Our sons used to fight like hell as kids. One fine day, I told our younger son to think of his big brother as someone who truly cared about him in million ways, with true examples peppered if he could carefully count those. I explained how if you think of good things about your big brother, he will walk into those shoes of what you expect him to be. Conversely, calling names, and getting angry will lead to more of the same between them. I went as far as to teach both our boys about what projective identification means. Mistake? I don’t know. Back to it later.
I used to resent being a student of psychoanalytic theories when I was studying in Melbourne, Australia. I used to think folk are making a big deal of what is a simple life. As always the case, as I grew up and looked back, I picked up some fabulous ideas from that phase of my training. One of the most powerful concepts that I love to this day is ‘projective identification’ by good old Melanie Klein. Basically, when two people are really close, they can force their way of thinking on to others. They expect others to behave or think in a certain manner, and the other person enacts it. It can be good, bad, ugly or ideal. They can project all the bad things they feel on the inside on to others- close to them- as though they are that bad thing. Or all the good stuff. It is a powerful way of communication. You can say it is primitive defense.
So, as a mother, it is quite possible that I empathize/d with my boys to develop an intuitive, synchronized understanding. So much so that, if I praise them, they called me out saying, “Mom, you are using projective identification.” I am perhaps guilty as charged. As natural as my feeling might be, there is an element, I suspect, of my desire to see awesomeness in my boys. While I call it simply, “believing in them,” who knows if I have actively worked on molding them. It might have been passed on to me by my Mom. Don’t we all do that, or want that for our kids?
What I want to share with all the beloved families I interface is this- find that inner goodness, find that trust in yourself. Then you can expect the same things in others around you that you project and expect to see. The main reason I remembered to write this is not simply to teach projective identification and/or talk about our boys- though that inspired me with an idea. I am thinking of some powerful ways to see how we can rescue young people’s lives. I saw last week a handful of youth, wanting to escape from living, feeling hopeless and helpless with any small (or ‘perceived big’) stressor. Parents can never recover from such a loss of losing a child if it ever occurs. I am thinking, what if parents are coached to truly believe in strengths of the children, and relentlessly show that mirror of belief to their kids that they can survive, thrive and excel? Not in simple words but by reasoning it out each time with what, why, and how.
I think it is a long process of development. It requires curating each day’s minute experiences to build children’s inner strength layer by layer. Escape is not an option. They need to believe in prevailing and thriving. Not only you as parents, but hopefully the peers around your son or daughter act as a comfort blanket with mutual intuitive ties among them. Projective identification is powerful process that also breeds jealousy, bitterness and anger in relationships. Imagine your children being sucked into bad intense relationships that are projecting these intensely bad vibes. One way to avoid that is to first develop inner strength to be able to give strength to others and guard our children from hurtful and harmful relationships through guidance in their tender age. Helping them to respect themselves to stay away from negative vibes and steeling themselves with formidable friendships is essential. All of these insights need to start very early. Peer relationships seem almost as important as those within the family, especially in teenage to offer a sense of support and intimacy.
Oh, by the way, our boys don’t fight anymore. They are not only fond of each other, but wove strong lasting friendship webs around them. I feel ok even if they tease me about my projective identification. I reassure all parents that sibling rivalry is a good practice to figure out negotiating relationships and that there is bright light at the end of the tunnel as kids grow up. It is going to be more than ok!
p.s. It is incredibly enjoyable being a mom and a Child Psychiatrist. Folk ask me if it helps or hurts. It helps.