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Understanding Interpersonal Dynamics to Reduce Emotional Eating

One reason we get stressed (then engage in mindless eating or obsessing about food and weight) is due to how personally we take things in relationships. To avoid doing so and to see the larger picture, the key is understanding the intricacies and subtleties of interpersonal dynamics. Two important dynamics are simple projection and the more complicated, projective identification. Don’t get scared off by these terms. Once you understand and recognize them, relationships will be less upsetting.

One example of projection is when we take a trait we dislike or are not comfortable with in ourselves, deny possessing it, and disdain it in someone else (who may or may not have this trait). This is why cheapskates look down on others who are tightwads, bullies accuse others of being oppressors, and people who refuse to be wrong will often accuse others of always needing to be right. When someone tells you you’re any one thing, the first step is to ask yourself honestly if this is true. If so, there’s probably not a case of projection going on. However, for example, if someone insists you always need to be right and you’re the one who jumps in to apologize every time, projection is afoot.

Projection is considered a primitive unconscious defense mechanism which we all may employ. The key is to know yourself inside and out, along with having self-compassion for your faults, and never assume that what someone says about you is true. Verbally abusive people often use projection to make you feel badly and them feel good. The only way out of this dynamic is to identify that projection is going on: to recognize that what you’re being accused of is likely to be a trait of your accuser, not you.

Projective identification (P.I.) is more complicated and has to do with the fact that opposites often attract. Although positive P.I. occurs, negative P.I. tends to be the more troublesome dynamic, especially in couples. Opposites attracting is actually functional in terms of evolution, as it produces more trait-balanced and, hence, likely-to-survive progeny than if two parents were more similar. However, what’s good for evolution does not necessarily feel too terrific when you’re caught up in ongoing dysfunctional interplay.

Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, who first coined the phrase P.I., says this about it: “In projective identification parts of the self and internal objects are split off and projected into the external object, which then becomes possessed by, controlled and identified with the projected parts.” In more simple terms, someone who engages in extreme thrift will often partner (through marriage, work or friendship) with someone who is a spendthrift. In this case, the thrifty person has split off from self the desire to spend, and finds it objectionable in her or his partner. Similarly, the free-spender splits off thrift from self and disdains it in his or her partner. The more one person clings to a persona, the more the other takes on its opposite and round and round we go.

There is more to this dynamic than I’m describing, but hopefully my explanation is enough for you to see that the power struggles you have are often built upon projective identification. You see in someone the traits you don’t care for and they see the ones they don’t care for in you. Yet, oddly enough, you’ve unconsciously chosen each other precisely because of these differences. We make these kinds of selections, in part, so we can keep specific cast-off traits close to us but not a part of us.

Here’s how to use your understanding of projective identification to improve relationships and reduce reactive eating. When you’re in a recurrent squabble with someone close to you about lateness/promptness, neatness/messiness, keeping to/breaking rules, taking risks/being cautious, etc., stop and think about whether P.I. is going on. Then take a minute to value that aspect of yourself which you’ve been trying to keep far away from you, the same quality this other person has. Recognize the value of the trait causing your discomfort because, in truth, it has as much value as its opposite which you’ve been holding onto for dear life.

As you improve at recognizing projection and projective identification, you’ll become more detached and won’t get as caught up emotionally in relational issues. You won’t take everything that someone says to you so seriously and as the absolute truth. By standing far enough back to unscramble and understand ongoing dynamics, you’ll be using more higher-order thinking and less automatic emotional reaction. And that can’t but help you feel better about yourself and support your making more sensible decisions about food.