Transference vs. Projection: What's the Difference?

A couple months ago, I got angry at my therapist. She hadn't done anything to hurt me or offend me or provoke me. I was just mad. So I sent her an email, explaining all the “reasons” why I was angry at her. I clustered those reasons into five paragraphs, all of which started with “I'm angry because….” My therapist sent a kind email in response, thanking me for sending that email to her and assuring me that what I said made sense. When I showed up for my appointment the following week, the first thing she wanted to talk about was that email. She reiterated that the feelings I was having made sense and there was even a word for what I was experiencing. “It's called transference,” she said. Ooooooohhhhhhhh…. That thing. I've heard of that.

Transference. I think a lot of people have heard that term before. For some reason I always confuse that word with another fun psych buzzword: projection. And judging from a brief initial web surfing excursion, I think a lot of people confuse the two. To help me get a firmer grasp on what these terms mean, I read through several seemingly trustworthy web pages about psychology written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and licensed counselors. This is my understanding of transference and projection based on my reading.

Transference takes place when someone transfers another person's qualities, feelings, behaviors, etc., to a different person and then reacts to the different person as if he/she were the other person. (Well said. Or not so much.) Let's try it this way. It takes at least three people to have a transference scenario. So we have three people: I/Me, Present Person, and Past Person. I used to be around Past Person a lot and she always got impatient with Me when I asked questions, so after a while I feared asking her questions because I didn't like being yelled at. Now I hang around Present Person a lot and because I anticipate her becoming impatient just like Past Person, I am afraid to ask Present Person questions for fear she will also yell at me. In a sense, transference is like looking at a person but seeing someone else. The image below depicts a specific instance of transference I experience with my therapist due to previous interactions with my dad.

Illustration of transference: Transferring experiences with my dad to expectations of my therapist.

So even though my therapist is not my dad, and even in my most confused of states I know she's not my dad (the fact that she's female kind of gives that away), I behave as if she is. Because I anticipate her laughing at me if I exhibit emotion around her, I avoid experiencing feelings when I am in her office. This is not the most helpful of things for a person in therapy to do, but at least now I understand that I do it for a reason.

Projection is less complex, in my humble opinion. Projection happens when a person projects their own qualities, feelings, behaviors, etc., onto another person. Whereas transference takes three people, projection only requires two: This time we have I and Other Person. I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and have been a grouchy wretch all day. After an encounter with Other Person, I walk away irritated, complaining to myself about Other Person's grouchiness. The classic example, right? You are acutely aware of the horrible qualities, behaviors, attitudes, etc., of that super-annoying person next to you, only to be informed that it is you who have the horribleness. When you look at that person, you don't see that person, you see you! Horror of all horrors! The image below depicts a possible instance of projection in therapy. [NOTE: I'm not really bitter. I just couldn't think of any of my bad qualities because I'm by myself and I have no one to project them onto right now. Clever, huh?]

Illustration of projection: Projecting my own personality traits onto my therapist.

To manage something effectively, I think you need a basic understanding of what it is you're trying to manage. With my basic understanding of transference and projection, I'm going to try to take note of when I am experiencing these things and learn how to see people for who they are.