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Projective Identification in Gestalt

The process in relational psychotherapies

The term projective identification is used in gestalt therapy and other humanistic psychotherapies. I sometimes found it confusing because there is a great variety of descriptions and definitions of what this process is. I'm writing this to help clarify how this concept has evolved over time.

The very first person to to use the term projective identification was Melanie Klein in 1946. She was a pioneer in object-relations and psychoanalysis. Melanie Klein describes the process as originated in child development. She defines it as a 'primitive defence mechanism'.

After her the concept has been used widely in psychotherapy.

  • In 1982 Ogden describes the process as ‘a concept that addresses the way in which feeling states corresponding to the unconscious fantasies of one person (the projector) are engendered in and processed by another person (the recipient), that is, the way in which one person makes use of another person to experience and contain an aspect of himself’

  • In 1993, Staemmler puts an emphasis on the 'interaction pattern' and describes this process as a 'communicative function' and puts it at the basis of the therapeutic potential.

  • In the same year, Yontef talks about projective identification as the ability of a person to alienate or disowning certain aspects of themselves, and attributing those to another person.

  • In 1997 MacKewn add something that to me is really important. She says that the therapist does not actually feel the client feelings but similar feelings are evoked. This is a bit of a turning point because it states that projective identification is more than the client 'passing on the hot potato' to the therapist.

  • In 2001 Joyce and Sills describe the concept as 'carrying' the clients disowned feelings.

  • Philipsson (2001) says that this process is 'the therapist picking up feelings that originated in the client' (ibid: 116)

  • Finally in 2010 Dave Mann gives an overview of all these different interpretations. e underlines how projective identification could also be explained as countertransference. However the use of this terminology underlines the co-created nature of the phenomenon. This is the most important and crucial point which makes projective identification different from countertransference.

The definition of the process has become sophisticated and specific. Overall the tendency is to use it to identify something of a relational nature.


Klein, M. (1946) 'Noteson some Schizoid Mechanisms', The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27 (3/4): 99-110.
Ogden, T. (1982) Projective Identification and Psychotherapeutic Technique. London: Jason Aronson.

Staemmler, F-M. (1993) 'Projective Identification in Gestalt Therapy with Severely Impaired Clients', British Gestalt Journal, 2 (2): 104-110.

Yontef, (1993) Awareness, Dialogue and Process: Essays on Gestalt Therapy. New York: Gestalt Journal Press.
MacKewn (1997) Developing Gestalt Counselling. London: Sage.

Joyce, P. and Sills, C. (2001) Skills in Gestalt Counselling and Psychotherapy. London: Sage.

Philippson, P. (2001). Self in Relation. Highland, NY: Gestalt Journal Press.
Mann, D. (2010). Gestalt Therapy. London: Routledge.