Picture this: over the smallest incident, like the dishes not being washed, you’ve stumbled into a full blown argument with someone. You can’t understand why they won’t just acknowledge it was their turn to take care of the chores and apologize so you can both just move on. Instead, they continue to evade accountability and spin the blame back on you. They’ll say it was actually your turn, that you never made the cleaning schedule clear, or that the dishes in the sink actually all belong to you. This is known as deflecting.

Communication is a major key to a healthy relationship. It can be incredibly frustrating to share your feelings with someone so intent on not assuming any blame, making it difficult to find solutions and common ground.

Whether you’re the one who finds themselves deflecting during disagreements or you’re dealing with someone who does, let’s learn more about this commonly used defense mechanism and the most effective way in navigating it. 

What Does Deflecting Mean?

An act of shifting blame, deflecting is a defense mechanism that redirects focus or blame from oneself onto another person, in an attempt to preserve one’s self-image. While not exclusive to, we can definitely see this mechanism practiced by narcissists, though it can be done by anyone uncomfortable with criticism or taking responsibility. Not everybody who deflects is a narcissist, but every narcissist will deflect.

We often see this practiced by young children, blaming a sibling for their messes in fear of potential punishment. Adults more typically deflect onto the person calling them out. However, it isn’t uncommon that they may also shift blame to an entirely separate person.

Aside from shifting blame, deflecting can show up through a myriad of guises, such as gaslighting, attacking, projecting or flat out changing the subject. It can become such an unconscious habit that the deflector may not even know they’re doing it.

Why Do People Deflect?

As adults, most of our behaviors are informed by unresolved incidents that happened during our upbringing. These incidents leave behind unconscious wounds that shine through our habits, patterns and communication styles.

If a situation in the moment is triggering one from childhood where they felt emotionally or physically unsafe, they can use deflection as a means of protection for their younger self that probably needed to do the same. Similarly, if either of their caretakers tore them down rather than built them up, their self esteem may be shattered, and thus, they may live life on a constant defense.

Because it’s a mechanism we see instinctually used by children so often, it’s also important to point out that the ego is fragile, some egos are more fragile than others, and deflecting is a primitive act of preservation for the ego. 

How to Navigate Deflecting

So you’re finding yourself in a constant battle with someone who deflects. Luckily, there are ways to navigate these kinds of arguments in a way that can make you both feel heard.

The first piece of advice would be to wait until emotions have settled back down. While it’s always tempting to call them out right then and there, in the heat of the moment is when a deflector will have the hardest time actually listening. Wait until some time has passed and both of you are in a more rational state of mind before communicating your feelings.

At this point, it’s important to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements. The latter can feel like an attack and only make them more defensive. When recounting the situation, instead of telling them what they did to you, explain it through the lens of how it made you feel. It’s not always easy to be vulnerable when explaining how your emotional needs have not been met, but it’s crucial to conquer any anxiety and open up. Once it’s been communicated that their deflecting has hurt your feelings, step away. It’s important to give them some time to reflect on this sentiment and marinate on what it means about them and the state of your relationship.

When to Move On

Ideally, this would lead to them integrating the feedback and becoming more considerate when navigating their emotions and communication style. However, if deflection continues to be a recurring issue in your relationship beyond petty matters, it’s important to discern when it’s time to enforce boundaries and, if applicable, walk away.

If you want to preserve the relationship but are dealing with someone bound by their trauma responses, attending therapy together may be effective. A third party can help them see through an unbiased lens and give you tips on how to communicate healthily. 

We’re All Doing Our Best

No one is perfect! Confronting our own flaws is always going to be uncomfortable, no matter how self aware we are. Remember to give yourself and those around you compassion. And if you yourself are the deflector, there can always be steps taken towards evolving into your best self and becoming a better partner, family member or friend.