September 28, 2021 — 12:32 PM
Have you ever met someone who refuses to take the blame for their wrongdoings, and even goes so far as to spin it back around on you? This common defense mechanism is known as deflection, and it can be tricky to spot in the moment. Here’s how to tell when someone is deflecting, plus what to do about it.
Deflection is a defense mechanism that involves redirecting focus, blame, or criticism from oneself onto another person, in an attempt to preserve one’s self-image. This inclination toward shifting blame can be seen in anyone from young children to grown adults.
According to psychiatrist Gail Saltz, M.D., people use deflection as a way to get someone else “off course,” so to speak, if they’re being criticized and feel the need to defend themselves. Typically, they’ll deflect onto the person calling them out, though they can also shift blame to an entirely separate person. (For example, a child getting scolded for making a mess might say, “Johnny started it.”)
“The person who’s doing the deflecting may or may not be using some denial themselves in defense of whatever’s making them uncomfortable or anxious,” Saltz notes. She adds that in some cases, the person is aware of what they’ve done “and very specifically, consciously, does not want to have to defend themselves, make a change, or deal with conflict.”
Great relationships start with great sleep.*
One of the most common examples of deflection is when someone changes the subject in the middle of an argument. Specifically, if their behavior is called into question, the deflector will redirect the conversation to focus on something the other person did wrong. This allows them to escape having to take accountability for their own actions.
That might sound like:
- “Oh, yeah? Well, what about the time when you did X?”
- “I only did X because you did Y. So really it’s your fault.”
- “I can’t believe you’re attacking me like this. You’re being nasty.”
Deflection and projection often go hand in hand. Projection comes down to taking something about yourself that you don’t like, whether an emotion, a behavior, or a quality, and putting it on someone else.
For example, say someone has cheated on their significant other. In an attempt to preserve their own self-image, deny the wrongdoing, or even somehow justify it, they may accuse their partner of cheating. In doing so, they’re projecting their own guilt onto their partner.
Other common examples of projection include things like:
- Not liking someone and therefore insisting they don’t like you.
- Having body-image issues and therefore criticizing others’ bodies.
- A child tattling on another child for something they both did.
- Trying to get out of a relationship by claiming your partner’s the one pulling away.
Gaslighting and deflection are also commonly coupled in conflict. As clinical therapist Alexis Sutton previously told mbg, a partner that blames you or outside factors when conflict arises is often gaslighting. It’s used as a means for avoiding accountability and involves directly denying the thoughts, feelings, and overall reality of the other person.
Some examples of gaslighting phrases—that are also examples of deflection—include:
- “You’re being dramatic.”
- “You’re blowing things out of proportion.”
- “Stop being so sensitive. It wasn’t that big a deal.”
- “You’re too emotional. You can’t keep doing this.”
In some cases, a deflector will opt for an outright verbal attack of the accuser, lashing out with no real concern for the repercussions—simply focused on getting the attention off themselves. In some cases, they do this with the use of either projection or gaslighting, while other times it’s just the deflector letting their true colors show in a defensive moment. In any case, a telltale sign of a deflective attack will include the word “you.”
Examples of a verbal attack include:
- “You think you’re so much better than me, huh?”
- “You’re lucky I even put up with someone like you.”
- “I don’t care if that’s what you think because you’re an idiot.”
The psychology behind why people deflect.
So, why exactly do people deflect? Simply stated, the ego is fragile, and some people’s egos are more fragile than others. As mentioned, even young children instinctually figure out how to deflect in an attempt to please others and protect themselves. The idea is that the individual is trying to preserve their own image.
Saltz says there are many, many reasons people may deflect. Perhaps they have low self-esteem or anxiety, or the particular subject is very triggering for them. Maybe they’re the kind of person who “needs everything to be rosy all the time, and they don’t want to see that there’s a crack in the relationship,” she notes. “From a psychotherapy standpoint, deflection is primitive and not particularly healthy for a relationship intervention on that person’s part.”
How it relates to narcissism.
Not to say everybody who deflects is a narcissist, but every narcissist will deflect. According to licensed marriage and family therapist Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, lack of responsibility is a flaring sign of a narcissist, which is what deflection is all about.
As she previously told mbg, narcissists want to be in control, but they never want to be responsible for anything negative. “When things don’t go according to their plan or they feel criticized or less than perfect,” she explains, “the narcissist places all the blame and responsibility on you.”
For someone highly narcissistic, Saltz notes, “any questioning of them, anything that might reveal any weakness, would be too uncomfortable for them, and they may deflect for that reason.”
How to respond when someone is deflecting.
If you’re in a situation where it feels like someone is deflecting, Saltz says you can try to address the situation—but you’ll want to use “I” statements, as opposed to “you” statements, as the latter will put them more on the defensive. For example, rather than saying, “You’re deflecting” or “You’re not listening to me,” you would say, “I’m trying to talk to you about this because it’s important to me that we’re on the same page.”
Once you’ve shared that you’re hurt by their deflection, it’s OK to give them some time to mull things over. After all, Saltz notes, in the heat of the moment is when a deflector will have the hardest time actually listening.
But if you give them time to think about their behavior and they’re still not owning up, Saltz says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Some people simply can’t accept when they’ve done something wrong.
If deflection is a recurring issue in your relationship around areas that are non-negotiables, such as raising children or finances, Saltz says you have to recognize when your own boundaries are being crossed, and when to walk away.
Deflection within a relationship can only go on for so long before the problems fester, get worse, and create anger and frustration for the person who’s on the receiving end, she adds. “It’s not good for the person who’s experiencing deflection, but it’s also not great for the person who’s doing the deflecting if they want to maintain that relationship.”
Deflection is a defense mechanism that we all understand from a young age, but that doesn’t make it OK. Deflection is manipulation, and if it’s coupled with other toxic relationship behaviors, it may be necessary to remove yourself from the situation.
While we may all unconsciously deflect once in a while, it’s often a consistent behavior for narcissists and other toxic people. If deflection is a persistent issue in your relationship, that’s not a relationship with strong communication, which is what healthy relationships are all about.
If you are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1. For anonymous and confidential help, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224) and speak with a trained advocate for free as many times as you need. They’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also speak to them through a live private chat on their website.