Ow! ow! hot hot! Here you have it, catch!
Suddenly you are feeling cross, or anxious or guilty about something and yet you weren’t a minute ago. In fact you were perfectly content a minute ago and then your other half started a seemingly innocuous conversation and there was something in how they said it, in the edge to their tone, the way they phrased things, in what wasn’t said explicitly which has left you infuriated, or worried when you weren’t.
You have just been a participant in a game of pass the hot potato.
Or as psychologists call it, projective identification. Let me show you how it is done and then you can spot it in your narc family-in-law and dodge that potato whenever anyone tries to lob it your way.
Everyone has parts of themselves which they are familiar and comfortable with, these parts are the bits we see in casual acquaintances and could list as character traits in our friends. Then there are parts which emerge on closer inspection, we know the dreams, fears or anxieties of our close family and best friends which they don’t reveal to just anyone. These parts are the delightful discoveries that come with greater emotional intimacy. And then there are parts of ourselves which we may only reveal to a close lover or in a secret diary. But what about the parts we find too hard to acknowledge even to ourselves? What about the emotions that are stirred in us which family or society says we shouldn’t have.
In the movie American Beauty Kevin Spacey plays a man having a mid life crisis who has fantasies about his teenage neighbour. This sort of thing is not what we are supposed to feel, it would be viewed in a very dim light by those of a judgemental nature. Where do these thoughts and feelings go if we struggle to hold them in our minds before pushing them out as unacceptable?
Freud, Jung and the other early psychoanalysts all agreed that there is no “disappearing” when it comes to emotions and thoughts of this nature. There is a law of conservation of feeling in operation inside us all. What cannot be faced is suppressed, repressed, diverted and deformed out of our conscious awareness, but it is still there. We feel the residual charge of these emotions which we have squished out of sight whenever our buttons are pressed by someone. Realising that you simply do not like that person but you can’t say why exactly is a sign of unconscious feeling around a trait or characteristic that they possess. Jung called all these unconscious, unwelcome parts of ourselves our Shadow. I read a short introduction to this idea, becoming aware of and working with our shadow in the book “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers” by Debbie Ford which is a great book for anyone wanting to investigate their own shadow parts. Here are some ways in which you may see projection in action…
I hate that Mr Blogs, he is so uptight! Nope, you hate the part of yourself that can be uptight as your chilled out hippy dad always sneered dismissively at people less spontaneous than him.
She is such a slut! Nope, you have repressed your own sexuality to fit into what society thinks is right for women and she reminds you of what you won’t allow yourself to do.
You aren’t thinking about our finances! Nope, you are labelling your partner as financially irresponsible because you spent a lot on a new laptop and this doesn’t fit your view of yourself as a conservative spender.
These are examples of projection, where you accuse someone else of a trait, feeling or behaviour which you yourself need to disown. It is a form of blame shifting. Not me! it cries, it’s HIM!
This is common or garden projection, we all do it. We imagine good qualities we fear we don’t have on people we admire (projection) and bad qualities we fear we do have on our enemies (projection) all of which is completely normal. It is an internal process, an interaction I have with myself which may then colour how I interact with another.
There is a more potent kind of projection which takes this one step further and is sufficiently damaging to interpersonal relationships that for many years it was deemed pathological and indicative of a serious character disorder. Introducing projective identification, projections bigger, badder, mofo brother.
What if instead of accusing someone of having a trait you disowned you were able to manipulate them into actually feeling the emotions you didn’t want AND by watching them live out your unwanted emotion you got relief from those shitty feelings yourself? With the added bonus of being able to criticise the subject of your emotional hot potato game for having those/your feelings in the first place. Woohoo that is a triple whammy jackpot of projection. Ahhhhhhh, sigh and relax as your unconscious mind fucks up those around you so you don’t have to deal with your messy emotions. Look how superior you are to them, those helpless fools grovelling around acting out anger (tut tut) and fear (oh grow up) and shame (well you ARE at fault aren’t you).
If you could write an advert for projective identification it would go like that, but possibly with some very small smallprint on the bottom of the screen which hurriedly mentions the possibility of permanent and irreversible relationship damage and the development of a reputation for emotional abuse.
I’m exaggerating somewhat, projective identification is not always as pathological as originally thought, it was found to be quite common in longterm married partners where part and parcel of the couple bond formed between two people is the managing of difficult emotions between the two partners. In this context, an otherwise functioning, healthy relationship, it works because it goes both ways so each partner benefits from being able to see some of their emotions provoked in and crucially then managed by the other person. It is a way of learning how to manage those feelings you personally struggle with by stimulating them in another and them holding and transforming those feelings into a form you can then take back.
Horrible feelings I can’t deal with –> provocative actions –> those feelings in the partner –> they can deal with it –> containing/holding actions –> I take my transformed feelings back –> I learn how better to deal with horrible feelings
This is a lovely thing, it happens with parents and children, therapists and clients and between spouses. Done fully it leaves both people feeling closer and better understood.
BUT and here’s the big but, it is horribly damaging in relationships where there is no reciprocity. The to-and-fro of this interaction isn’t possible if one partner has a very limited ability to process difficult emotions from others and also has a limited capacity to manage their own feelings or maybe has a large number of emotions which they deem to be unacceptable (they have a limited emotional range) and so find they can’t contain the volume and have to dump on others.
