Introjective identification: the consultant’s instrument or nemesis?

Introjective identification: the consultant’s instrument or nemesis?

Mannie Sher delivers the 2019 OPUS Eric Miller Memorial Lecture.


29 October 2019

Mannie Sher delivers the 2019 OPUS Eric Miller Memorial Lecture.

2019 OPUS Eric Miller Memorial Lecture on the concept of introjective identification in organisational consultancy work.

Systems psychodynamics-oriented consultants are familiar with the fine calibration of feelings and emotions that keep them not far removed emotionally from the client system as to have little or no impact on it, and simultaneously keep them not too closely identified with the client that the consultant cannot think and act independently.

In the Eric Miller Memorial Lecture earlier this year, Dr Mannie Sher argues for an increasing awareness of the concept and dynamics of introjectiveidentification (alongside projective identification) for creating the necessary mental states for consultants (and indeed leaders with their followers) to examine and work through introjective processes and keep their minds as free as possible for receiving and holding clients’ projections.

The lecture emphasises introjection and introjective identification because as processes they are ubiquitous in all relationships. They are the processes we are least aware of, are therefore more likely to occur unconsciously without our realising it and so more likely to interfere in our professional work.

In the exchange of goods, services (or even emotions), this exchange is seldom likely to be felt as equal and fair. One party usually has the upper hand, making the other feel anxious that they could be exploited, neglected or abandoned. So the needy party finds ways of declaring its deficits or needs but without being too open about them because of fears that the other party might gain further advantage if it had a more robust partner.  The weaker party relies on communicating its wants and needs through projecting emotion – playing on sympathy or guilt, expressing anger, avoidance, ducking and diving, repression and denial:

 ‘I don’t really need you or your product/service; you have a need to sell your product/service, so I employ devices to make you do the running around, reducing the price you want to extract from me’, or ‘you ought to feel grateful to me because I am giving you the gift of helping me’; or keeping you tied to me by frequent expressions of disappointment in your efforts and disparaging your services/products and conveying somehow that I will not be disadvantaged by not accepting them. 

This we call the projection of denied wishes into the party capable of satisfying those wishes, equally matched by the introjection of those denied wishes by the party being projected into. 

The concept of identification explains the relationship between leaders and followers in as much as followers identify with their leaders:  ‘take in’ their characteristics through a process of identification and feel ‘that is the person whom I wish I could be more like’. Through introjection, individuals take attributes of other people into themselves and the ‘other people’ become part of their inner world of imagination, hopes and desires.

The organisational consultant is able to receive a cluster of sensations, feelings and discomforts that the client cannot give a name to and is, therefore, unable to think about. So the function of the consultant is containing – being the one keeping in the mind, giving a meaning, making thinkable, the feelings that the client cannot articulate.

In order to fulfil this function, the consultant should be able to offer repeated experiences of containment, as the client’s understanding grows and gradually becomes able to deal with these processes themselves. Organisations, as external realities, have significant impacts on the internal worlds of employees, and this requires consultants or leaders to pay attention to the management’s capacity to promote ‘alpha functioning’, ie being able to contain the primitive feelings and emotions that are inevitable in any system that is undergoing stress and change. 

People in the helping professions need to have a certain natural basic capacity to tolerate this introjection, which is then strengthened through education and training in order to make them sufficiently open to understanding and working with introjections. Through understanding and accepting introjections one becomes aware of the unmet needs, hidden fears, unspoken thoughts of children, colleagues, clients and customers – and one is moved to help them through empathy. 

However, Mannie suggests that toxic introjections can be taken in unconsciously, are identified with and then can lead to both physical and emotional difficulties. There is evidence that organisational consultants and leaders can suffer from high burnout, and Mannie is linking both projective identification and introjective identification as the mechanisms that cause this.

Learn more about the role of organisational consultant, introjection and how it manifests, by listening to the audio of Mannie’s full lecture, downloadable for £10 at OPUS.

OPUS – an Organisation for Promoting Understanding of Society runs an annual international conferenceeach year – the next one is from 15-16 November 2019 at etc Venues in Pimlico, London. The Conference aims to promote fresh thinking in the field of organisational and social dynamics – OPUS wants to promote the merits of reflective citizenship to a wider audience and welcomes your attendance.

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