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Projective Identification in Abusive Relationships [Episode 280]

Projective Identification in Abusive Relationships

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Abusers will project their own inner identity and issues onto their victims. Let’s talk about what that means, how it impacts a survivor, and what you can do about it. 

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NATALIE: Welcome to Episode 280 of the Flying Free Podcast. Today, I want to talk about a new term I learned recently that is used to describe a dynamic I experienced in every abusive relationship I have been in. I’ve talked about this dynamic in general, but I had no idea that it actually has a name and has been studied and talked about in the social sciences. And I have not directly focused on this dynamic in any podcast episode prior to this, so let’s go.

I heard about this term when one of the members of my Flying Free Sisterhood group posted a YouTube video in our “Recommended Resources” section on our private forum. And I’m going to post a link to this YouTube video in the show notes.

But I want to point out that this is the kind of synergy and help that we experience every week in our forum. There are hundreds of members, all of whom have their own journey, but collectively they bring so much wisdom and insight and help to the table. If you would like to be part of something like this, you can learn more about what the Flying Free program has to offer you by going to joinflyingfree.com. I purposely make it very affordable for almost everyone, but the value you get on the back end is priceless.

Okay, so the term is called “projective identification,” two words that describe two things that are happening in an abusive relationship. Now, these things can be happening in non-abusive relationships as well on a smaller level, which I’m not going to get into here. But when these two things are happening on a regular basis in a pattern, this becomes abusive, and you’ll see how in a minute.

So the first term is “projective.” So think about a film projector projecting an image on a screen. Whatever is on the film over here gets stamped on that screen over there.

How it works in relationships is this. Let’s say that person A over here is angry, but they don’t want to acknowledge their anger because they believe it’s bad and they can’t have any badness inside of them, so one of their coping mechanisms to avoid seeing that they have a shadow side is to give or offload their anger to person B over there. Not by coming out and saying, “I’m angry at you because you did such and such” — which would actually be a healthy way of acknowledging, owning, and addressing anger — but instead by projecting their anger over here onto person B over there.

And one of the ways — this is especially true for people who are passive-aggressive — one of the ways they project their own anger onto person B over there is by pricking and poking person B until person B gets angry. And then person A can look at person B in triumph and relief because now person A no longer owns that emotion, but they have offloaded it onto person B. So that’s the projection part — the “projective” of the term “projective identification.”

Now we’re going to talk about the identification part. That’s what person B does. Once the anger has been projected from person A over here onto person B over there, person B has a choice to make. They can accept that projection or identify with it — that’s the identification part — or reject it. And if person B grew up accepting a parent or caregiver’s projections, meaning that they learned to view themselves and their identity through the eyes of the adults around them — which is what every child does, by the way — then they are most likely to accept or identify with an abuser’s projections as well. Not because they want to, but because they have been programmed or wired from childhood to do so through no fault of their own. Just an automatic thing that happens within them when someone projects themselves onto person B.

So person A projects their own inner identity at that moment — that’s the “projective” part of this term — onto person B, who then takes on that identity, identification. All right: This is a very discombobulating experience for person B because the interaction started out with person B feeling one way and seeing herself one way, but after the altercation and projection, she feels completely different and sees herself differently. She wonders how she got there. She wonders who she is. And over time, when this happens countless times in a relationship, she loses her actual identity and takes on the identity that person A has projected onto her.

Now, this happened to me growing up with a couple of family of origin members and in a small number of dysfunctional friendships over the years in my adult life — not all, thank God — and in situations where I was bullied as a child and in my former marriage of twenty-five years and in my interactions with church men and women who had bought into my ex-husband’s projections and then helped him in continuing to project that image onto me.

When person A and all of their buddies are doing this to someone else, they can then take on the role of the victim. See this? Person A then gets to be the victim. They have projected their emotional and psychological violence onto person B, and once person B has bought in and is reflecting back that image, then person A becomes person B’s victim.

Now, is any of this rooted in reality? No. It’s a psychological game that gets played to protect the abuser and villainize the victim. You may have heard the term DARVO. It stands for deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. That’s another way of looking at this that might be more familiar to survivors who have been in the survivor community for a while.

Anyway, this is why I was so confused and kept asking, “Am I the problem here? Is it really me?”  Hence the title of my book, Is It Me? This is why I kept predictably reacting in the same exact ways every time, and then predictably apologizing and begging for forgiveness and trying harder to do better.

But the problem wasn’t with me. It was not originating with me. I was not the angry, rebellious, you-know-what that they projected onto me. Yes, I was angry at what they were doing to me and I was definitely rebelling against it, but this only served to solidify in their minds their own pathological projections.

None of those people have the emotional capability for self-awareness or integrating their own shadow self parts with their “good” self, and so their go-to way of coping was to offload their shadow parts emotions onto someone else. And unless they have gotten help and are working on this, they are continuing to do it to this day to anyone that gets close to them.

Once I got out of these types of relationships and once I was no longer surrounded by these types of people, I no longer experienced this projective identification on this kind of pathological level. And that gave me enough space inside to rediscover who I really am and live into that identity instead of the one my abusers wanted to project onto me. I have not had to play the role of the angry, rebellious, you-know-what for many years now, and it is such a relief.

I’m surrounded by humans who don’t have a habit of projecting their own shadow side onto me, but who actually embrace the fact that they have parts of themselves who show up well and parts of themselves who struggle more, and they take responsibility for all of their parts and have integrated them into their understanding and self-awareness.

Even my own kids, most of whom are young adults, have the capacity to integrate these different parts of themselves, and they don’t shy away from acknowledging or taking responsibility for a poor behavior when it shows up. We have a little sign on our kitchen wall that says, “It’s okay to make mistakes. It is not okay to pretend we didn’t or to make someone else responsible for those mistakes.”

