You see it all the time on TV news – when someone has done something wrong, their supporters will always say, “Well, what about what the other side did?” It’s called blame-shifting, and it’s one of the favorite manipulation tactics of the narcissist. They do it to deflect attention from something they have done and put the focus squarely on you. It’s frustrating and exasperating, but what can you do about it? How can you deal with it?
When a narcissist begins to use blame-shifting, it’s usually an indication that you are touching a nerve. The best thing to do is gently bring the topic of conversation back to what it was originally. It’s also okay to set a boundary about what you will and will not discuss with them.
It’s critical to understand what blame-shifting is and how it is used by all kinds of people – not just narcissists – to distract attention and deflect responsibility. Narcissists love the tactic since they don’t ever want to take responsibility for their actions. How you respond is vital with regard to how the conversation will go from there. Let’s define blame-shifting, examine how narcissists use it, and discuss the most effective techniques to stop it.
What is Blame-Shifting?
Blame-shifting is a manipulation technique that narcissists and other emotionally abusive controlling people will use to distract attention from their behavior and shift the responsibility for any errors to someone else. Usually, this tactic requires that the narcissist knows your weaknesses, tendencies, likes, and dislikes.
Narcissists are very adept at spotting people who don’t like conflict and like to keep the peace. This plays into their manipulation because they know that conflict makes you uncomfortable. Another weakness they can easily spot is any insecurities you might have or doubts about yourself that you might feel.
This is another favorite of the narcissist because they will not hesitate to emphasize those doubts you have and magnify them. You might have these kinds of doubts if you grew up in a family where your emotional needs were disregarded or where you felt unloved and unsupported. In fact, like the narcissist, you might have been emotionally abused, but the two of you learned to cope with that abuse in very different ways.
All of this plays into the narcissist’s manipulation, and they know how to push your buttons in a subtle way so that you may not even realize it’s happening. For example, rather than blaming you outright for something that happened, the narcissist might say something like, “You were distracting me and I couldn’t concentrate.”
You can see how this is both subtle and not-so-subtle in that the narcissist is claiming it’s your fault because you distracted them. Another example would be something like, “We wouldn’t even be having this argument if you weren’t so focused on yourself and your needs. It’s all about you.” These can be very effective techniques, particularly if you’re prone to trying to keep the peace and maintain the relationship.
What is the Difference Between Gaslighting and Blame-Shifting?
Both of these are emotionally and verbally abusive techniques that narcissists use extensively. They also both often occur in a relationship between a narcissist and someone who really wants the relationship to work out. You might be really invested in staying with this person, and in fact, you are likely more invested in that than the narcissist.
That creates a kind of power imbalance because the narcissist picks up on that and uses it to their advantage. While you’re interested in saving the relationship, however, the narcissist is more interested in being in control.
As we’ve discussed, blame-shifting is an often very subtle technique narcissists and other abusers use to distract and shift responsibility for their own actions onto someone else. Gaslighting is a different kind of manipulation that is named after a play that was made into a movie in 1944.
In the movie, the character played by Charles Boyer tried to distract Ingrid Bergman’s character from his criminal acts by convincing her she was going insane. That’s exactly what gaslighting is – it is when a narcissist (or other controlling person) tries to make you believe that you’re insane, or at least that you’re losing your grip on reality.
It’s a common technique that narcissistic parents will use against their own children, and it is tragically all too effective. The children of narcissistic gaslighters often do think they don’t have a firm hold on reality.
It takes considerably more effort to convince an adult they are losing it, but with enough time and consistency, it can be done. Blame-shifting is also easy for parents to do with children, but because of its more subtle nature, it is also easier to do with adults. The goal of both is the same – control – but gaslighting is more direct.
How Does Gaslighting Work?
Like blame-shifting, gaslighting involves the exploitation of your fears or weaknesses or insecurities. Really, gaslighters will use any vulnerability they see in you to convince you that you are the problem, not them.
For example, you’re in an argument with your narcissistic spouse, and they say something like, “I left the office at 4:00.” You ask them what they’ve been doing between the time they left the office and the time they got home. They say, “Nothing, I came straight home.” You then proceed to ask why it took them two hours to get home since they said they left the office at 4 pm and it’s now 6 pm. The narcissist says, “I never said I left at 4 pm!”
At this point, you feel like your head is going to explode. Seriously, it’s extremely frustrating because you know they literally just said they left the office at 4 pm. They will, however, stick to that stance no matter what else you say.
