Projective Identification — Have You Been Used as an Emotional Sponge?
Were You a Highly Sensitive and Empathic Child?
Some children are born with a neurological make up that can make them more emotionally or intellectually intense, sensitive, and more open to external stimuli than the general population.
As a highly sensitive person, you are empathic and perceptive. When you enter a room, nothing escapes your radar, i.e., the subtle odor, the fine details of the furniture. More importantly, you pick up on the emotional nuances and interpersonal signals people send but are not verbalizing. When the energy in the room is tense, you feel it in your body. When someone is upset, you notice it. With your exceptional intuition, your ability can sometimes come across as psychic. As a child, however, you did not have the language to express what you felt, nor did you have the emotional regulation skills. You ended up getting overwhelmed by the constant waves of social nuances and others’ psychic energies.
Your hyper-empathic tendencies make you more vulnerable to toxic family dynamics. Since you think more and feel more, you are more easily affected by your surroundings and those around you. Any passive aggression, hidden lies and hypocrisies are picked up by you, though it usually does not happen on a conscious level. Before you know it, you might have become the family’s emotional caretaker, or worse, the emotional sponge, scapegoat or punching bag.
Childhood wounding does not always take physical forms. As a society, we must begin to recognize the toxic and insidious nature of chronic complex trauma. Dynamics such as scapegoating, gaslighting, chronic neglect and indirect violence leave deep wounds in our collective psyche, yet historically they have been mainly ignored due to their invisible nature.
Emotionally gifted children are more likely to fall into the role of emotional caretakers, they have to grow up too early, too soon, forgoing their innocent childhood to make up for their parents’ limitations and dysfunctions. Their emotional trauma may not be a result of conscious or malicious acts but remain unnoticed for years.
The Empathic Child as the Emotional Caretaker
It is natural for human beings to be influenced by and influence one another’s emotional experience; when we see someone is down, we want to provide comfort and support (Niven, Totterdell, & Holman, 2009; Rime, 2009). We regulate one another’s emotions in most interactions, and it happens more so with those who are intimate to us. Mothers, for example, naturally do this with their babies by mirroring their expressions, joining them in their laughter and helping them calm down when they are distressed (Bowlby, 2008; Field, 1994).
When we attempt to help another person regulate their emotions — either by cheering them up or calming them down, we are engaged in what psychologists call “extrinsic interpersonal emotional regulation” (Nozaki & Mikolajczak, 2020)
When you are highly empathic, you sense and feel emotional nuance more than others, and often you are compelled to make things better even when you are not consciously aware of it. You might have inadvertently and unconsciously, been sensing, monitoring, and balancing the emotional dynamics at home.
- When you sense the energy is low in the household, you make a joke, make a scene, use self-depreciating humor, or put yourself in the “class clown” role to lighten things up.
- When you detect stress in the home, you pack away your own anxiety, put on a brave face and become the calm anchor everyone else count on.
- When you predict the storm of an anger outburst coming, you know to quietly tuck away your own needs and protect your siblings from harm.
- When you see your parents sinking into depression, you diligently help around the house or try to elevate the mood.
You may even silently take care of those around you by altering your self identify. For instance, you disempower yourself, take on the incompetent role to satisfy your parents’ need to feel like they are “good parents.” As a child, you may have psychosomatic pain or eating disorders, although it was unconscious, you have “created” these symptoms so your parents would stop arguing and collaborate.
Inadvertently, you are being used by the family to balance what is out of balance, to digest the trauma that is too daunting for their psyche, and to express the anger that is unnamed. In the long run, you take on the role of being the “emotional regulator” for the whole family.
Projective Identification — The Dumping of Shadows
In some occasions, you take a step further and you actually become the “sponge” for your family’s anger, shame, self- pity, and other unwanted emotions.
If your parents and siblings have emotional baggage that they were unable to process, they could project it outward and make it your burden. It may surprise you that this can happen, but people can indeed force you to process their unwanted psychic materials for them. In psychoanalytic psychology, this is called “projective identification.”
Projective identification is an unconscious mental strategy in which a person discharges feelings and qualities that they reject in themselves onto (and into) others. When one or more of your family members are wrestling with an emotion that frightens or repel them, such as helplessness, envy, self-hate, they would do all they could to disown that part of themselves and lodge it outside of themselves. They then make you experience what they deep down feel but reject. You, as the recipient, would not be aware of the maneuver that has gone on and thought it was “just you.”
For example, your sibling who has deep shame may “split off” that part of herself and dump it in you. She assumes a superior and dominant position, and make you feel inferior and ashamed. She has, inadvertently, made you digest her shame for her. A parent can project a hated part of themselves onto their children, dumping the self-hate they could not process into you. As a result, you grew up carrying toxic shame that was never yours to begin with.
Projective identification is far more disturbing and insidious than a simple projection. When the projection is forceful enough, it eats into your identity. Chronic fixed projections that exist in the family are particularly problematic and erode your sense of self (Minnick, 2019). Through direct or subtle manipulation, they provoke in you an emotional response that brings out genuine identity confusion for you. It is a severe boundary violation through which your mind and body are infiltrated. Analyst Bion (1977) characterizes it as “having a thought that is not one’s own.” Due to their more permeable energetic boundaries, highly sensitive and empathic people are particularly vulnerable to such violation.
The most daunting part about projective identification is that most of it happen on an unconscious, right brain-to-right brain communication level. Projective identification is a remnant of our preverbal selves, bypassing our rational adult selves. Your family members are not conscious of what they are doing. They are acting out of a desperate, under-developed part of themselves. At the same time, you might have been the recipient of projective identification all your life without knowing.
The truth may hurt, but a toxic lie could kill in the most silent and insidious way.
Self-awareness is the first step to waking up. The goal of this work is not to be stuck in anger or resentment, but to courageously face up to the truth, and take one leap towards liberation.
Seeing this dynamic can be a painful task. It challenges your worldview at a fundamental level. The part of you that remains protective of your family feels guilty and wants to stay in denial. The part of you that is used to self-blame is frightened of the power waking up may bring. But our tasks here are not blaming or victimizing. This as an opportunity to come closer to yourself and your truth, and to make room for insights that will help you heal and grow.
As a child, you were voiceless. But you now have the power to walk away.
You can set boundaries, say no. But, more importantly, you can psychologically refuse to take in toxic projections, and reclaim your true self.
Bion, W. R. (1977). Seven servants: Four works by Wilfred R. Bion.
Bowlby, J. (2008). Attachment. Basic books.
Minnick, C. (2019). Splitting-and-Projective Identification. Retrieved February 1, 2020, from http://minnickskleinacademy.com/module-2-2-kleins-baby-core-coping-defensive-maneuvers/splitting-and-projective-identification/
Niven, K., Totterdell, P., & Holman, D. (2009). A classification of controlled interpersonal affect regulation strategies. Emotion, 9(4), 498.
Nozaki, Y., & Mikolajczak, M. (2020). Extrinsic emotion regulation. Emotion, 20(1), 10.
Rimé, B. (2009). Emotion elicits the social sharing of emotion: Theory and empirical review. Emotion review, 1(1), 60-85.
Vangelisti, A. L. (1994). Messages that hurt.
Field, T. (1994). The effects of mothers’ physical and emotional unavailability on emotion regulation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, 208-227.