What Is Deflection In Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The word "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.

Do you deflect blame too often?

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.

Understanding deflection

The act of blaming another person for your own mistakes or shortcomings rather than accepting the blame or criticism yourself is called deflection.

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", meaning 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 indicators, 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 drops the ball and 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 play it straight--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 of this deviation, 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 are the signs of his 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. Some examples include an individual refusing to ever take responsibility for their own mistakes and instead consciously choosing to blame their friend, partner, or another party…and this 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.

Overcoming 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 problem 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 is part of the equation, 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 offering ways 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 in the country (or even the world) that you have an internet connection. Costs are comparable to the co-pays of most insurance plans, reducing the financial barriers to treatment for many. 

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Do you deflect blame too often?


Maladaptive defense mechanisms like deflection and conversion defense mechanism can negatively impact an individual’s mental health by causing stress, damaging relationships, and hindering the course of personal growth. Recognizing the underlying causes of this tendency and working to shift them is possible and gives you a shot at improving your relationships. If you’re looking for support in this effort, speaking with a trained therapist may be helpful.
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