For Sigmund Freud transference is a psychological dynamic where mostly unconscious ideas and feelings associated with past figures or events are displaced onto current figures or events, thereby distorting current relationships.
Charles Rycroft notes that Freud initially saw transference as inappropriate and an unfortunate aspect of the psychoanalytic relationship. But Freud later recognized it as an unavoidable and, in fact, useful aspect of psychoanalytic therapy.¹
While the narrow definition of transference refers to distortions generated by the patient and thrust onto the figure of the analyst, counter-transference refers to distortions created by the analyst and falsely attributed to the patient, these also based on past experiences.
For Jung, transference is positive and negative, making it a significant interpersonal factor among friends, coworkers, lovers, family and marriage partners. On the plus side, transference is a special type of projection that may link human beings in an almost mystical bond of meaning.²
While at the extremes transference may exhilarate or enslave, according to Jung it is a natural dynamic in which the psyche strives for genuine individuality and wholeness. Jung calls this quest for individuality and wholeness the individuation process.
When projections are made conscious and stripped away, Jung believes individuals are faced with the task of relating in a more mature, realistic manner. This arguably is a never-ending process by virtue of our inherent human limitations.
In pop culture the idea of projection appears in Bruce Cockburn’s song “Tell the Universe” (2006):
You’ve been projecting your sh** at the world
Self-hatred tarted up as payback time
You can self destruct–that’s your right
But keep it to yourself if you don’t mind
¹ A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 168.
² Today it’s becoming increasingly common to talk about other people’s “energy.” Some believe this can transfer and linger, especially from intimate contact like sex (See, for instance: https://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mczlk8Accw1qer5v4o1_1280.jpg. But the term “energy” might be misleading. Sensitive people might perceive not so much energy, but rather, a spiritual environment (technically called numinosity).