So let’s say that you’re in a relationship where someone is doing this to you on a regular basis. You can’t do anything about their role. Remember they are the “projecting” part in the term “projective identification.” They can and will continue to project their own pathology onto you — their own anger, their sadness, their mental health issues, their cheating, their lying, their mistakes. As long as you are in close proximity to them, they will see you as a good, white screen on which to target their projections.

So, where is your power? It’s in either accepting those projections or rejecting them. So let’s say your husband comes home from work and remarks about the messiness of the house and how you’re lazy and you’re neglecting your family. Well, you had other priorities that day and were unable to pick up, or maybe you were at work all day too.

He is projecting his inability to take responsibility for his part in your partnership in helping to pick up. In other words, he’s projecting his own laziness and apathy onto you. He is projecting his inner frustration and angst about things, maybe, that happened at work that day that annoyed or angered him. And he is projecting his inability to be attentive to his family and their needs by saying that you are the neglectful one. Projecting, projecting, projecting. That’s what he does.

You can hold up a blank screen and accept it, buying into his narrative that you are the lazy, irresponsible, neglectful one, and a slob, and then you are mortified because you are actually the opposite of all these things. But because you believe him and give his projections credibility and hold up that blank screen to take them so they can land there, now you are feeling in your body as if you are actually that person he says you are. It’s so confusing. It’s discombobulating, disorienting, and literally terrifying.

So what do you do when you buy into his universe and his narrative? You defend yourself. You argue back. You try to explain yourself. You apologize. You quickly try to pick up and you try to do the opposite of whatever he says that you do. You exhaust yourself trying to prove to yourself and to person A that you are not the person that he says you are.

Ladies, that is everything that person A wants and needs. His projection worked! You identified with it and person A is satisfied. Person A will do this again and again happily because he has found his perfect scapegoat. It’s a perfect blank screen. He knows he can just project onto you and you will take it.

In the Bible, a scapegoat was an actual goat that the people would put their sins on and then send it out into the wilderness. Your husband puts his sin onto you and then exiles you. Sister, God did not create you for the purpose of being someone else’s scapegoat.

So what’s the alternative? Well, instead of identifying with your husband’s projections, what if we closed the screen — just rolled it right up so that the projections couldn’t land? Let’s say that your husband comes home from work and remarks about the messiness of the house and how you are lazy and neglecting your family.

So what do you do if you don’t want to accept his projections or his narratives? One simple thing you can do is just to say, “Your opinion is noted.” This is a great line that Tina Swithin came up with — she’s the author of Divorcing a Narcissist: One Mom’s Battle —and this is one of her favorite go-tos. “Your opinion is noted.” It helps you stay true to who you are as well as acknowledge that he has the right to have his own ideas, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe them.

It’s like if a five-year-old said to you, “You are a stupid face.” Would we wring our hands and believe our face was stupid? No, we don’t give credibility to the projections of a five-year-old, and you don’t need to give credibility to an abuser who has zero capacity for being an adult who takes personal responsibility for his own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. He is a five-year-old in a grown man’s body.

Then, you can walk away and not feel any internal pressure — I mean, you might be getting external pressure — but you won’t be feeling that internal pressure anymore to pick up, apologize, defend yourself, or otherwise try to prove your own worthiness. Because you know, really know, that what he just said to you is what he, deep down inside, knows about himself. And that is his work to do with a therapist, and it has nothing to do with you.

Now, all of this is easier said than done, and it will mean rewiring the parts of you who are so used to taking on the projections of others. If you want to do this kind of work with me, my program is tried and true. It works, and it will help you become the kind of person who is able to keep your movie screen to yourself.

Think about it. What could life be like if you were no longer internally controlled by the beliefs your abuser projects on you? What could life be like if you could be yourself, like yourself, fully accept yourself, and even truly and deeply love and protect yourself? Join Flying Free and find out. Just go to joinflyingfree.com. You can learn all about it and complete an application there.

ANNE: Hello, my name is Anne. I am now a member of Flying Higher. I joined Flying Free back in 2021. I first stumbled upon Natalie’s public podcast thanks to a wonderful woman in my social media network who shared some of her podcast episode, and my interest was piqued and I  listened to the podcast and then I read the book and then I kept listening and I eventually joined Flying Free.

Joining the Flying Free Sisterhood was the real catalyst to help me understand the reality that my life was, that I was in an abusive relationship emotionally, and Flying Free helped me to learn and name and recognize what was also physical abuse. It gave me the strength and the belief in myself to take care of myself and my kids. I just don’t think my life would be where it is now without it. I’m so grateful for the path that Flying Free helped me start to navigate, and then the strength and confidence in myself to continue that journey.

I have been divorced for a year and a half — filed for divorce two and a half years ago — and I am self-employed. I’m supporting myself and my four children, I’m paying my mortgage, I am happier than I’ve ever been. I’m stressed in all the great ways these days instead of the awful ways. I’m just living a true, authentic, adult life, setting an example for my kids that I never thought I could set. And I’m so grateful for the support and the teachings that I received in Flying Free and I’m now receiving in Flying Higher. Thank you so much.

"Natalie’s podcasts are a weekly staple for me and after over 260 of them, NOT ONE DISAPPOINTS! The healing from that first drop of water in my bucket is now overflowing with an endless supply of living water. My life is full and rich and I am finally living! Thank you, Natalie, from the bottom of my heart."
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The Comments

  • Avatar
    Correna Locke
    June 20, 2024

    This was so good and eye opening. Explained very well. I definitely grew up with this and 30 plus years in my previous marriage. Sadly, I now see that I do it to myself. Then I have all the bad feelings. I definitely need to work on this.