What is Deflection?

  Sunday, May 2, 2021
  Deflection  
Contributed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

What is Deflection?

If you are reading this article, you likely are dealing with someone who uses deflection. If you aren’t sure that someone you know uses deflection, you are likely reading this article because you have a suspicion or hint that someone may be using deflection. In most cases, it can be really challenging to know if someone is using deflection or not, and if they are, what you should do about it. In this article, I’ll walk you through understanding what deflection is, the signs of it, and how to handle it when you experience it.

To deflect means to cause something to change direction or to cause someone to deviate from an intended purpose. In psychology, deflection is a defense mechanism in which someone shifts the focus from themselves onto someone else or something else. It is usually done as a way to deviate attention from one’s negative actions. After all, it is much easier to blame your mistakes on others than it is to accept responsibility for your actions.

Everyone deflects blame from time to time. For children, it is actually considered a normal developmental milestone. Children tend to try to avoid blame by lying or placing the blame on others. Take this example. One sibling may tell their parents what the other sibling did in order to avoid grounding, loss of privileges, or getting in trouble another way. The sibling is deflecting when they place blame on the other sibling. What typically happens in these circumstances is that the parent or caregiver points out that the sibling who is deflecting is not taking responsibility for their actions. Over time, children learn that they should accept responsibility for their actions.

Most kids learn the lesson that they should not use deflection as a way to blame others for their wrongdoings. Some kids, however, never learn this lesson, and continue using deflection into adolescence and even adulthood. Kids who begin to use deflection regularly have learned that it is a way to get their needs met and to feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, this type of behavior can be incredibly harmful to those that experience it. Deflection moves from being normal to something that is abnormal when it becomes a pattern that exists in someone’s day to day life. When this happens, it often occurs in multiple conversations and relationships with others.

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Deflection often occurs in conversations where there is conflict. Often, the person using deflection is being accused of some wrongdoing, and their first response is to take the blame off of themselves and onto others. Because deflection is common in conversations, it can occur across many types of relationships. Deflection can occur in romantic relationships, friendships, working relationships, and even in relationships with strangers that you have just met. Abusive relationships often contain elements of manipulation tactics, such as deflection; however, it can also occur in relationships that are not abusive.

If this sounds like gaslighting to you, you aren’t wrong. Gaslighting and deflection are both done as ways for someone to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, and to place that blame on someone else. To understand more about what gaslighting is, check out this article on the signs and damaging effects of gaslighting. Gaslighting and deflection have lots of overlapping features. Overall, gaslighting is a much broader manipulation technique than deflection is. Deflection is solely focused on taking the blame off of oneself in order to place it onto someone else. Over the next few sections, you’ll learn more about what exactly it means to use deflection.

Why Do People Use Deflection?

People who use deflection are doing so as a way to avoid something that is bothering them or harmful to their confidence. Deflection can also be unconscious or conscious. Some people are very aware that they are using deflection, whereas others are using it instinctually. People who use deflection do so because they are unable to accept painful experiences, memories, or realities that a conversation has brought up for them. Because of this, they do everything in their power to not confront it. When people use deflection, they often do so to preserve their ego and self-esteem. If they don’t have to take responsibility for their wrongdoing, they don’t have to take a blow to their ego. They ultimately don’t want to feel bad. 

Some people who use deflection may even have narcissistic personality traits or narcissistic personality disorder. Someone with these traits will do everything in their power to raise their self-esteem and how they appear to others. Narcissists also tend to lack empathy towards others, which may make it easier to use deflection as a manipulation technique.

Deflection is an unhealthy coping or defense mechanism. Defense mechanisms are coping strategies people develop over time as a way to cope with challenging emotions and experiences. People who use deflection often don’t mean to intentionally harm others, but instead they want to protect themselves. They often do so to avoid looking incompetent, unintelligent, or like a bad person. They would like to stay in the good graces of whoever is questioning them and use deflection as a way for others to not see the bad in them.

In serious circumstances, deflection can be a tactic used to avoid significant consequences such as incarceration. People who use deflection in this circumstance are truly using deflection to attempt to get out of some serious trouble. This is why they are doing everything in their power to place the blame on someone else. They do not care about hurting the other person, but they do care about preserving themselves. 

