Do you have that person in your life who, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to get through to them or get them to listen or engage in a healthy conversation about issues you’re experiencing in the relationship? You try to say how you’re feeling, but they flip it back on you and say, “What about my feelings?!” You get sad, but they get even more sad that you’re upset and now you’re taking care of them instead of them taking care of you?! These are all signs of a common defense mechanism called deflection. Today, I’m going to teach you all about deflection and my steps for finally connecting.
I received an email recently that’s the inspiration for this episode. Because I think so many people reading this right now have experienced this same thing, I decided it would be a great topic.
The woman who wrote in said:
How do you stop a “flipper”? My husband is a SUPER good guy, but any time I feel sad, bring up an issue, get angry, he ends up “flipping” the conversation so that he is the victim. Naturally, I want to console him, but now I’m not getting MY needs met. When I try to turn the focus back on the original issue, he starts correcting my verbiage that I’m using (example: “don’t say I NEVER do ___”), and it ends up feeling like a trial… like someone is saying “I OBJECT!” I feel like, if I get sad, he shuts down. If I get mad, he gets madder! I literally feel like I can’t show any emotion without him MATCHING it… and I no longer feel safe. I really want to get our “team mentality” back into our marriage.
I’m going to answer this question while also broadening it so you can understand the larger issues going on and see how this might show up in your relationships with not only your own partner, but others like your dad, sister, best friend or coworker.
What we’re looking at here is a defense mechanism called deflection. A defense mechanism is something you do, usually unconsciously, to avoid conflict or feeling uncomfortable. There are many defense mechanisms, such as intellectualizing, using humor, denial, repression, projection, and rationalization.
But today, we’re going to go deep on deflection because that’s what’s mostly being used in these kinds of situations. When someone is using this defense mechanism, they’re basically attempting to redirect the focus onto something or someone else to maintain and protect their image of themselves as well as to avoid uncomfortable feelings.
Signs of someone using deflection:
- They don’t accept responsibility for doing anything “wrong” and will generally turn the spotlight back to you.
- The example above is the most common. You try to share how you’re feeling with someone, and they say something, like, “Your feelings? What about my feelings?” or if you point out something they did that you don’t like, their response might be, “Well, what about the time you did X?”
- There’s an overall feeling of tit for tat. When you point something out, they mention what you’ve done wrong in the past.
- They deflect with feelings. Maybe they always cry or get angry/attack you any time you bring up an issue.
- When feeling attacked or criticized, they defend themselves by getting you to focus on something other than them.
- If caught doing something, they will often blame someone else or a circumstance for why it happened.
- They’ll change the subject in the middle of a discussion or argument.
- They agree to your request to meet to go over finances and their spending on Saturday but a few days later tell you that they bought tickets to an all-day concert that day. Yes, it’ll be fun to go to a concert together, but what about these deeper issues you need to discuss?
It’s easy to think of these examples as being symptoms of narcissism but that’s rarely what’s going on. Yes, sometimes it’s because the other person is gaslighting but, often, it’s an unconscious drive to deflect responsibility because they’re afraid that you won’t love them if they have faults. It’s a sign of their own inability to handle feelings, so you’re looking at low emotional intelligence (you can learn more about that in episode 218) and lower self-awareness. This does not all equal narcissism! Only a very small percentage of the population are true narcissists. Don’t use that as an excuse for why you can’t move your relationship where you want it to go.
In my experience, people are consistently looking for love and connection, and they’re doing the best they can with the tools they have (but their tools suck)! Instead of getting angry, frustrated, resentful or hopeless (all fear-based emotions) when people are deflecting, try to bring compassion, patience and empathy (the love-based emotions). I always say that you can’t build a love relationship on fear, and this is a great example of that.
What to Do When Someone is Deflecting
When someone is a known deflector, there are a few steps you can take to create more effective conversations. I’d also highly recommend listening to episode 124, how to listen without getting defensive or hurt.
- Set the conversation up with clear intentions. For example, you might state out loud, “It’s my intention to have a loving conversation with you where we both listen and feel heard, or “It’s my intention that we’ll be a team tackling this project.” Say these intentions out loud before speaking to the issue.
- Set a time and space. Make sure you’re both in a space where you don’t feel rushed or where there are a lot of distractions. To have an effective conversation, it’s important that you’re both giving your full attention. It’s great to start with, “Is this a good time to speak with you about something?”
- Remember you’ve got to connect to correct, so be sure that you’re in a relaxed, more love-based place.
- Stay mindful throughout the conversation. Keep bringing things back to the present moment and what you’re both feeling right this second.
- Say it like a mantra. Stick to what you’re saying without getting pulled off track. The deflector will try to deflect, of course, so keep bringing it back to your point or question over and over. Be a broken record.
- Use the I feel formula, which is, “I feel x, when you y, and I need z.”
- Don’t label the other person. Don’t say, “You’re deflecting or “You’re not listening.” Of course, no matter what, don’t say, “You never listen to me” or “You always turn it against me when I bring up something important.”
Let’s have a few troubleshooting examples. In every case, it’s about you holding your boundary and staying loving but clear.
Let’s say you bring up issue A, and then they try to go tit for tat and mention something you’ve done wrong in the past. The answer here is to bring the conversation back to the present. You might say, “I’d be happy to listen to your feelings about X another time. Right now, we’re talking about Y (the issue you raised).”
If they say, “Your feelings? What about my feelings?” I want you to respond with, “I’d be happy to speak about your feelings another time. Name the time and place, and I’m there. Right now, we’re talking about what I’ve brought up. Let’s resolve one thing at a time.
Let’s say they start getting upset and crying when you’re sharing something that hurt you. Maybe they say, “I’m a terrible person. I don’t know why you’re with me.” In the past, this was a time when you felt like you had to now take care of them. Again, they’re unconsciously deflecting. Instead, allow them their moment of upset but do not console. Give them a minute, ignore what they just said, re-state your issue and ask a question such as, “What can we agree to do differently about this moving forward?” If they continue to deflect and lament what a horrible person they are, continue to stick to your mantra! Don’t be derailed yourself. “I understand that you might feel bad about this, but it’s not helping us resolve the issue. Again, what can we agree to do differently about this now?”
The other person might get angry and defensive when you bring something up. Your job is to hold your boundary. Do not react to the anger. At this point you might use the I feel statement. “I feel sad, when you get angry in these conversations, and I need to sit down and talk about this rationally/to remind you that we’re on the same team here/to remind you that I’m not attacking you/to go wash my face and then we’ll start again.
No matter what else, the easiest thing to do is to bring the person back to the present moment and their feelings by asking how they’re feeling right that minute. They’ll likely give you thoughts at first, but keep pressing (lovingly). Once people share feelings, a real connection starts to happen.