Worse what if you refuse to allow the other to process and return your feelings, what if you point the finger at them and start attacking them for having the feelings you put there?
Worse still what if the emotions you try to transfer onto your partner trigger past trauma so they are now overwhelmed by your feelings in a way they have no hope of coping with?
If this is a regular pattern in a relationship it is abuse, no ifs or buts about it. It is an action which uses the other person’s emotions to manipulate, denigrate, control or harm them. It is abuse.
How does the person with the difficult feelings manage to offload them on another? By clear and identifiable actions. They actually do something or say something knowing (even unconsciously knowing) that it will provoke the other. Consider the example I gave above of projection, you aren’t thinking about our finances! The emotion the person struggles with is guilt at having breached an internal sense of what is reasonable spending and possibly shame from thinking that this somehow makes them a flawed frivolous person.
I feel terrible guilt and shame –> I accuse my partner of spending too much, look aggrieved, mention how hard I work, sag my shoulders, exude a certain hopelessness and plaintively ask why did you do that? –> my partner now feels concern, questions themselves regarding their spending, takes my complaint seriously (after all we are married) and begins to feel bad about their spending –> now they have guilt and I can work on it to exacerbate the feeling into shame. Seeing their reaction allows me to feel self-righteous as I am correcting their silly spending so clearly I must be someone who knows not to be thoughtless with money. I no longer feel bad, my partner feels awful.
Projective Identification and Narcissism
A narcissist has by definition repressed all their feelings of worthlessness, inferiority and shame out of their conscious minds and if for any short time they sense those emotions they react quite dramatically with an outburst of rage at the person or situation which has exposed them consciously to the unmanageable feelings.
It should come as no surprise to realise that projective identification is used repeatedly and frequently by narcissists. If they cannot manage these feelings then someone else must have them. Someone else has to be made to feel worthless, shamed, guilty, a failure, unattractive or whatever it is they are trying to offload.
When your narcissistic MIL makes a dig about your parenting it is so you feel bad and she doesn’t have to.
When she turns her nose up at your new house/haircut/dress is it to make you feel bad so she doesn’t have to.
When she hogs the best seat in the room and dominates the conversations with me-me-me it is so you will feel small and she doesn’t have to.
Do you see?
Once you see it you can fight back. First off take a check on how you are feeling before you meet your MIL. Are you calm today, a bit giggly, kind of chilled out, slightly rushed, irritated or whatever. This is your baseline for measuring any changes as you won’t experience a sudden shift in mood unless provoked by something. Sudden shifts in mood all on their own are generally signs of a mood disorder like bipolar disorder. Then when you are with your MIL notice if you suddenly feel stung by a remark of hers. Once you see it or feel it as that barb strikes pause for a second and sit with that sting. Ask yourself, how do I feel now? Hurt? Belittled? Dismissed? Once you can name the feeling DROP IT LIKE A HOT POTATO.
It’s not your feeling and you don’t have to hold on to it. It’s her feeling she is trying to offload on you. Reject it. Tell yourself mentally this is not my feeling, I am not small/silly/worthless. You don’t actually have to do anything else like give a response. Holding constant in your own emotional state is enough as she will feel from the atmosphere between you that the comment hasn’t stuck. This is the real knack you can develop through practising medium chill with your NPD MIL. If you brace yourself right from the start not to discuss emotive topics and not to rise to any bait just keep it bland and business like she has much less chance of snaring you in this trap.
Projective Identification and Your Spouse
Now your partner has been raised by someone who uses this tactic to manage their emotions rather than model healthy projective identification between an upset child and a loving parent who is able to contain their upset and transform it for them. Your spouse doesn’t know how to do PI correctly. They know how it is used to offload not how it is used to care for another. They are used to squashing down and then expelling their unacceptable feelings and thoughts not managing them themselves. Narcissism in a primary care giver leads to immature or even completely missing emotional coping mechanisms in the adult child. Therefor your spouse will use projective identification on you and may very well be unable to accept your difficult emotions to process in return.
If this is a stuck pattern in your relationship I strongly recommend you see a couples therapist. If your partner struggles to be conscious of their feelings, has a limited range of emotions and shows discomfort when certain emotions are expressed in front of them they should work individually with a therapist to get help with this.
It is wholly unreasonable for you to be expected to carry the burden of your own emotional baggage and difficulties AND process your partners considerable baggage from childhood. That would be a very unbalanced and exploitative relationship. If you can work together to create a safe way to hold each others difficult emotions you will have created an important element of a loving caring relationship. If you are left baring the brunt of someone else’s emotional refuse and become a landfill site for their discarded, despised feelings you will be worn down and your relationship will become damaged by bitter resentment and disappointment.
The absolute key to using PI effectively is to have each partner psychologically robust enough to take on another’s deep distress at one moment and sit calmly and fully present in that feeling, then it can be transformed and taken back. This will never happen with your MIL. You need to spot what she’s doing and refuse to play pass the hot potato.
My therapist told me doing this effectively is really hard, black belt emotional ninja skills, that even therapists have to work on constantly and be aware of as they use it in their sessions to uncover what is going on with their client. Don’t feel like you have to be an instant expert at this. Even if you spot the projection later in the day, or later that week after it has happened you can still use this awareness. Write about it, talk about it and be more conscious of how it works. Soon you will see it quicker and be able to nip it in the bud.