Seven Signs of Deflection

It is important to be able to spot the signs of deflection when they are happening. Deflection is a covert, subtle, and often passive aggressive manipulation technique. Because of this, it can be difficult to spot. To better be able to spot deflection, here are some signs to watch out for. If you see one of these signs, that may not mean that you are experiencing deflection; however, if you notice multiple of these warning signs, it may be a good sign that you are experiencing deflection.

1. Everything is your fault.

Even when you know that it is not your fault, you are somehow being blamed for the wrongdoings of the other person. It may be that your actions supposedly caused their behavior or that they find another way to spin their actions onto you. Either way, those who use deflection often do so in an effort to make you feel as if they are not in the wrong, but you are. If you find yourself constantly apologizing to someone, they may be using the deflection strategy against you.

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2. They always have an excuse for everything.

When you do bring up things they have done wrong, you find that they always have an excuse. They find some way to make it so that it was not their fault, but it was someone else’s or something else’s fault. They may come up with one elaborate excuse in an attempt for you to no longer question them, or they may even bring up several excuses for why you are wrong. No matter what, you will find that they are constantly making excuses for which they have no proof of ever happening. 

3. They blame their actions on someone or something else.

Along with having excuses, you may start to find that you or others are to blame for their wrongdoings. When you confront them about something they have done, you may find yourself surprised when they reveal that they only behaved a certain way because of you. Or they may blame their actions on their work, their friends, or others. They are doing so in order to preserve their self-esteem and confidence. By placing the blame on others, they are able to remain confident in who they are and their actions.

4. They aren’t open or honest in their communication.

When you bring up conflict to someone, they may not be forthcoming. They may even suggest that you did not interpret how things actually happened. They may shut down and avoid conversations with you in an effort to deflect blame from themselves. They may also flat out lie in various ways. Some lies may be very obvious to you whereas others may be more difficult to spot. They have likely become very skilled at lying since it is something they have had to do in order to avoid blame. If you find yourself questioning if they are being honest and truthful when you have conversations, the chances are that they aren’t being totally open with you and you shouldn’t trust them.

5. You have a hard time addressing the core issues.

Arguments with them feel like you’re going round and round in circles. At the end of the argument, you’re somehow arguing about something you didn’t even realize was an issue in the first place. Deflectors use this tactic in order to confuse you and take you away from the argument at hand. They may bring up past arguments between you two, or they may bring up something you did that they didn’t like. All of these efforts are an attempt to detract from the core issue and conflict that you are working to address.

6. You feel guilty bringing up conflict or you avoid it altogether.

After experiencing several arguments with a deflector, you’ve learned that it isn’t a pleasant experience. Every time you bring something up, the argument doesn’t go the way you planned and you end up feeling worse than when you started. As time goes on, you may stop bringing up conflict altogether in an effort to avoid the shame and guilt that comes along with the arguments. This is all part of the deflector’s plan. After months of them deflecting conflict and arguments, they are able to more completely deflect conflict by shutting you down. This can lead to you feeling like you don’t have a voice or aren’t confident in the relationship.

7. You are second-guessing yourself now and have lost a lot of confidence.

Deflection can leave you questioning if you are correct in how you are viewing the deflector’s actions. You may begin questioning if they actually did something wrong, or if others truly were to blame. Deflection breeds uncertainty and insecurity in the victim. This especially happens more and more over time. After experiencing frequent deflection, you may begin questioning your own reality and second-guessing what you are thinking. If this happens, look for other signs to determine if you are experiencing deflection.

Examples of Deflection

Even knowing these signs of deflection, it can be really difficult to spot in the moment and every situation is unique. As mentioned previously, deflection can occur in any type of relationship or conversation. It’s not uncommon for deflection to occur in relationships, friendships, families, work, or even with strangers. So, here are some example situations in which someone is using deflection. Notice if you have ever experienced any of these before, and if so, what did that feel like for you?

Romantic Relationships

You find out your partner is cheating through some messages you read on their phone. You have evidence of the cheating saved on your phone and have verified its truth. When you confront your partner about the messages you have found, they say, “I don’t know why you’re always looking through my phone for information. It’s like you’re trying to catch me doing something wrong!” When you question their actions or words, they may say, “If you would trust me more, I wouldn’t have to do things like this!” In this situation, the person uses deflection to shift responsibility from their cheating actions to you for not trusting them and looking through their phone. Another hint that this is deflection is that when you try to address this directly with your evidence, they continue to place the blame on you.

