The lesson for today, girls and boys, is on “projective identification.” (Hey, pay attention. There may be a quiz.)
You’re probably aware that you can unconsciously “project” attributes (bad and good) onto others—whether lovers, therapists, bosses, political leaders, etc. But if you can get those others to “identify” with your projections, things can get really interesting. They can start believing that they are dumber, weaker, more flawed than they really are—or wiser, stronger, more virtuous—depending on your idealized fantasies!
This projective identification is well-known to therapists who must be forever vigilant against it, so they don’t buy into their patients’ imaginings of them and begin behaving out of character.
It’s less-understood in the workplace where executives, managers, and supervisors can internalize their employees’ fantasies about them, good or bad. If organizational leaders don’t have a strong sense of self to begin with—an effective boundary against the onslaught of projections hurled at them—they’re especially vulnerable to such transference. (In the self-help lit they’re sometimes called “wounded leaders” because of their unresolved personal issues.) The raging boss or supercilious executive are typical examples.
I first began to witness projective identification (though I didn’t know the term at the time) in my rock & roll years when I witnessed close-hand the personality changes that many musical artists underwent on their road to success. Some of it seemed pretty harmless—and maybe healthy—up to a point. I saw a teenage Jackson Browne gain in confidence as audiences and critics lauded his precocious songwriting gifts. As he began to buy into the mythology being spun around him in Southern California, he rapidly gained in stature—and charisma. (I remember thinking at the time that this “charisma thing” might just be a mirror, reflecting back the audience’s fantasies of him.) The skinny baladeer once ignored by everyone became a larger-than-life Don Juan poet. Whether he eventually abused that power is up for debate.
I saw a similar dynamic taken to obviously dysfunctional extremes by rock bands who started to believe their own press and act out the “desperado” roles that were expected to play. (The movie Almost Famous captures this pretty well.) Often these megastars had fragile personalities to begin with, which were manipulated by the projections of their fans. (“Wounded leaders” applies here too.)
But the most destructive form of projective identification I’ve seen has occurred not in business or therapeutic circles, and not in the entertainment field, but with spiritual leaders and gurus who are thrown off by the adulation heaped upon them by followers, giving them delusions of omnipotence. In a spiritual community such rock star status can be particularly dangerous—for men especially—because they’re expected to toe the line against sexual promiscuity (if not practice total celibacy) while female acolytes kiss their feet (often literally). Spiritual literature throughout the ages is rife with warnings of the seduction of such power. But they don’t mention that followers are fully colluding in this entrapment by laying their projections on the leaders.
Bringing this back to business, here’s an essay question for you. Do you have a leader or boss who seems to be acting out others’ fantasies—for better or worse? (Less than 100 words please.)