Empathy, identification, projection, projection-and-identification (and projective identification)

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.

Team Beige
, originally uploaded by Robyn Gallagher

Mirror Egg Reflections, originally uploaded by LollyKnit
jellyfish, originally uploaded by Cherry Pi

16 thoughts on “Empathy, identification, projection, projection-and-identification (and projective identification)

  1. Carl Jung: every identification is an introjected projection.

    I don’t think the definition of projection as me resonating with me gets it quite right. There is always a hook ‘out there’ that the projection is hung on.

    I think it would be clearer to say that the projection is the reaching out and empathy the meeting.

    Not meaning to be picky but the process of introjection is being ignored here.

  2. Evan, I hate to be pushy but I’m really curious about your view of Husserl’s intentionality as it relates to empathy.

    And I agree that given the role assigned to introjection in identification literature, it ought to be discussed. I’m unfamiliar with Jung’s comment, and I’ve not had time to refresh my memory on G. H. Mead’s and others’ writings.

  3. evan -That’s a nice clarification. I’m trying to think of an exception. Say I hallucinate something; miht that be an instance of ‘putting’ something out has no relation to the world? Or is there always still a hook?

    Still, projection as the reaching and empathy as the meeting is better. Thanks.

    Is this what the Jung quote is getting at, though? He seems to be saying something closer to what I said – I put something out there and then take it in again having attributed it to the outside. I can’t see anything about external hooks here. (Is that your point that Jung’s not quite right?)

  4. My understanding of Jung, which may be far from good, is that there is some hook which we project on to. That we then make this part of ourselves in some way.

    (It can be quite weird – hair colour or the way someone walks for people and just about any quality for objects. A personal example: I had never been much interested in architecture until I saw a picture of Gabriel Poole’s Butterfly House in a newspaper. I was immediately transfixed. A few days later I realised that my reaction was quite unusual. So I wondered what had hooked me – it was the feeling of light and openness. I was in love at the time. I still like the Butterfly House and it helped me understand what feeling in love was like.)

    I’m not sure about a hook for the introjecting part of the process.

    I don’t think Jung had a sense of a hook out there. Jung seemed to demonstrate almost no interest in the external world (though this may be just me being bitchy).

  5. Husserl as I understand him, and I don’t find him easy to read!, discovered that consciousness is intentional. This led to difficulties about the ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ that, at least as far as I can tell, he never solved.

    My way of saying it is that “consciousness is consciousness of [something]”. Husserl’s idea of suspending our interest or judgement and giving a ‘pure description’ doesn’t happen. Even the quest to be objective is an interest that is part of our experience.

    So it seems to me that intentionality is part of empathy in all sorts of ways. Maybe bringing in Husserl just complicates it unnecessarily.

    It seems unlikely that a psychopath, with their desire for power, will experience much empathy – they don’t have this intention.

    This is pretty abstract stuff. Happy to keep talking about it, I’d like to help sort it out more if we can. I don’t think there can be many more important topics than empathy.

  6. evan – If I extrapolate your Butterfly House example to a person, it can, then, happen that one has a powerful experience re that person which, though it attaches itself to a hook (the shape of their hands, or whatever) is not empathic in that it is not accurately picking up something about that person’s state. Right?

  7. evan – Thanks for the thoughts on Husserl.

    Queries: If “consciousness is consciousness of [something]”, and consciousness involves intentionality, why does it follow that the psychopath doesn’t have this intention? Doesn’t a con artist really attend to another with the intention of conning them. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick.

    Unless we define ‘intentionality’ very broadly indeed, I can’t see why it is necessarily part of empathy. (But that might be because I’m defining empathy very narrowly indeed.)

  8. Evan, Thank you. I think Brentano is easier to understand than his pupil. His “intentional inexistence” seems paradoxical only to the 19th century objectivists. I was curious if you were thinking of consciousness and empathy as “transitive” as it were. Dr. Steve, I think, would argue that empathy has both subject and object. I think your linkage to intentionality is good, and especially so in light of your wanting to get the 19th century objectivists off your backs. The intentional inexistence of Bretano is readily understandable from the perspective of human information theory–and from the standpoint of Peircean semiotics, in my reading, as the representamen.

    If we turn for a moment to Dewey, he argued the psychological stimulus is a sensory response, not a objective event. Hence, all we have of any object is sensory representation. So, when we look for the intentional object, it truly is an “inexistence,” a representation. I think Searle is right about that, though I think his locus of meaning for communication in intentionality is a tautology.

    If we think about empathy in terms of intentionality, then we understand more clearly that the object of empathy is a representation, a intentional inexistentence. If I really care about another, I will give their representation the greatest latitude of variance from my own subjectivity. I will try in every way I can to adequately represent their uniqueness and distinctness, not only from me, but from the context (all the rest of the experiences I have of their surround) in which I experience them. The accuracy of my perceptions of the represented other is constantly being checked by my acting out on my information about them and the responses these actions receive.

    Let’s suppose–as often happens in romance–my perceptions are overly colored by my idealizations of the other person, which in turn are very flattering to the other person, whose reponses are very positive to my idealizations–which also often happens in romance. So, until the shoe pinches, I’m thought to be a very empathic lover, and feel my self to be very sensitive to the loved one’s needs and moods.

    Except that when I expect consistency with my perceptions that don’t suit the other person’s self-representations and real-life needs in the relationship, I’m a insensitive lout who will not allow the other to be their own person. Was my empathy inaccurate? It was what it was. Did the other person misrepresent who they were? Don’t we all?