Friendships

You are scrolling through your social media feed when you notice a post about your group of friends hanging out without you. You check through your phone messages and see if you may have missed a text message from them. Nope, there is nothing that was missed. You weren’t invited to hangout with them for some reason. So, what you end up doing is texting them and asking if there was a reason why you weren’t invited to spend time with them. You feel confident that there must be some logical answer for this. Instead you are met with defensiveness and criticism. Your friends rip into you in the text messages and begin attacking your character as a friend. They say that you never come to hangout with them anyways so why would they have invited you in the first place. Plus, the last time you hung out with them, you weren’t much fun anyways and didn’t seem to be enjoying it. Their behavior of not accepting responsibility for their actions and placing the blame on you is a clear sign that they are using deflection.

Public

Let’s imagine you are on your way to work one morning and you have pulled up to a stoplight. You are waiting for the light to turn green when all of a sudden, another car comes crashing into your car from behind. Immediately, shock hits you as you are faced with this fender bender. Luckily, you aren’t hurt, but you find yourself wondering what has happened and why this happened in the first place. You get out of your car and approach the other person to discuss with them what just happened. Before you can get a word in, they begin yelling at you about how you slammed on your brakes and they had no choice but to run into you. Now this one has you scratching your head because you had been at the stoplight for a bit before they even ran into you. Your attempts to deescalate the situation and present your truth are not listened to. Instead, you aren’t able to communicate with them effectively and they continue to place blame on you.

Family

You are planning a birthday party for your mother’s 75th birthday. Your siblings have tasked you with planning the party by yourself and you have been responsible for a majority of the event, including decorations, food, and invites. On the day of the party, you hear whispers from your siblings and event critical statements about what they didn’t like about the party. They wish the food would have been different or they wish that you would have invited fewer people. They don’t communicate this directly to you, but instead talk amongst themselves. Even when you attempt to ask them directly about this, they make a few passive-aggressive comments about how they would have planned the party differently, but it was still great. Because of this, you are left feeling down and disappointed in yourself. At the same time, they never once offered to help you with the party and instead, all of the responsibilities fell onto you. Deflection is often passive-aggressive and can be as subtle as this circumstance described here. 

Work

It is the biggest annual meeting of the year and you and your colleague are presenting a presentation to the board of directors. You have been preparing together for months for this presentation and feel confident in your presentation and delivery. When the big day comes you feel proud of your presentation and that you have put on a good job; however, the board members grill you on several aspects of the presentation. They have you answer some really challenging questions that you may not have answered to the best of your abilities. At one point, they even ask directly who was responsible for various pieces of the presentation. Your colleague quickly assigns the responsibility of the pieces they questioned to you. In front of the board members, you have nothing else you can say and don’t want to cause a scene. So, you wait until you are alone and can discuss this with him privately. You ask about why he said it was your responsibility when the entire presentation was a joint effort. Instead of communicating honestly, he says that you put more effort into that part and so it was yours. You find it hard to argue with him and that your communication is going nowhere, a key sign you may be dealing with someone using deflection.

Effects of Deflection

When people use deflection, it can have drastic and damaging effects for all who are involved. It can have significant detriments for the person using the deflection as well as those that are experiencing it. If you are unable to notice the signs that were previously described, you may have noticed some changes in yourself that may be a clue that you are experiencing deflection.

For the person using deflection, they may become accustomed to not taking responsibility for their actions. Deflection may develop or further enhance narcissistic traits in an individual, where someone lacks empathy and seeks admiration from others. Those who use deflection may further develop their sense of self, albeit at the expense of others. Additionally, those who use deflection may never be able to accept that their behaviors are at fault. Instead, they will always believe that the environment they are in is to blame.

At the same time, those who use deflection may begin to engage in other damaging behaviors which they also excuse. For example, substance use may become commonplace and viewed by the deflector as unproblematic. Those who use deflection may also lose valuable relationships and friendships due to their behavior. Unfortunately, the person who uses deflection is unlikely to change because of these losses or challenging behaviors. Instead, they will likely become even more stubborn in their viewpoint that they are right.

Importantly, deflection can have lasting consequences for the person who experiences deflection. Deflection can lead to worsened mental health symptoms, such as increased anxiety, depression, or stress. Additionally, deflection can cause your self-esteem to drop dramatically. After being the victim of deflection, you likely were involved in many conflicts where you were blamed. When this happens, your confidence takes a hit. This can further lead to worsened anxiety and depression symptoms. 