You might know what you heard, but after this happening on several occasions, it’s possible you could come to doubt your version of reality. You might just begin to think that you’re losing it somehow and hearing or seeing things. This is the goal of the gaslighter, and once you begin to doubt yourself, they will use your uncertainty to exert more control over you.
Why Does the Narcissist Use These Manipulation Techniques?
As mentioned, the ultimate goal of both is to gain and exert control over you. With gaslighting, the narcissist wants to weaken your grip on reality. They would really like it if you needed to rely on them to tell you what is real and what is not. That would be the ultimate in empowerment from their point of view because it means they are the arbiter of reality.
With blame-shifting, the narcissist is seeking to escape taking responsibility for their own actions. and they don’t care who they hurt in the process. In this case, they are seeking to control the situation so that their flaws and weaknesses will not be exposed for all to see.
As Sylvie Aimée, who has a master’s degree in psychology, so insightfully points out, “Their entire fake persona is based on their mask of perfection, which must be maintained at all costs. This mask hides the very deep wounds of guilt and shame that they carry from very early childhood abuse and trauma…The Narcissist, instead of dealing with these feelings, chooses not only to hide them but to shift all of it onto the nearest victim: a partner, spouse, child, friend, or colleague. By doing so, they escape any and all accountability for all wrongs they do.”
They are seeking to avoid blame in the current situation, but they are also doing something more insidious. They want to groom you to be their ready scapegoat for any future disagreements or errors they might make.
Another reason behind their behavior is that when they can control you, when they can escape blame for something they have done, and when they know they have a ready scapegoat in you, all of that works to confirm their grandiose ideas of superiority.
What are the Sneaky Ways a Narcissist Shifts Blame?
There are a number of not-so-obvious ways that a narcissist attempts to blame-shift. It’s one thing to simply say, “It’s your fault,” but narcissists often employ other, more subtle, techniques to put the blame back on you.
It’s helpful to understand these techniques so that you will realize when it’s happening to you. That way, you can decide on the appropriate action to take.
Arguing About the Argument
One way the narcissist will try to get you off topic and deflect blame is to blame you for how you are arguing rather than what you are saying. They might laugh at you for what you said or even accuse you of something they are doing.
A narcissist will also try to brush aside the argument by using gaslighting to say something like, “You’re just too sensitive,” or “That’s not what happened.” This is another way to dispute the validity of the argument itself rather than the specifics of what they said or did.
Bringing Up the Past
This is another common technique. You tell your narcissistic partner that you’re upset about them being late, and they respond with something like, “What about last month when you were late and I didn’t say anything to you?” This ‘whataboutism’ is all about getting you to stop pressing the issue.
It’s also a way they can make you feel like you’re being hypocritical. It’s a way to make it seem like the problem is with you, rather than anything they did.
Overreaction and Drama
In this case, the narcissist is seeking to make anyone looking on think that you must be to blame if the narcissist is getting so upset. They want others to think that no one would respond with that level of drama if you hadn’t done something terrible.
Narcissists are great at twisting any argument to make anyone else in the area think you’re the one in the wrong. They have a flair for explaining the situation in a way that makes it appear they are the reasonable one and you are simply a hypersensitive and overly critical person.
Random (and Often Untrue) Accusations
Another tactic narcissists commonly use is to throw random, and often untrue, accusations about something not at all related to the discussion at hand. You’re arguing about your narcissistic partner arriving late to work, and they accuse you of cheating, for example.
When this happens, it often leaves you scratching your head at how they arrived at the particular accusation in question. You don’t see the connection to the conversation you’re having, and the confusion it creates is exactly what the narcissist wants. Suddenly you’re defending yourself instead of the narcissist.
Playing the Victim
When you’ve got the narcissist backed into a corner, they will often make it seem as though they are actually the victim. They may say that they wouldn’t have done what you’re accusing them of doing if you hadn’t wronged them so egregiously.
They are pretending to be the victim as justification for their behavior. They will often use this technique when other people are around. In their mind, it makes it seem like you are such a terrible partner that they can’t possibly be blamed for anything they might have done.
Calling It Religious Retribution
This is a favorite for those religious narcissists who take pleasure in pointing out how God is on their side. Of course, they utilized a distorted interpretation of religion to do this. An example might be if the narcissist does something that results in some terrible consequences. Rather than accept their responsibility for what happened, they will say that God allowed it to happen.
