Introjection is a term first used by Sigmund Freud to describe how the individual creates and separates aspects of his/her personality. In particular, when a person introjects or goes through the process of introjection, they generally create the superego, the ruling moral force or conscience that helps keep the id (the pleasure seeking aspect of the self) at bay. The ego is the conscious person who is sometimes torn by id or superego and must choose based on the desires of both. In other words, ego is the mediator between two aspects of selves that often pose diametrically opposite positions on what to think, what to do, and how to be.
This may be better understood in layman’s terms if you think of cartoons, or the movie Animal House, where a character has an angel and a devil sitting on each shoulder. The devil is id, the angel superego, and the ego, the character caught between opposing viewpoints. What Freud was getting at though, is that children and even adults use the process of introjection to create this divide, and especially to create the “angel on your shoulder” that helps mitigate its opposing devil.
According to Freud, children introject through the internalization of authority figures’, often parents’, ideas or concepts. Therefore the rules and moral boundaries set by the child are internalized from what the child learns from parents or caregivers. In the early years of school for instance, introjection is not complete and parents may be told a child hasn’t quite learned to “self-govern.” This is not at all unusual. It just means they haven’t completely absorbed the moral code and ways of behavior that are expressed by those around them. There are also conflicting messages in a school setting, since peer influence may cause internalization of very different value systems than those the parents or school would want.
Many psychologists also view introjection as a defense mechanism, especially when children must learn to deal with parents or caregivers not being available at all times. By unconsciously absorbing the parents into the mental process, it is as though the parents are there when they are not. The authority of the parents remains, and their presence is unconsciously felt through introjection. Children may also display a part of this when they learn object permanence, that something is there even when it’s hidden. In some ways, object permanence may help young children make the leap to introjection, so a sense that the parents continue to exist whether or not seen is always felt.
Introjection can be positive or negative, depending upon what aspects a child or even an adult absorbs from others. A child that is negatively parented may be an adult that feels guilty constantly, even when they are not doing anything wrong. It’s very hard to get to the source of this guilt, since it is unconsciously based, and much work must be done in therapy to arrive at unconscious core beliefs that drive the person to think they are doing everything wrong, or not behaving as they should. Self-critique can take over, creating a person who is superego driven.
Positive introjection helps a person deal with separations, even the loss of parents. Many people feel that lost loved ones are still “there” in some sense. To a degree this can be explained by introjecting or absorbing aspects of that person into one’s self. Adults may have the experience of saying something that sounds, “just like their mother” or like their father. This is because, according to Freud, the child has to a degree absorbed the personality of the mother or father, and it is like having a mom or dad drive your thoughts. Again, this may not be a bad thing, but it depends much on what was unconsciously internalized. Even good parents may occasionally make terrible mistakes, and it is sometimes these mistakes which have the most bearing in a child’s unconscious self, rather than the many times when a parent did a good job.
The benefit in considering negative introjection is that with therapy it is possible to rid yourself of negative internalizations that have created great unhappiness for you. Though Freud’s method was one where patients revealed childhood experiences and had them explained so they would understand their roots, a more common analytical method used today is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This aims in a similar direction: to reveal core beliefs that create depression and anxiety, analyze how they drive behavior, and to gradually replace these beliefs with more positive methods of thinking about the self. In a way, the goal of CBT creates a method of positive introjection, a new internalization of a more positive set of beliefs.