Deflection can also affect how people respond in other relationships. For those who have experienced deflection, they may feel that they do not have a voice and are unsure of how to handle conflict. People who have experienced deflection often find themselves becoming more passive in other relationships or trying to avoid conflict at all. They may also have a difficult time trusting others, as they have been hurt in the past by the deflector. Deflection can have significant effects on those who experience it, including their mental health and other relationships.

What to Do if you are a Deflector

If you are a deflector and you are reading this, that is a good sign. That means you have already taken the first step to recognizing you are engaging in unhealthy strategies and you are open to new ways of communicating with others. First, begin to notice your automatic reactions you have when someone brings up something that you did incorrectly. Notice your thoughts and observe any that may come up for you. Identify how you feel during this conflict and when you are to blame.

Try to communicate to the person you are having a conversation with rather than shutting down or instinctually shifting blame to someone else. Let them know that you have noticed you are trying to deflect responsibility away from yourself. This may be difficult to admit, because doing so may make you feel vulnerable. Taking this step to acknowledge your behaviors and let the other person know you are doing so, is a good step to increasing awareness and taking responsibility for your actions.

When looking at the conflict you are in, take a step back and look at it objectively. Deflectors often respond to conflict with their emotions in an attempt to preserve their confidence. But if you are able to take a step back and look at what has truly happened, this may change how you respond. Ask yourself, “What are some things I did well? What are some things I could have improved upon? What are some ways I can make this right?” Instead of accusing others for your wrongdoings, taking an honest look at what you have done can help you get past using deflection. 

It will take time to heal from being a deflector. This has likely developed into a pattern of behavior that occurs without you knowing it. If you are truly looking to change your behavior, you will need the support of others who are willing to call you out on your behavior. In some cases, it may be helpful to seek professional support from a therapist. A professional mental health professional can help you understand when you are using deflection and alternative coping strategies to improve your confidence. If you are unsure of where to start, look through this blog about ways to find a therapist near you. 

How to Handle Deflection

It’s safe to assume that you have come into contact with someone who uses deflection at some point or another. Many people will use deflection techniques in relationships with others and may even be unaware of it. Here are some ideas of what you should do if someone is using the deflection technique against you. These skills can be used in the moment of the conflict. It is important to know that no matter how hard you try to stop someone from deflecting, you only have control over your behavior.

If you are in a conversation with someone and are confronting them about deflection, it is important that you maintain a calm and neutral composure. Becoming angered and emotional will only worsen the situation as the deflector now also feels guilty about your emotional reaction. Additionally, many people who use manipulation tactics thrive when there is drama and fighting. It allows them to further instigate the drama and place blame elsewhere than themselves. Instead of approaching someone when you are emotional, try approaching them at a time when you are feeling cool, calm, and collected. One approach to remaining calm and neutral has been called the grey rock method.

Going along with that, the grey rock method can be a very effective way of managing deflection. When you picture a grey rock, you probably picture something that is unremarkable and forgettable. You have probably seen millions of grey rocks and have never been able to tell them apart before. The grey rock method involves becoming the most boring and forgettable version of yourself when you are interacting with someone using deflection. You will want to disengage, disconnect, and offer little fuel to the fire of the conversation. This grey rock method is effective because it is hard to argue with someone who isn’t offering up much. It’s even harder to argue with someone who is quiet and unemotional. This technique is especially effective against deflectors because people who use deflection typically thrive off of drama and reactions. When they are no longer getting your reaction or drama, they will have nothing to work with. It’s important to note that their reaction may worsen initially because they will try to get a reaction out of you. When this happens, it’s even more important to maintain your composure.

Focus on your feelings, not the facts. You may think the best approach would be to argue over the simple facts which you may have compiled. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When deflectors are confronted with facts, they will find another way to remove blame from themselves. They will often find multiple ways to remove the blame from themselves, and your attempts at showing them the facts will be fruitless. Instead, it can be helpful to focus on how their actions made you feel. It is impossible to argue with someone about their feelings because the other person cannot control it. You can even use “I” statements when presenting your feelings, which are particularly helpful for communicating effectively. For example, you could say something like, “I felt upset when you said it was my fault for you cheating on me.” Although the deflector may still argue that your feelings aren’t valid, this is a helpful way to start with the conversation.

