The healthiest and most mature reaction we can have when confronted with our own mistakes is to stop, think about the situation, and apologise. However, this can be a difficult and uncomfortable thing to do, which is why we often end up shifting the blame away from ourselves. In psychology, this is called deflection, and it’s one of the most common defence mechanisms.
What is deflection?
According to Sigmund Freud, people use 12 defence mechanisms to protect themselves from difficult, anxiety-inducing thoughts. Deflection is one of these mechanisms.
Deflecting typically appears in conflictual situations, when a person is confronted with their mistakes. Instead of accepting responsibility and facing the uncomfortable situation head-on, the deflectors will try to move the focus from themselves, usually by passing the blame onto someone or something else.
Everyone resorts to deflection from time to time, especially in childhood. However, when someone uses deflection constantly and refuses to accept the consequences of their own actions, deflection can become pathological and affect not only the mental health of the deflector but also those they interact with.
Examples of deflection
Even though we may not always be aware of them, examples of deflection can be found everywhere in day-to-day life, in all types of relationships.
Deflection in romantic relationships: If you find out that your partner is cheating on you and you confront them about it, they deflect the blame, telling you that they only cheated on you because you did something wrong or didn’t offer them enough attention.
Deflection in friendships: When telling your friend about one of their negative behaviours, they get defensive and belittle you instead.
Deflection between family members: After explaining to a parent that their actions hurt you, they say that they didn’t do anything wrong and that it’s your fault for being too sensitive.
Deflection in public: Politicians who are questioned about their lack of results can pass the blame to their predecessors.
Deflection at work: A deflecting colleague will try to avoid looking bad in front of superiors and shift the focus on another employee, saying that a bad outcome is actually their fault.
Why do we deflect?
Although no one likes it when a person deflects, it’s important to remember that deflection isn’t an inborn trait – it’s a learned habit. We first learn deflection as children, when we lie about our actions to avoid getting in trouble, and this is actually a normal part of development.
As adults, we can use deflection either consciously or unconsciously, and, in general, we deflect because we don’t want to feel bad and take a blow to our self-esteem. After all, it’s easier to blame a colleague for an unsuccessful project than admit that it was our fault and risk looking bad in the eyes of a supervisor.
We can also deflect when we’re not yet ready to face certain emotions and memories that others bring up. This isn’t because we want to harm them, but because we want to protect ourselves. However, deflection can also be used as a manipulation technique by people with narcissistic personality traits, who exercise control over others by demolishing their self-esteem.
Signs that someone may be a deflector:
- Nothing is ever their fault. Whenever something goes wrong, they pass the blame to someone else.
- They don’t know how to deal with conflict and look visibly uncomfortable talking about their mistakes.
- Every time you try talking about their mistakes, they shut down or tell you that you misinterpreted things.
- After many unsuccessful attempts, you may end up avoiding confrontation altogether because it makes you guilty or frustrated.
Deflection and narcissism
The main difference between deflection as a self-defence mechanism and deflection as a manipulation technique is that narcissists lack empathy and, when they deflect the blame to the person who accused them in the first place, they try to increase their control over them. Quite often, deflection is followed by an attack because narcissists love being right all the time, and they’ll quickly start accusing you of things you may or may not have done. In some cases, narcissists can go beyond deflection and use gaslighting – a manipulation technique that involves questioning the other person’s experiences or reality.
How to react when a person is deflecting
Interacting with a person who deflects can be incredibly frustrating, and when this behaviour persists, it can make you question yourself and even lead to depression and anxiety symptoms. When a long-time friend, romantic partner or relative deflects blame, that can make you feel that your voice doesn’t matter or make you want to avoid direct confrontation.
Once you’ve realised that a person is a deflector, the most important thing to do is stay calm and patient. More often than not, losing your cool and starting an argument will legitimise the deflector’s feelings and give them more to work with. Instead, stay calm and use short sentences to prevent the situation from escalating. You can also try and confront the deflector, saying that their lack of acceptance hurts your feelings. They may acknowledge this defence mechanism, and together you can explore ways that they can overcome this. However, deflectors don’t always want to change and, in that case, you have to accept that you can’t control their behaviour, only your reaction to it. Depending on the role they play in your life, you can try to set boundaries and limit contact with them, but if the relationship is too toxic and affects your mental health, cutting all contact could be better for you in the long run.
What if you’re the deflector?
If you recognise yourself in the descriptions above, that’s a good sign because one of the hardest parts about deflecting is being aware that you’re doing it and committing to change. To stop using deflecting as a coping strategy:
- Look at the conflict objectively instead of letting yourself be controlled by your emotions.
- Take a mental note of your first reaction when someone brings up a mistake.
- When someone points out a mistake, try to stay open and acknowledge their feelings instead of shutting down or immediately assuming they’re wrong.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable and accept that it’s normal to make mistakes.
If you have been using deflection to cope with negative memories and experiences for years, breaking the pattern can be hard. A therapist can help you understand why you resorted to deflection in the first place and suggest healthier coping strategies.