The term "deflection" involves redirecting or “deflecting” blame for one’s own mistake onto someone else; deflection is generally used in an attempt to preserve one’s own self-image.
Deflection refers to a defense mechanism that’s closely related to—although distinct from—projection. With deflection, the individual is generally aware that they’re the one at fault as they pass deflections off onto other people, which is not the case with projection.
As with most psychological defense mechanisms, relying on deflection can have negative effects on one’s relationships and mental health, as we’ll explore below.
This type of defensiveness as a coping skill is commonly used to angle or direct the focus or blame away from ourselves. While the manifestation of deflection can vary considerably, there are a couple of common themes that tend to be associated with this behavior. The first line in deflection is denial. In psychology, denial refers to the avoidance of unacceptable or unpleasant thoughts or feelings. A person in denial is failing to recognize or accept apparent truths about a situation, or their feelings regarding a situation. The concept of denial is at the center of many maladaptive defense mechanisms, including deflection and projection.
Another common theme behind deflection is blaming others, or blame-shifting. Blame-shifting refers to "passing the buck", or finding any reason to justify the conclusion that another person is ultimately responsible for an undesired outcome rather than oneself. When shifting blame, an individual may be experiencing denial about their own level of personal responsibility and will deflect the unacceptable thought—that they are the reason for the failure or mistake—away by attributing the blame to someone else.
Unlike projection, deflection is a mostly conscious process. While it may feel second nature and as if it’s uncontrollable, the behavior itself is usually not what is difficult to manage. Instead, it’s typically the underlying cognitive processes—such as denial—that ultimately drive deflective behaviors and must be addressed in order for meaningful change to be possible. These underlying cognitive processes can be driven by a number of other factors, such as perfectionism, low self-esteem, or a fear of abandonment.
An Example Of Deflection
Let’s take a look at an example to better understand what deflection looks like and how it works. Consider the case of Jamie, who is working on an important project for his employer. One day, he makes a critical error that significantly delays progress. Jamie's boss invites him to her office to discuss the mistake. Jamie knows the significance of his error, feels guilty for it, and is aware that it’s an uncommon error for someone of his experience level to make.
For many, such a meeting might be uncomfortable, but relatively straightforward: You might apologize, own up to your mistake, and take corrective action. However, let's assume that Jamie instead defaults to denial to avoid the unpleasant and unacceptable feeling of failure after making a significant error. As a result, he might automatically push back on the feedback. He might tell his boss that it’s actually the fault of the person who handed the project off to him, or that it’s the fault of his boss for putting pressure on him—both of which are untrue in this case. At the center of Jamie's arguments is the desire to deflect blame for his own mistake.
Potential Consequences Of Deflection
In a professional setting, such as in Jamie's case, deflection has some obvious consequences. Jamie's reputation among his coworkers, including his boss, will likely suffer. His desire to avoid blame has reduced his credibility and likely increased his overall stress at work due to worries about making future mistakes and the now-tense or untrusting relationships with colleagues. As a result, he could experience negative mental health effects.
Outside of work, deflection can take a toll on other types of relationships too, such as friendships and romantic partnerships. An individual refusing to ever take responsibility for their own mistakes and instead consciously choosing to blame their friend, partner, or another party can be tiresome for others to experience. It can wear down levels of trust, prevent honest communication and effective conflict resolution, and signal emotional immaturity. The conflict and tension that deflection can cause in relationships can lead to loneliness, isolation, and a limited support network as well as stress and anxiety.
How To Overcome The Tendency To Deflect
Becoming aware of this tendency in yourself is typically the first step toward overcoming it. You might reflect on how you naturally react when someone approaches you with constructive criticism, or how you respond when a mistake or shortcoming you’re responsible for is brought to your attention. If you tend to default to deflection, you might ask yourself why. It could be perfectionism, for example, or low self-esteem that causes you to try and avoid accepting the fact that you made an error.
Next, you might practice rerouting your pattern of thinking in the moment next time you’re confronted with your own mistakes. You might take a few deep breaths before responding to help yourself think clearly rather than engaging in a knee-jerk reaction of deflecting. You might also think about the potential benefits of owning up to your slip-up, such as learning and growth, the respect of others, and healthier relationships. You can also remind yourself that making mistakes is normal and human, and that recognizing the value of failure and being open to opportunities to try again can actually improve future outcomes.