Keep your conversation short and to the point. There is no reason to drag out this conversation as it will likely only escalate the deflector. If they do start to escalate, you can even use short sentences and one-word responses to their questions. This method is similar to the grey rock method and it will take away their power to emotionally exhaust you through conversation. If you are having the conversation via phone, you can always let them know that you have a prior engagement you need to leave for. Aim to keep the conversation to no more than 15 minutes long if possible.

If the person you are engaging with is willing to change and recognizes their deflection, that is a good sign. That means that they have taken the first step of recognizing that they are using deflection as a defense mechanism. If it is someone close to you and they are asking for your help, help them explore why they use deflection and what they are trying to hide about themselves by using it. Approaching their deflection with validation, listening, and understanding will go a long way in making sure they do not become defensive again. 

They may also be unwilling to change and that is something you may have to accept. Even if they are unwilling to change, you get to choose if you want them to remain in your life or not. If you do not, you can set a boundary for how often and in what context you are willing to talk to them. If you find that they are too toxic for you to keep any relationship with them, it may be time to completely end your relationship with them. Ultimately, preserving your mental health and wellbeing is the most important piece.

Recovering from Deflection

Recovering from deflection can be challenging, because of the devastating effects it can have on one’s mental health. If you find that you are experiencing significant anxiety or depression, it may be a good idea to reach out to a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Knowing that you are ready to seek help is an important first step, and it can be challenging to know where to look for a therapist. Luckily, there are more options than ever for finding a therapist online or near you that can help with your needs. If you are unsure of where to start looking for a therapist, check out this guide that details the different steps to take when finding a therapist. Knowing your needs and concerns when you are looking for a therapist is a good way to start. Depending on how you experienced deflection, it may be a good idea to look for a therapist that specializes in anxiety, depression, relationships, and trauma.

Importantly, you must also validate your own feelings after they were not validated by someone using deflection techniques. It can take some time to get back in touch with your emotions and what you are experiencing. A good place to start is by keeping track of your emotions through a daily journal. This journaling practice will help bring you back in alignment with your values, interests, and feelings. When journaling, it’s important not to put any pressure on your expectations for what you should be writing down. Allow your thoughts, feelings, and what you write to come to the paper and do not judge what you are writing down. Judging yourself for your own feelings will only make the recovery process much more challenging.

Now is the time to practice some self-compassion and self-care. You have undoubtedly gone through a challenging experience with someone who used deflection as a way to validate their experience while minimizing yours. Take some time to get back into the routine of doing daily activities that you find enjoyment in. For example, take the time to go to a workout class, hiking, or take a dancing class. Incorporating these activities into your daily schedule can be especially helpful to establish more routine and structure.

Lean on friends and other people in your social support network. Depending on how close you were to the person who used deflection, you may be feeling like you have lost someone you are really close to. You may be feeling alone and like you have nobody who you can lean on and be supported by. This is especially true if the person using deflection used other manipulation techniques, such as gaslighting. People who are manipulative often tend to cut off those they are manipulating from their support systems, in an effort to make their manipulation techniques stronger. If you are feeling hesitant about reaching out to your previous support system, it may help with starting off with a few texts before setting up plans. Your friends and family who you have lost contact with will likely be happy and relieved to hear from you again.

Recovering from deflection can be a slow process. It can have lasting effects on your mental health and your self-esteem. It is a tough experience to go through, but you have made it through and are emerging stronger than before. If you have read through this article, you have all the tools with you to heal from the deflection you have experienced, and you now understand what to look out for in others who may be using deflection.

About Dr. Carrie Jackson

Dr. Carrie Jackson is a contributor of JournalOwl. Her primary interests are to increase access to evidence-based mental health treatments for children and adolescents, providing specific information to parents and individuals with ADHD.

Carrie is a graduate of West Virginia University with a doctoral degree in Psychology, and a specialization in Clinical Child Psychology. Carrie has worked as a therapist and evaluator at several children’s hospitals, providing care and treatment to clients with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and anxiety. She has also worked with children with chronic medical conditions, providing supportive mental health care to children with cancer and burn survivors. 

Although originally from South Carolina, Carrie has lived in two countries and four states. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and trying new recipes.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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