The Psychology Of Deflection (How To Respond + How To Stop)

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Have you ever bounced a ball off a wall at an angle? If so, you’ve likely noticed that as the ball struck that surface, it veered off in the opposite direction from which you threw it.

This is deflection as far as physics is concerned.

When it comes to psychology, however, the behavior is surprisingly similar.

You’ve likely come across it before, whether you’ve been on the receiving end, or if you’ve been the one trying to avoid a situation by deflecting from it. In fact, you might not have noticed that either you or the other person was doing it!

Let’s dive into what deflection is, why people do it, how to recognize it, and how to deal with it.

Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you alter your mindset and behavior if your default is to deflect. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.

What is deflection?

Much like that ball that veered off the wall, personal deflection revolves around shifting a conversation so the focus is on someone or something else. A person will seek to redirect attention—as well as heightened emotions—away from their own actions, or even their feelings, depending on the person.

Basically, someone who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, or deal with a topic that makes them uncomfortable, will turn the focus elsewhere. This might be onto another person (or animal), onto a different subject of their choosing, or something so bizarre that the topic will be dropped entirely.

It’s commonly seen in therapeutic circles. If and when a patient doesn’t want to talk about a situation that makes them uncomfortable or causes them pain, they’ll deflect the focus back toward the therapist. This might be direct, such as via humor, or indirect and attacking. We’ll touch upon this more a bit further down in the “examples” section.

Ultimately, the point of deflection is to redirect attention so that it’s under control.

It’s important to note that deflection does have its time and place. In fact, it can be a good tool in your arsenal for when the occasion calls for it. The key, however, is to use it sparingly, and only when it’s the best course of action.

Otherwise, deflection can begin to dominate your approach to any discomfort and alter your way of thinking and behaving quite significantly. If it becomes your default, then you run the risk of self-delusion, as well as denying personal accountability. More on that later.

Why do people deflect?

More often than not, a person will use deflection either to avoid taking responsibility for something they’ve done wrong, or to shift attention away from something that they don’t want to think or talk about.

Sometimes, they don’t want to be made to “feel bad” about a misstep they’ve made, so they change the subject or shift the blame onto someone else. Alternatively, a topic might be raised that they don’t want to discuss, such as political or religious affiliations, their stance on a subject, why they don’t have children yet, and so on. If they’re uncomfortable, or they’re scared that they’ll upset or offend someone, they’ll change the subject.

This is often a defense mechanism, especially if the person suffered abuse during their formative years. For instance, if they knew they were about to get screamed at or beaten, they might try to shift their abuser’s attention in a different direction—especially onto something that’s bigger and more important than whatever they might have done.

They may not have done anything wrong at all. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and their abusive caregiver decided they were going to be the scapegoat for their anger and frustration. The child learns that if they can shift that ire elsewhere, they’ll be spared the worst of the onslaught.

Temporarily, at least.

So, if they know that their parent is about to hit them, they might mention that there’s a leak in the basement, or the dog is missing, or their sibling got sent to detention for something terrible. Suddenly they’re no longer in the spotlight, and they have a reprieve. Their stress is alleviated (for now), and they can breathe easily for a little bit longer.

As mentioned earlier, deflection can also be used to good effect in the right circumstances. For example, if someone is prying into your personal life and you absolutely don’t want to discuss that topic with them, you can shift the focus back onto them, or into a completely different direction entirely. This distracts them so they stop trying to delve into details they’re not privy to.

In fact, in many cases, this can be a better option than simply telling them that they’re overstepping and that the topic is none of their business. A lot of people take denial of their wants as a kind of challenge.

Instead of respecting the other person’s boundary and backing off, they lean in closer and are even more eager to find out what they want to know. By distracting and deflecting, you’ll turn their attention elsewhere, and they’ll either lose interest in what they were initially pursuing or forget it entirely.

How deflection can affect people negatively in the long-term.

The problem with deflective behavior is that it can train someone into avoiding taking responsibility for any wrongdoing. Even if they know they’re in the wrong, they’ve gotten so used to deflecting onto another that they don’t own up and admit that yeah, they messed up, and then apologize accordingly.

This can lead to a significant amount of distrust in interpersonal relationships. After all, how can you trust someone who refuses to listen to you, doesn’t acknowledge what you’re saying, and tries to shift the blame back onto you instead?

It’s also incredibly difficult to have a healthy relationship with someone who has gotten so good at deflection that they even deceive themselves. They get so involved in turning attention away from anything they don’t want to look at that they cannot handle reality or accountability. Sadly, this can evolve into various types of illness—both mental and physical—if it isn’t checked and attended to early on.