Although deflection is a conscious process, it may still be difficult to recognize and shift this behavior—especially if it’s been an individual’s default throughout their life. A therapist tackles difficult questions and thinking with their patient and can support a person on their journey of becoming aware of any maladaptive defense mechanisms they may be using, recognizing the negative impacts on their life, addressing the underlying causes, and learning to break the habit over time.
Research suggests that most common therapy modalities can be delivered as effectively online as in person. If you’re interested in seeking a more cost-effective method of treatment, virtual therapy is an option to consider. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from anywhere you have an internet connection. Costs are comparable to the co-pays of most insurance plans, reducing the financial barriers to treatment for many.
Frequently Asked Questions About Deflection and Other Defense Mechanisms
What is deflection in conversation?
The definition of the word deflection in conversations is a psychological defense in which someone blames you for something they are at fault for. This defense mechanism may look like you bringing up that a person hurt your feelings. A deflective person would say, “Well maybe you’re too sensitive,” or, “It’s not my fault you are insecure.” Deflection can be incredibly hurtful, and it is not one of the positive defense mechanisms.
Is deflection a defense mechanism?
In the definition of the word deflection, it is described as one of the many defense mechanisms. To use it in a sentence, when someone deflects, they are trying to feel less guilty, avoid negative consequences, and pass blame and fault onto others. It is a learned defense mechanism, typically starting from early childhood.
How do you deal with deflection?
The best way to deal with deflection is to communicate how you feel by having a conversation. Point out that you feel the person is deflecting their fault onto you and that it is not appreciated. If they continue practicing this behavior through the course of your relationship that may be an indicator they are not going to change and it may be best to keep your distance, as this can be a negative trait.
How do you know if someone is deflecting?
You know someone is deflecting when they try to make you feel bad when they are the ones who did something wrong. There are many examples of this. Say someone hit you in a traffic accident and they say, “Well, you shouldn’t have been in the lane I wanted to be in!” This is one of many examples of deflection, as being in a lane is not wrong, but in their point of deflection, you being there caused the other person to do wrong.
What is the deflection formula?
In psychology, the deflection formula starts with the guilty being confronted about their wrongdoing. Then, the guilty person deflects their guilt onto the person accusing them or another person. They blame another person for their wrongdoing so they can avoid negative consequences.
What's it called when someone turns something around on you?
When someone turns something around on you, you can call this the word deflection. This is one of the many defense mechanisms in which they knowingly or unknowingly remove their guilt and place it on you.
What are the five common defense mechanisms?
Five common defense mechanisms are denial, deflection, sublimation, projection, and displacement. Denial is where someone denies they are guilty of wrongdoing. Denying can make someone feel better as they start to believe they aren’t actually guilty. Deflection, which is the defense mechanism discussed most in this article, is where someone places their guilt on others.
What is the deflection limit?
In psychology, there is a limit for what someone can take when being deflected upon. A person can only take so much when around someone who deflects guilt upon them. However, this limit depends on the mental strength of the person.
What is the maximum deflection level?
The maximum deflection levels someone can take depends on the person.
What is a deflection test?
A deflection test in counseling is where you are tested for your defense mechanisms. They will ask you questions about your reactions and how you cope with wrongdoings. If you indicate to your counselor that you do practice deflection, they will work with you to get rid of the habit. This is vital so you can have happy and healthy relationships with other people.
Getting Professional Help
If you're struggling with deflection and you find yourself frequently trying to push the blame onto others, it may be a good idea for you to seek out professional help. There are different ways that mental help could affect the way that you deflect blame. After all, there's not going to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to any form of professional help, and that's true with a deflection as well.
Online Help With BetterHelp
If you're looking to get help with your deflection problems, then it can be helpful for you to seek out professional help. But getting professional help can be a problem for many people. Getting to appointments can be difficult. Walking into a therapist's office can feel stigmatizing. Even finding someone that you feel comfortable within your area can be extremely difficult. That's when you may want to turn to online help. When you start looking at the options online, you're going to have a much better chance of getting the help that you want and without all the downsides.
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