In this post I want to clarify the difference between ‘identification’ and ‘projection’ as they will be useful in my task of elaborating the meaning of ’empathy’
Empathy is a psychologically accurate resonance with what is going on for another person. To empathise is to identify with an aspect of the other person.
Identification may be fleeting or enduring, trivial or profound.
In its slighter form, identification involves seeing oneself in another. For example, the reader of a novel identifies with a character – meaning there is an aspect of the character which matches something in the reader’s experience or make-up. “I really identified with the Michael Douglas character in ‘Falling down’ – sometimes I also feel like blowing my top.”
But identification can have a more weighty form. Here’s a technical definition by Laplanche and Pontalis:
Psychological process whereby the subject assimilates an aspect, property or attribute of the other and is transformed, wholly or partially, after the model the other provides.
Identification here means taking in something from the other and being affected/changed by what is taken in – it is an incorporation.
If identification is a taking in, projection is a putting out.
Unlike identification where something in me resonates with something in you, with projection something in me resonates with something else in me.
Again, this can be more mild or more severe. Laplanche and Pontalis:
The subject perceives his surroundings and responds according to his own interests, aptitudes, habits, long-standing or transient emotional states, expectations, wishes, etc.
So, projection can just be imagining aspects of oneself “to be located in some object external to oneself” (Rycroft).
In this respect projection is an inevitable part of perception. Think of the Rorschach ink-blot test where one cannot help but ‘see’ things, thereby revealing not something which resides in the inkblots but something of oneself.
Projection is more pathological when
qualities, feelings, wishes or even ‘objects’, which the subject refuses to recognise or rejects in himself, are expelled from the self and located in another person or thing. (Pontalis and Laplanche)
“I don’t hate Henry, Pete hates him,” or “I don’t hate Henry, he hates me.”
I may be impacted by projecting my hate onto Henry – perhaps I feel fearful around him, or perhaps superior to him – but that change originates in me, not in Henry. To make this as clear as possible let’s say that Henry is Henry V. My paranoid experience has nothing to do with that person (except to the degree that I seek out ‘Henry-evidence’ to prove my projection).
Identification pure is loss of self. In Vonnegut’s story ‘Who am I this time?’ the character becomes the theatric role he is playing. Projection pure is loss of the other – like Narcissus seeing only his own reflection and unable to detect Echo’s calls.
I labour the differences between terms here because when it comes to talking about empathy both processes – identification and projection – are at work and clarity is needed not to mix them up.
To complicate matters a little, empathy – our true quarry – is an identification with which involves some projection.
Charles Rycroft says it is the process by which a person “extends his identity into someone else.”
So empathy involves the reaching out an aspect of oneself (projecting it) and finding something like that aspect in another (indentifying).
Projection is not a loss of self or other, it is a meeting of self and other.
The concept implies that one is both feeling oneself into the object and remaining aware of one’s identity as another person (Rycroft).
Whether empathy is conscious and/or unconscious, thinking and/or feelings will be considered later. For now I find it useful to think of an invisible tentacle reaching from myself and touching an invisible tentacle of another person.
Rycroft adds that the term empathy is necessary because sympathy refers only to shared unpleasant experiences and does not entail the sympathiser retaining his or her objectivity. But these too are topics for another day.
(Projection, identification, and projection-and-identification are quite different matters to projective identification which, though psychopaths employ it a massively, I only mention here as the issue at hand is the nature of empathy.)
Next time: Some types of empathy.