For example, this active refusal to think critically and act on reason and valid information can cause oneself and others a great deal of harm.

Let’s say someone has been unwell but deflects attention away from their symptoms every time it’s raised. They may be in denial and refuse any kind of medical treatment until they can’t ignore things anymore, at which time their condition may have worsened to the point where it’s no longer treatable. Similarly, if their mental or emotional state is what’s affected, they may end up having psychotic episodes or complete breakdowns.

It’s important to note that deflection is a technique that’s often employed by narcissists to control and gaslight others. They’ll refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing and place the blame entirely on others. Or imply that the other person is insane or misguided for thinking the way they do.

This doesn’t just harm the relationship, but also makes their victim feel unstable. They’ll question themselves—including their own observations and sanity—and end up not knowing who they can trust.

Additionally, continually deflecting instead of holding oneself accountable can be a massive hindrance to self-growth. If you don’t acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, how can you possibly learn from it?

When we admit that we’ve made an error, we allow ourselves the space to use that as a learning opportunity. We can determine a better course of action for next time and also figure out how to “fix” the situation if it’s caused anyone any harm.

Real-life examples of deflection.

The following are just a few examples of how deflection may manifest. They don’t encompass the full breadth of the deflection spectrum, but might give you an idea as to what deflection might look like.

This kind of behavior can appear at any time from childhood onward. In fact, if you try to think of situations in which you’ve seen deflection in action, chances are you’ll remember some instances of children who’ve exhibited that kind of behavior.

A couple of children have been playing in a room and the walls are now covered in paint and marker drawings. The elder child is standing there with evidence in hand, but when reprimanded, they’ll say that the other (likely younger or smaller) child started it. It was the OTHER one who made the mess, not them: THEY were cleaning it up and are thus innocent of any wrongdoing.

A teenager who’s gone through a rough time receives praise for a project and refuses to accept the acknowledgement with grace. Instead, they comment on how the other people involved did more, or it was no big deal, and then change the subject awkwardly.

Partner 1 lets partner 2 know that they forgot to take the garbage out, and asks that they please remember to do so. In response, partner 2 says that partner 1 forgot to do the dishes, AND didn’t put their shoes away in the closet either.

By replying in this way, partner 2 alleviates their own sense of guilt or disappointment in themselves by pointing out that the one who’s reminding them of their shortcomings didn’t just mess up too, they messed up MORE.

Someone who’s seeing a therapist to deal with childhood trauma doesn’t want to discuss an aspect of their abuse that made them uncomfortable. As such, they may try to make a joke out of it and then change the subject.

Alternatively, if the therapist presses the issue by bringing attention back to it, they may get defensive, such as asking their counsellor if they’re aroused by that kind of suffering, or if they’re just trying to make them cry.

If no attempt at deflection succeeds, the patient may simply walk out of the office and never go back to that therapist again. Aggressive behavior or flight will usually occur if the misdirection fails.

A parent knows that their child has some intense behavioral issues, but they can’t bear to face that issue because it’s too difficult for them emotionally. So, they insist that the problems lie with the child’s peers, teachers, and anyone aside from the child him or herself.

If arguments arise to the contrary, the parent will deflect by threatening to charge the teacher with some kind of impropriety—anything to make the situation go away so they don’t have to deal with it anymore.

In this way, the inability to look at the issue makes the situation worse. It takes more effort and energy to either finally face the problem or more commonly the issue continues to build, thus taking more and more misdirection and deception to cover.

How to respond to deflection.

Just like in all situations, how we respond will depend on a number of contributing factors—the role that you play in the other person’s life, your motivations behind this discussion, and what end result you’re aiming for.

Are you the parent in this situation, dealing with a child who keeps deflecting and lying? Or are you an employer dealing with a subordinate? Is this a situation where you’re the adult offspring of a parent who refuses to take responsibility for something or acknowledge wrongdoing? A caregiver or medical health professional?

More often than not, the one who will struggle with another person’s deflection is someone in a position of authority, such as a parent, dominant partner, teacher, or healthcare provider. This is because people who deflect as a standard response are usually quite conflict avoidant, and thus prefer roles in which they don’t have to be assertive or aggressive.

In fact, they generally prefer to say or do whatever they feel is necessary to get discomfort over with as soon as possible so they can return to a more comfortable, reassured state.

