Deflection as a Defense Mechanism

Deflection diverts the individual from coming into contact with their uncomfortable emotions. However, it also disconnects them from the world around them. Discover more about this defense mechanism here.
Deflection as a Defense Mechanism
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 07 June, 2023

Emotions accompany us from birth. They act as our guides and compasses. They tell us what to do and how to act. However, they’re often so uncomfortable and intolerable that we put a particular mechanism into place to avoid coming into contact with them. This is known as deflection.

Being unable to tolerate silence at a social gathering, avoiding eye contact, or talking incessantly when with others are some examples of this mechanism. These actions, which seem to have no reason or purpose, are actually a shield that we put up between ourselves and reality. The aim is to divert any unpleasant sensations that we’re confronted with.

To better understand why these situations occur, and what the consequences are of this method of defense, carry on reading.

Deflection: a defense mechanism from Gestalt therapy

Gestalt theory, referred to by Dr. Fritz Perls in his book, The Gestalt Approach and Eye Witness to Therapy, claims that individuals possess a healthy balance between contact and withdrawal from the environment. In other words, we’re able to connect (to satisfy our needs) and return to the point of origin (when we’re satisfied).

From a ‘primitive’ point of view, it’d be natural to go out to look for food if we’re hungry, and then retreat when we’ve had our fill. But, human beings are far more complex. Therefore, it’s possible that this dynamic actually means knowing how to approach others in search of support or socialization, and then knowing how to withdraw to enjoy solitude.

Unfortunately, many individuals can experience difficulties at either one of these points. This is where defense mechanisms originated. Our ancestors developed certain strategies to make situations more bearable when it was difficult for them to connect or withdraw. Undeniably, these were useful at the time. However, today, they’re no longer so. In fact, they only limit us and keep us from living full lives.

Deflection as a defense mechanism

Deflection is a mechanism set in motion by individuals who find it difficult to get in touch with others, with the environment, or with their own emotions. They avoid or evade discomfort in different ways. The goal is to ‘cool down’ the experience so that any contact isn’t as direct or intense.

It’s understandable that for many, emotions such as sadness, fear, shame, anger, and vulnerability are quite uncomfortable and unpleasant. So, if they don’t know how to face or manage these emotions, the option is to divert them.

You might also like to read The Different Kinds of Avoidance Behaviors

Deflection on a daily basis

You’ve probably activated this defense mechanism on more than one occasion. Read the following examples and see if you’re employing deflection:

  • In uncomfortable situations, you develop a nervous laugh. It helps you avoid what you’re really feeling.
  • When someone asks you about a subject that’s painful for you, you respond with “I’m absolutely fine. Everything’s okay” and quickly change the subject.
  • You choose to speak abstractly instead of concretely. Or, you talk about the past when you should be addressing the present.
  • You avoid eye contact because it makes you uncomfortable. Maybe the people you’re faced with are unknown to you or intimidating, which makes you feel tense and nervous.
  • When recounting or sharing painful experiences, you do so with a smile, using humor, irony, or sarcasm. You pretend that the situation isn’t affecting you.
  • You can’t stand silence in a conversation. Therefore, without even realizing it, you start talking endlessly on any topic. Talking quickly and intensely helps prevent you from being genuine in what you say and how you behave.
  • Sometimes, it’s difficult for you to listen to others and you don’t know how to do it. If someone shares an intimate experience with you or confronts you with a request that you don’t like, you save face by saying “It’s no big deal” or “Don’t worry”. This prevents them from going any deeper or for the conversation to continue along the same lines.

Deflection and other behaviors

It’s important to understand that defense mechanisms aren’t negative in themselves. In fact, they fulfill a function and are present in all human beings. Indeed, we use them on many occasions. The problem arises when we abuse them, and they limit or harm us.

Those who resort to these mechanisms more frequently, tend to make them part of their personality. It could be because, when they first acquired or developed them, they had no other strategies.

Nobody likes to connect with their negative emotions. However, according to research published in SAGE Open, if people have support and emotional education in childhood, are taught to deal with such emotions, and are offered more adaptive strategies, they won’t need to ‘defend themselves’ with avoidance behaviors.

According to Perls, the creator of Gestalt therapy, there are five types of defense mechanisms. Along with deflection, these are:

  • Projection.
  • Confluence.
  • Retroflection.
  • Introjection.

Dealing with deflection

In reality, deflection isn’t always negative and there’s no reason to eradicate it. In fact, it helps people to be diplomatic, conciliate, and maintain harmony in the environment when required. But, if it’s used excessively or rigidly, it leads to disconnecting from the present, emotions, and other people. As such, it prevents individuals from being genuine and living life as it really is.

An individual who demonstrates deflection should be offered the emotional support that they didn’t initially receive, which is what prompted them to deflect in the first place. For example, perhaps, in childhood, when expressing their emotions, they didn’t get the expected response from their environment. Hence this marked the beginning of their deflection.

Offering them a safe space that promotes and encourages their reconnection with the reality of the present, along with their sensations and emotions, will allow the process that was interrupted to resume and heal. This is the main objective pursued in psychotherapy.

Deflection shouldn’t become a habit

In short, deflection is one of the different ways we unconsciously use to handle realities that are too difficult for us to deal with or to avoid connecting with unpleasant sensations, stimuli, and impulses. Although it’s a process that’s normal and useful at times, it’s important that it doesn’t become the usual way of acting, as it can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and frustration, and even burnout.

If you identify yourself in any of the above, you should consider seeking professional support. It can give you tools to help you manage your emotional world in a better way.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Castanedo, S. C., & Sálama, H. (1991). Manual de psicodiagnóstico, intervención y supervisión. México. Manual moderno.
  • Lindblom, J., Punamäki, R.-L., Flykt, M., Vänskä, M., Nummi, T., Sinkkonen, J., Tiitinen, A., & Tulppala, M. (2016). Early Family Relationships Predict Children’s Emotion Regulation and Defense Mechanisms. SAGE Open6(4).
  • Perls, F., Hefferline, G., & Goodman, P. (1951). Gestalt therapy. New York64(7), 19-313.
  • Perls, F. (2013). El enfoque Gestalt y testigos de terapia. Cuatro vientos. 20ª Edición.
  • Polster, E., & Polster, M. (1974). Gestalt therapy integrated: Contours of theory & practice (Vol. 6). Vintage.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.