What’s more, they won’t just claim that God did it for no reason, they will say that God did it because you did something that God didn’t like. One woman I know had a great example of this. She had caught her husband cheating, and when she confronted him with incontrovertible proof, after trying numerous other tactics, he finally blurted out, “This happened because you don’t believe in God! We have to start going to church.”
Manipulating Other People Around You
If the narcissist isn’t having any luck manipulating you, they will often turn to the other people around you. They might gaslight them to convince them that anything they saw or heard didn’t happen or didn’t happen the way they thought.
They will often start telling anyone else around you all the terrible things you do to them. You’re left with defending yourself against these accusations or trying to stay on topic. Staying on topic can make it look like you’re acknowledging the truth of those accusations, so that’s often not a good option. If you try defending yourself, however, it can make you look even worse. It’s a no-win situation.
In fact, all of these blame-shifting tactics make it seem like there’s nothing you can do, but there are some strategies you can use to prevent these tactics from being effectively used by the narcissist against you.
What Can You Do to Counteract Blame-Shifting?
It’s a frustrating tactic, and it’s easy to get off track and even question whether the narcissist is right. Maybe it is somehow your fault? It’s not, but let’s explore what you can and should do when the narcissist in your life starts blaming you for something you know they did.
Trust Your Version of Reality
The first thing you need to do is trust your version of reality. Usually, when you perceive a narcissist is doing something or implying something with their words, they are. If you’ve been subjected to narcissistic abuse over a long period of time, it can be difficult to trust yourself, but here are some things you can do to help you do just that:
- Keep a journal: Keeping a journal of events gives you a real-time, contemporary account of what happened. It can help you remember exactly what occurred no matter what the narcissist says.
- Talk to Friends: Talking to friends can help you clear your mind of doubts. Ask them honestly if you seem like the kind of person who consistently misinterprets what’s happening or conversations you’ve had. Chances are they will reaffirm that you can trust yourself.
- Record the Conversation: If it comes right down to it, stop and let the narcissist know you’re going to record the conversation so there will be no question about what was said. While it won’t stop them from gaslighting you, it will help reaffirm your version of events in your own mind.
Keep the Conversation On Topic
This is critical since when a narcissist knows they’re wrong, they will try to distract you and get you off-topic. They don’t want the conversation to continue, and in fact, getting them back on topic can be challenging. Here are some things you might say to get them to stay focused on the topic you’re discussing:
- I’m happy to discuss my actions at a later time, but right now we are talking about what you did. If you will talk with me about that right now, we can talk about your concerns afterward.
- I want to stay focused on the conversation at hand. I feel like if we can resolve this issue, we can strengthen our relationship, and that’s important to me.
- You seem to be wanting to distract me from talking about this topic. Is it because it makes you feel unsafe in some way, and if so, what can I do to help you feel safe in discussing this issue?
Set Appropriate Boundaries and Enforce the Consequences of Violations
It is perfectly acceptable to let the narcissist know that you’re only willing to discuss the current topic at this time, and if they are not able to do so in an honest, straightforward way, then you will not continue the discussion. If you know you want to have a conversation about something you know the narcissist will dispute, you can even set the topic before beginning.
It’s fine to let them know upfront that you want to talk about this particular topic, and if they employ certain tactics like lying, gaslighting, or other distraction techniques, you will end the conversation until they are able to talk about the topic at hand. You can also feel free to walk away at any time you feel the discussion has wandered too far off-track.
If you do that, it’s a good idea to point out the boundary violation in question and restate the consequence you’ve already stated would happen in that event. For example, you might say, “As we discussed before, I can’t tolerate being called names when we disagree. I told you that should that happen, I will walk away. That is happening now, and so, I am ending this conversation. We will need to discuss this topic again and resolve it, but I won’t interact with you if you can’t honor my boundaries.”
You don’t deserve this kind of treatment from a narcissistic abuser or anyone else. It is important that you acknowledge your own responsibility for things you do, but it’s also important that someone you’re in a close relationship with can do the same. Narcissists have problems with this because they can’t bring themselves to accept blame for anything since they feel it makes them look less than perfect.
Their efforts to escape blame are emotionally abusive, and if you allow that, the situation will only get worse over time. It will get to the point where you can lose your own identity if you don’t get away from the situation or confront the narcissist about their behavior. By trusting yourself and standing your ground, you might get the narcissist to change, but it’s unlikely you will ever get them to admit blame unless it somehow suits their purpose.
If you’re trying to understand why a narcissist can’t take responsibility for their actions, you need to read this post about whether they will ever admit to cheating. It will give you vital insight into their fragile self-esteem and why they have problems in this regard.
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