One of the most important things to understand is that at its core, deflection is a learned self-defense mechanism. A person who’s been raised in a healthy, supportive environment will be able to discuss their emotions effectively and be willing to listen to others and negotiate in discussions accordingly.

In contrast, a person who’s been on the receiving end of cruelty and abuse has learned to shift blame, deflect emotional onslaughts, and redirect attention elsewhere in order to protect themselves.

Keeping all of this in mind will help you to determine how to respond to deflection when and if you encounter it. This will include whether it’s coming from a friend, a partner, or someone who’s subordinate to you (like an employee or stepchild).

Whatever the situation, here are the things you ought to do.

1. Understand their motivations.

Try to pull back and see the situation in its entirety. Try to be non-judgmental as you do this, and simply be the impartial observer. Can you determine why this person is trying to deflect instead of remaining present and working with you to resolve whatever is going on?

Are they feeling scared or vulnerable at that moment? Or is this situation reminding them of a traumatic event that happened in the past?

If this person has experienced violence or abuse in similar situations, then it’s likely that deflection is their go-to self-defense response. They might not be reacting to you at that moment at all. They’re reacting to something that occurred in the past, but it’s prodding into an old wound that hasn’t quite healed properly yet.

2. Validate their emotions.

If you know that this person is feeling scared and trying to protect themselves from harm, it’s okay to comment on that. You can even go so far as to say something like:

“I understand that you’re feeling nervous about making this kind of a mistake, but I want you to know that you’re not in any trouble here. I’m not mad at you, and nothing bad is going to happen as a result of us discussing this. My goal is for us to understand where we’re both coming from, work together as a team to sort this out, and help things run more smoothly in the future.”

This type of response is immensely reassuring and reminds them that you’re on their side—not against them. It’s likely that they didn’t have many allies when they were younger, and some people whom they thought they could trust might have turned against them when they were at their most vulnerable.

Reassure them that you’re not about to go ballistic at them and that you are trying to work with them instead.

3. Use humor.

This is one of the best ways to diffuse an intense, deflection-riddled situation (especially if you’re dealing with children or young adults). When we respond to tension with humor, we reassure the other person that they’re not in any danger with us.

We’re still calling them out on their bullsh!t and letting them know that we see what they’re doing, but also letting them know that they aren’t going to be hurt or mistreated. In fact, we can reassure them that we’ll be able to respect and trust them a lot more in future if they own their errors instead of trying to put the blame on someone else.

4. Bring the focus back to the situation at hand.

Regardless of who you’re dealing with, it’s important to bring attention back to the situation that you’re dealing with. If they freak out or walk away because everything is too much for them to handle at the moment, let them.

They’re likely dealing with a lot of internal turmoil and forcing them to deal with things immediately will probably do more harm than good. Instead, let them have a breather and get back to things when they have the bandwidth to do so.

The key here is to not allow them to just drop the subject. They might not want to face it or deal with it, but it needs to be dealt with. The world doesn’t exist on their terms, and they’ll have to accept accountability.

Let them have distance if they need it (or you may be the one who needs distance if they’re being impossible), but the next time you’re in contact again, bring the topic back up. Exchange pleasantries first, of course, but then bring attention back to what was previously discussed.

Do this calmly and gently, but firmly, without being aggressive or belligerent. Make eye contact, if you’re doing this face to face, and maintain good posture.

Make it clear that this is a situation that’s serious and needs to be addressed. This shows the other person that you’re aware of their behavior and that they don’t get to decide whether or not it’ll be discussed. You’re taking control here, even though said control might manifest in gentle humor.

Just be aware that they might try to deflect again, get aggressive, or leave again. The latter is especially common if you don’t live together or if this is an office or school environment.

After this second deflection, you can get a bit firmer. Make it clear that they aren’t going to get away with this behavior; that you’re caring and kind, but are neither a coward, nor a fool.

The end result will generally be one of the following:

  • Reluctant acceptance, followed by tears, finally admitting the wrongdoing, apologies, and resolution
  • Anger, belligerence, abuse, and refusal to admit anything
  • Permanent distance, such as storming out again and refusing to return so they never have to face the consequences of their actions

Whatever you do, don’t drop it for the sake of maintaining peace and harmony. You’ll only be manifesting the illusion of both, with no resolution.

In fact, if this is a regular occurrence in your personal life experience, with you being on the receiving end of this behavior, then do your best to distance yourself from this individual, especially resource-wise.

If they’re unwilling to discuss, compromise, or even try to see eye to eye, they won’t be able to treat you or your affairs with any respect. They will, by and large, simply do as they see fit whenever they like, because they know they can wriggle out of anything they deem uncomfortable without any consequence.

