregiver’s image of the child as an intentional being is central in self-organization. If this image is accurate, the child’s self-representation will map on to what could be called a "constitutional self" (the child’s experience of an actual state of being, the self as it is). When the child feels anxious, the caregiver’s contingent reflection of this anxiety will be internalized and eventually serve as a symbol for the internal state (Gergely & Watson, 1996). The representation will be true to the child’s primary experience. Disorganized attachment precludes the development of such an organic self-image. Internal experience is not met by external understanding; it remains unlabeled and confusing, and the uncontained affect generates further dysregulation.

    2. con't ...There is overwhelming pressure on the child to develop a representation for internal states. Winnicott (1967) warned us that failing to find his or her current state mirrored, the child is likely to internalize the mother’s own state as part of his or her self-structure. The child incorporates into his or her nascent self-

      structure a representation of the other (Fonagy & Target, 1995). When confronted with a frightened or frightening caregiver, the infant takes in as part of himself or herself the mother’s feeling of rage, hatred, or fear, and her image of the child as frightening or unmanageable. This painful image must then be externalized for the child to achieve a bearable and coherent self-representation. The disorganized attachment behavior of the infant, and its sequelae—bossy and controlling interactions with the parent— permit the externalization of parts of the self and limit further intrusion into the self-representation. The dissociated core of the self is an absence, rather than genuine psychic content. It reflects a breach in the boundaries of the self, creating an openness to colonization by the mental states of attachment figures. Disastrously, in the case of some children maltreated later in development, this will not be a neutral other but rather a torturing one. Once internalized and lodged within the self-representation, this "alien" representation will have to be expelled not only because it does not match the constitutional seir, but also because it is persecutory. The consequences for interpersonal relationships can be disastrous.

      This constellation, we believe, is the root of disorganized attachment. Why do we think so? (1) The disorganized behavior of the infant is replaced, during the first 5 years of life, by brittle behavioral strategies of controlling the parent, through either aggression or age-inappropriate caregiving behavior (Cassidy & Marvin, 1992; Main & Cassidy, 1988). (2) The parents experience the child as taking control and themselves as increasingly immobilized, and failing to provide caregiving (George & Solomon, 1996; Solomon & George, 1996). (3) The mothers of disorganized children describe these children as replicas of themselves, and experience themselves as merging with the child. We assume that these experiences are explained by the children externalizing aspects of their self-representation that relate, not to the mother’s representation of the child, but the representation of the mother, now within the child’s self. (4) Precocious caregiving behavior (West & George, in press) is also consistent with the idea that the representation of the mother is internalized into the self. (5) Most follow-up studies also show an association between disorganized attachment and deviant levels of aggressive behavior (Lyons-Ruth, 1996).

    3. The externalization of the image of the mother from within the self-representation makes this representation more coherent. Such externalization can work only if the mother is controlled sufficiently for the alien self-representation to be experienced as external. This strategy may be reinforced, in childhood, insofar as offensive or threatening behavior often compels the adult to resume a position of authority and thus reactivate the parent’s own caregiving system that the parent had temporarily abandoned (West & George, in press).

      In adulthood, disorganized self-representation still manifests as an overwhelming need to control the other. Violent men have to establish a relationship in which their partner acts as a vehicle for intolerable self states. They manipulate the relationship to engender the self-image in the other that they feel desperate to disown. They resort to violence at times when the independent mental existence of the other threatens this process of externalization. At these times, dramatic action is taken because of a terror that the coherence or the self will be destroyed by the return of what has been externalized.

      The act of violence then performs a dual function: to recreate and reexperience the alien self within the other and to destroy it in the unconscious hope that it will be gone forever. Perceiving the terror in the eyes of their victim, they are reassured. Their subsequent pleas for forgiveness are genuine, because of their overriding need for a relationship where this externalization is possible. Let me conclude by considering in some detail the clinical presentation of men involved in partner abuse in terms of the theoretical framework proposed. This is based both on published clinical descriptions and our own interviews with men imprisoned because of their violence.

      In regards to mood shifts I do believe they occur, that is improve, once the unconscious projected feelings are mirrored back by therapist or caretaker. This intervention I beleve can help reduce the potential for violence in the future because they have been processed and experienced.

      Here are a few other resources written by Fonagy and colleagues that help influence my perceptions.



      Chapters on BPD in Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self by Fonagy et al.

      Thanks for responding and consideration of my questions.

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  4. Yes, the inclusion of Fonagy material helps clarify your points. So the problematic cycle is three part: 1) there is the tendency to utilize projective identification to rid oneself of disturbing elements of the self-representational structure, 2) the negative affects associated with those disturbing elements, 3) and the tendency for those disturbing elements to be acted out in a non-mentalized and violent fashion. That's the issue to be addressed. The intervention revolves around the therapist's mentalizing capacity (which Bion referred to as the alpha function and which is similar to Jung's idea of transcendent function and capacity for reflection). The therapist "loans" their mentalizing capacity to the child in the form of relational presence and interpretation (which can include mirroring). Through this "loaning" of mentalizing capacity, the child's mood has the potential of being stabilized the possibility of restructuring of self-representations has an opportunity to be activated.

    Mark Winborn, PhD, NCPsyA


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