    I think empathy is intentional, but like all intentionality, essentially “mindless.” It is “about” or “directed toward” representations, Brentano’s phantoms, with about the same mindlessness as we pick up a plate to wash it in that well rehearsed routine. It is involuntary, and like falling in love with an image–say, a movie star or rock star–truth and reality are irrelevant. In that sense, it’s a liability. On the other hand, it’s also the primordial agent in bonding and identification–which is another way of saying, it’s the content of introjection.

    That’s why getting over the death of a loved one–or the death of a love relationship–is so hard. All that introjected “stuff” that has no “outlet,” nothing to play to. Your partner–especially of a life-time–is really a good part of you; perhaps as much as 50% of your daily behavior, praxis, is directed toward that person. Suddenly, it’s all gone.

  9. dm-smith and evan – Thanks for this discussion.

    dm-smith, I’m not sure I get exactly what you mean that empathy is essentially ‘mindless’. Is this related to you point that it’s involuntary?

  10. Involuntary in the sense of not being consciously willed, and mindless in the sense of not consciously attending to the state itself. At the time we are empathizing with someone else, our attention is on them, not our feelings.

    The feeling of empathy is mindless in the sense it is devoid of the usual subject-object distinctions and analyses we usually associate with mindful activity. Attention is less directed toward objects and more toward the flow of action. I’d call the state in which we participate in movies mindless. Also, consider a tennis player responding to an opponents move. He doesn’t have to analyze the top spin or where he will put the ball, he just does it. Thinking about such activities is much too slow and awkward. It’s like dancing; if you’re thinking about where you’re feet are going, you’ll step on someone’s toes, your own or your partners. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described flow experiences very well, though he’s discussing “peak experiences” while I’m describing the everyday variety.

    This is the mode of information processing in which I believe empathy, the actual feeling of empathy, occurs–where subject-object contradistinctions are absent.

  11. Very interesting , Dm-Smith and DrS —

    Is there a distinction between the empathy one feels for another’s emotions vs. another’s physical sensations?

    It seems to me that many people are “empathic” when watching sports, but are not as empathic when it concerns an emotional movie.

    Are these two different forms of “empathy”?

    I think mirror neurons perhaps relate more to physical aspects of empathy. Vasopressin and oxytocin perhaps are needed for emotional consonance (or resonance or bonding).

  12. swivelchair: An interesting observation and I think you’re right. Perhaps we need a “kinetic empathy” and an “affective empathy” distinction–or perhaps action vs. contemplative. There’s a considerable interaction between vision and proprioception. I was in one of these super-wrap-around cinemas showing off its capabilities with a helicopter sharply ascending, dropping and swerving and a person in front of me threw up. Motion sickness isn’t all semi-circular canal sloshing. It seems to go the other way as well, at least for me. When I take off from an airport at night and after the ground lights are out of view, I look to the front of the climbing plane and see “tilt.” Tilt relative to what? To gravity tugging at the seat of my pants and my semi-circular canals, I guess.

    So there are some physiological bases, as you suggest, involved in physical empathy, and I’m sure, in the other sort as well.

    But the empathies can work together. When a couple have had a fight and said all there is to say, they still go on talking, trying to overcome the psychological distance they feel. But words won’t work. However, if they do something together, something that keeps them in close contact (but not sex!) they can reduce the distance. Forcing themselves to go for a walk holding hands seems to work very well. When holding hands while you walk, you almost have to have the same walking cadence, have to share the rhythm and that seems to help overcome the psychological distance. I knew a couple that used to play tennis with a vengeance after a spat. So maybe it’s just the action burning up the residual bad feelings.

  13. Evan – great quote from Jung!! just great.

    Now where would a sociopath who “borrows” or “steals” pieces of your personality or mannerism or even your personal history and then blending it into his own and speaking it as their “truth” fall?

    I called it “reaching down my throat and having my soul pulled out at the root” 😉

  14. Thank you for this clarification. I have a new housemate who describes herself as an “empath.” She is uncomfortable in crowds and is strongly affected by violence in movies. She is also attracted to “alternative modalities,” such as crystals, reiki healing, past life regression, and shamanism. However, she does not seem particularly tuned in to other people’s feelings — in fact, she seems fairly oblivious to moods in the air, and she is not an attentive listener. My guess is that what she describes as “empathy” is really “introversion.”

    I found this blog because I was doing a search for definitions of “empathy” and “projection.” When my housemate moved in a couple of months ago, she brought with her a cat that suffers terribly from stomatitis. This is her first cat (as an adult), but I am a seasoned cat owner and noticed his suffering immediately. This cat’s condition is a problem for the household — my two cats have been acting out, urinating inappropriately, etc., and I would like to see my housemate’s cat properly cared for so he can be introduced into the “family” and we can rebalance things. My housemate, however, has a resistance to western veterinary medicine, and would rather “cure” her cat with reiki, Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and psychic communication. She has informed me that her cat is very spiritual, does not want to have his teeth extracted, and has told his communicator that, because my house has a better aura than her old apartment did, he’s much happier here. In the meantime, the cat has been hiding in the back of the closet for almost three months and is slowing and painfully dying without veterinary treatment. If he were a human child instead of a cat, I would be contacting child welfare services.

    I believe that what she is telling me her cat wants is, really, what she wants.

    I don’t think that it would be helpful to discuss the distinction between “empathy” and “projection” with her, but it will at least help me think about her situation more compassionately. I really hate watching that poor cat suffer, though

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