How to stop deflecting.

Now let’s move on to what to do if you are the one who often engages in deflection.

First and foremost, determine why it is that you find yourself deflecting to begin with. Then train yourself to be aware of that behavior so you can nip it in the bud when and if you notice it happening. If you don’t, you may discover that your relationships suffer and wither. This could be your intimate relationships or those with your friends, family members, and even your own children.

Also, the more you use a tactic or strategy, the more it shapes you. If you always retreat and deflect, what does that say about you? Look at the stereotypes of people who embody deflection that appear in history or fiction. Are these role models for whom you want to be?

Let’s look at some things you can do to face up to the thing you would rather avoid.

1. Own up to your mistakes (and try to make amends for them).

When and if someone hurts you—either intentionally or unintentionally—we appreciate it when they apologize, right? How does it feel if they refuse to take responsibility for causing you pain, and instead they try to turn it back on you or blame some other situation or circumstance instead of owning it and trying to fix things?

If you know how awful it feels to be on the receiving end of that behavior, then you likely want to avoid behaving that way toward others too.

The same goes for if someone experiences failure at work. Let’s say you catch one of your employees making a mistake. If they own up to it, acknowledge the error, and make an effort to avoid making that same mistake in the future, then that tells you a lot about their integrity. A person who takes responsibility for their mistakes and then takes action to remedy it proves that they’re trustworthy.

In contrast, someone who makes up all manner of excuses for the mistake, trying to shift blame onto others and refusing to take ownership for anything, shows that they can’t be trusted.

2. Leave the past in the past.

One common way that people deflect in relationships is by bringing up past hurts in order to avoid current ones. For instance, a person who feels guilt or fear when their partner tells them that they’ve done them wrong might scramble to find something that said partner has done that hurt them, so as to point the finger elsewhere.

By doing this, they can avoid feeling bad about whatever it is that they’ve done, and instead bask in self-righteousness, knowing that the other person has done far worse to them in the past.

An example might look something like:

Partner 1: “You really hurt my feelings when you made fun of me in front of our friends at dinner the other night. It made me feel disrespected and embarrassed.”

Partner 2: “Well, I wouldn’t have made fun of you if you hadn’t been acting like an idiot. If you want to talk about feeling disrespected, let me remind you of how you cheated on me with that guy at work 7 years ago.”

By behaving this way, they’re completely invalidating what you are feeling or trying to say, and they’re choosing to hurt and punish you for making them feel bad. It was likely quite difficult for you to get over your own vulnerability and admit to them that they’d hurt you. Their response was to override your feelings with what they considered to be a bigger issue.

Furthermore, by shocking and upsetting you about past wrongdoings, they turned the attention away from what they had done to hurt you and made themself out to be the bigger victim.

This isn’t any way to behave toward someone you claim to care about. What’s passed is past, and bringing up old hurts like this solves nothing. The only thing achieved is more damage to your relationship.

3. What you resist, persists.

If you find that you deflect because you don’t want to feel various emotions, that can cause them to build up. If you refuse to deal with emotions such as grief, despair, and even rage, they don’t get a chance to be released. You won’t heal from them.

Instead, they can manifest as anxiety, depression, or even PTSD. These emotions aren’t just going to go away because you refuse to acknowledge them any more than an oozing wound will stop being infected simply because you don’t look at it.

Pain tells us that there’s something that needs to be attended to. This applies to both physical and emotional or mental pain. By not acknowledging it, we’re not honoring or tending to an integral aspect of our wellbeing. We can only deflect for so long before that wound turns gangrenous, so to speak.

4. Reach out for help so you can unlearn harmful behaviors.

If you find that you’re having trouble with stopping your deflective tendencies, or you can’t seem to determine why you keep using deflection as a self-defense mechanism, you may benefit from some time with a therapist.

They might know the right questions to ask that can help you better understand yourself and your own motivations. Furthermore, they’ll be able to help you develop a healthier set of responses when you feel your deflection tendencies come up.

It’s possible—even likely—that you learned your deflection responses from someone else, such as a parent or caregiver. As such, it’ll take time and effort to unlearn these and replace them with healthier, more beneficial responses.

A good place to get professional help is the website BetterHelp.com – here, you’ll be able to connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.

While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.

Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.

Here’s that link again if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.

All learned behaviors can be adjusted. It just takes time, effort, and patience—both from the one doing the deflection and those around them. By working together, everyone can benefit from the healthier, more supportive relationships that can ensue.

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