Saturday, December 29, 2012

70. Forms of identification

 In the preceding item I proposed that while empathy is needed for trust, identification can go too far, in that it may lock up or freeze the relationship, by being blind to conditions that require the relationship to be ended or revised. One reader of this blog, Fransje Broekema, indicated that there might be different forms of identification. I think she is right, and here I pick up that point.

Identification can become possessive or imposing, robbing the other of the freedom to go its own way. Fransje mentioned projective identification, where one imposes one’s own morals, rules or solutions on the other. This may be out of genuine concern, as a parent towards a child. Here projective identification is also protective identification. From emotional attachment and a feeling of responsibility it may be very difficult not to do so. That is why in puberty children sometimes have to take drastic action to wrest themselves loose to gain independence.

While in projective identification one tries to let the other align with oneself, it can also go the other way around, in submissive identification where one aligns with the other. This may be mimicry out of admiration or idolatry.

It can also be defensive identification. Here one identifies with someone who exerts negative power, in enforcement, coercion, or terror. A classic example is ‘Father Stalin’. His exercise of arbitrary, paranoid terror was too much to bear, and rather than facing it for what it was people convinced themselves that ‘the little father’ must have his good reasons for what he is doing, and his victims must somehow have deserved their fate. Out of this perverse identification, some people trusted Stalin to the end.

A similar case is the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, derived from a hostage situation in Stockholm, where hostages started to identify with the hostage taker, not only to placate him but also to convince themselves that he is in fact benevolent if only one understands his motives. This may have the beneficial effect of mollifying the hostage taker.

While empathy is necessary for trust, it is not sufficient, even though it should not go as far as identification. Feelings and words of empathy must be followed by commitment in deeds. It is not enough to say to someone in distress ‘I know how you feel’, but one should follow up with further discussion and suggestion what the other might do and how one might help. But one should not let this slide into projective identification.

I should also mention that empathy is not necessarily benevolent. By understanding how the other thinks, and ‘what makes him/her tick’, and perceiving the feelings of the other in reaction to one’s deeds, one is also better able to do him/her harm. Violent psychopaths can be very sensitive, very perceptive of feelings and emotions, apparently tender even, sometimes.


  1. Maybe identification is only a stage in growing up. If so it can be free of positive or negative judgements. Only if you get stuck in this identification there may be a problem. Having different kinds of identification, what about the combination of a couple of these and the process of wandering around stages of development? There could be elements of good and bad in all these combinations, but I think good and bad are quite primitive ways to simplify our world. Noud

  2. Noud, thank you giving a comment again. Of course different forms of identification can follow upon each other and there may even be combinations, as in the projective identification of the parent that is protective, and therefore in part is certainly 'good'. How about 'good'and 'bad'? I would not readily speak of good or bad people, but we can speak of good or bad actions. Can we not speak of the 'good life'? How can we speak clearly about the good life without such judgements? Remember that identification, in going beyond empathy, leaves little difference between self and other and thereby can yield effects like lockup, imposition, submission, unfreedom, and the like. Should we not call that 'bad'? Then what should we call it? 'undesirable', perhaps, or 'not to be advised'? What do we gain by such obfuscating language? Or is everything as good or bad as everything else? I would not accept such extreme relativism because it kills all debate, and robs difference of opinion of its productive, beneficial force.

  3. It certainly kills a lot of debate. Maybe that's one of the reasons they are debating less in eastern countries. We like black and white, but there are many shades of grey, even in modern bestselling books.

  4. Noud, I think debate is good. In a debate between black and white shades of grey will often emerge, but better accepted, understood and assimilated than without the debate. I am not sure that there is less debate in Eastern countries. The creative tension between opposites clearly appears in Eastern philosophy, as in heaven and earth, ying and yang, nature (in daoism) and society (in Confucianism). But there does seem to be more integration and unity coming out of it, as in neo-Confucianism. In a unification of subject and object, theory and practice, substance and function, to name a few. And that is good. If I may say so.

  5. The ying and yang sign is an interesting example of my remarks .☯. Black and white are embracing each other and in the white part there is a black spot and in the black part a white spot. I certainly agree with you that shades of grey often emerge. Thank you for your reactions.