Freud and his followers thought that they had discovered the human tendency to project one’s own assumptions and preoccupations onto others. When this happens in therapy, it’s called “transference” (patient projects onto therapist) or “countertransference” (therapist projects onto patient). However, this tendency has been well known, in at least some circles, since ancient times.
Idries Shah gives a tale illustrating this in his “Special Illumination: The Sufi Use of Humour.”
One day a scholar ran into a gang of bandits who threatened to kill him. “I think you are a spy or a police agent,” the chief said.
“No I am not. I am only a poor scholar,” said the unfortunate captive.
“‘How can you prove it?”
“I can read from a book.”
“That’s no good to us: we’re all illiterates. How do we know you will really be reading, and not just making it all up?”
So they killed him. “I didn’t become head of this band of outlaws by believing everything people told me, you know,” said the chief. And his wisdom was, of course, unanimously applauded by his men. (Octagon Press, 1977, p 40-41)
Shah comments: “The attributing of one’s own characteristics to others, so common amongst—for instance—generous and stingy people alike, needs both illustrating and fixing in vivid tale. The brevity of this tale enables one to shock someone out of this habit pattern. The need to point out the syndrome is there because Sufi understanding cannot come to people who are too extensively self-deceived. To imagine, therefore, the other person’s motivation is what is actually one’s own is self-deception.”
Because this knowledge was not generally available in Western culture before Freud—along with others with whom he was in collaboration and conflict, often characterized by their own projections onto one another—created psychoanalysis, it has been incorrectly believed that the psychological projection of one’s own preoccupations onto others is a new discovery, and that only psychoanalysis can bring it into conscious awareness. In fact, it has been perennially known to genuine spiritual traditions, which include methods—for example, this story—for helping learners become aware of this process in themselves and others, and escape being controlled by it.