Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on May 7, 2010

      Sheldon, age thirty-four, came in saying “you know Dr. Vollmer, I am really mad at you. After our last session, I was in utter turmoil. I kept thinking about what you said and it really bothered me.” “What part of what I said?” I asked. “You know, when you were saying that I was picking girls that were not good for me.” I paused. “I remember that I was concerned about how you were choosing people from the internet to date. I was thinking about how you were thinking about your priorities, and I wanted to explore that with you. I did not say the girls were not good for you, but rather I was curious about your priorities.” Sheldon looks at me “well, I am still mad at you.” I offered an idea: “maybe there are two Sheldons. Sheldon-1 makes impulsive choices that feel good in the moment, but cause problems down the line, whereas Sheldon-2  knows that if he forecasts the future of a relationship, then maybe he will not begin one. Sheldon-1 and Sheldon-2 are at war with each other, so when you came in here yesterday, you were Sheldon-1 and I became Sheldon-2. You then were mad at me, rather than wrestling with the turmoil internally.” Sheldon responded “maybe”.

     Projection or projective identification, as Melanie Klein called it, is a psychological idea where the person splits their ego and then expels part of the ego  on to a significant other. Usually, either really good or really bad parts of the ego are projected outwards. A major consequence of such projections is that it gives rise to paranoid anxieties. People, such as myself in this case,  who are felt to have the negative parts of the self (Sheldon’s self in this example) become persecuting and are experienced by the patient as very dangerous and uncomfortable.

     Sheldon’s expression of his discomfort with me felt to me to be a projection, since I expressed to him concerns about his dating choices which had echoed his own concerns which he verbalized in the previous session. Sheldon seemed to “forget” that and then “assign” me the role of the “mean therapist” who was being “judgmental.” When I proposed that perhaps he was externalizing his internal conflict, he was willing to consider that concept. I admired Sheldon for that. Owning one’s projections is a sign of maturity. Sheldon is still mad at me, but he is also willing to see his anger from another point of view. I am sorry that Sheldon was in utter turmoil after our last session. At the same time, I was pleased he could come in and tell me that. I was also mindful  that we could look at his anger using therapeutic tools. Despite Sheldon’s anger at me,  I am hopeful.

See related post….

4 Responses to “Projection”

  1. Shelly said

    Is it only projection if you (as the therapist) verbalize what the patient had previously expressed, or can it be projection if you try convincing the patient that his choices are harmful from the therapist’s point of view?

    Very interesting blog, thanks.

  2. Perhaps I was not so clear. I was trying to illustrate that Sheldon had two points of view about his dating. One point of view was that he wanted to have fun and that was all that mattered. The second point of view was that he should be careful whom he chooses to date because he could be very hurt. These points of view were split, such that when I articulated HIS second point of view, he was angry at ME, rather than seeing that HE had mixed feelings. Again, I need to think about how I can say it better.

  3. Zac Taylor said

    I know I’m pretty green at this, but I’ve often wondered how to work with projection in therapy — one aspect being that sometimes I’m not sure if it’s projection or transference. I know the differences, but sometimes they can look so much alike. And even they, in a way, they’re same thing just that in one the therapist takes on aspects of the client’s self and the other the therapist takes on aspects of another person in the client’s life. So that projection is kind of like a self-transference.

    So, sometimes I have a hard time knowing if this is projection or transference I’m seeing. And even in Sheldon’s case, it could be that this isn’t so much projections but more that in taking your comment as “questioning” his dating habits, he treated you as one in his life who has hurt him in that way before.

    Anyway, it’s been a question in my mind for some time and been difficult to keep the two separate and even to know exactly what I’m seeing sometimes.

    Take care and thanks for (another) great post.

    • Hi Zac,
      You bring up a good point. The distinction between transference and projection is not clear. By my way of thinking projection is when the patient assigns you the role of the “good” or the “bad” object, during one particular interaction. Transference is a broader category in which the patient brings his past into the present and so the patient treats you in a particular way (eg like their father).

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