Blame Shifting Defined
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Does your partner always blame you? Deflecting responsibility (externalizing blame) is a common manipulation tactic to avoid accountability. If someone deflects blame, they are shifting the burden for their actions onto someone else to evade culpability.
- Being blamed for distance and lack of communication when your partner refuses to open up or have meaningful conversations.
- Having an affair blamed on you not being attentive enough when your partner chose infidelity.
In relationships where one partner consistently shifts blame, it gradually erodes the accused’s self-esteem and self-trust. The target of blame is left feeling hurt and confused by false accusations. Some targets may even apologize for mistakes they did not make, particularly if their partner is within a rage.
In truth, the blamer often knows the accusations are false but needs to protect a fragile ego.
While many types of partners shift blame, this article will focus specifically on those with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorders, where unfair blaming is an especially common pattern.
Neural Basis of Blame Shifting
It’s important to discuss blame shifting and the brain. If there are problems with neurochemistry, neural connections, or the capabilities and capacity of certain regions, we will see that in the form of symptoms, personality issues, cognitive limitations, or behavior problems.
As you are aware, the brain generates all mental and emotional conditions. So it shouldn’t surprise you to find we have neural pathways associated with
- accepting blame,
- seeing our faults (insight), and
For that small list I offered, the neural pathways that generate morals, empathy, self-awareness, ego-threat responding, and cognitive processing of facts are either activated (i.e., threat responding) or de-activated (morality) within the encounter.
There is more to this picture.
Cognitive Distortions Enable Blame Shifting
Due to entitlement and an atypical manner of processing information associated with their offensive behavior, it is common to witness cognitive distortions. Some have wondered if their narcissistic partner was experiencing a delusional episode when in the midst of these distortions.
In the presence of cognitive distortions, facts will not matter. Evidence will not matter. Your logical and tempered arguments will not matter.
Some survivors have informed me they have provided their narcissistic partner with video evidence of harmful behavior. At best, they received minimization (which is accepting the facts but reframing it as ‘not so bad.’)
For some, when they see a greater prize or payoff (e.g., saving their image or earning something else they want), they may admit fault solely as a manipulation tactic because their image or another goal is suddenly more important. This is a common approach for narcissists who are suddenly exposed (perhaps even publicly) or reprimanded by others for their bad behavior.
What matters more than anything to someone with narcissistic personality disorder is the protection of a fragile sense of self and ego.
They cannot tolerate anyone highlighting their faults, which could lead them to suddenly feel badly about themselves. It is a pain they tend to find unbearable. Some will react with rage, potentially placing your safety at risk.
The Emotional Drivers of Blame Shifting - Regulation
In a 2022 study, Kaufman and colleagues shed light on the dynamics of blame shifting. A series of studies found that some people are inclined to unfairly blame others for their own poor decisions and mistakes.
This tendency was stronger when they were experiencing negative emotions, as well as among those who struggled to manage their emotions effectively. The researchers see this blame shifting as a type of projection – when someone attributes their own unacceptable feelings or impulses to someone else.
They suggest it may serve as a way to protect oneself from unpleasant emotions. However, this blame shifting harms those who become targets of irrational blame, facing accusations rather than understanding.
This study did not look at people with narcissistic personality disorder specifically, but because individuals with this disorder have a hard time controlling their emotions, it is likely that their pattern of shifting blame is linked to their severe regulation deficits.
Blame Shifting Resets Their Fragile Ego
Usually, cognitive distortions will lead a person toward negative emotions and feeling badly about themselves. However, the cognitive distortions of narcissists and psychopaths allow them to feel better about themselves and can often get them out of ‘trouble.’
Within the process of shifting blame away from themselves, they believe (and will try to convince others – including you) that they are the victim. You harmed them. “Look at what you made me do!?!”
This externalized style of thinking and playing victim often go hand in hand. We often see blame-externalization behavior within the context of gaslighting. This is a very frequent manner in which gaslighting is demonstrated within some narcissistic relationships.
By blaming you, minimizing their actions, and making excuses, they receive some pretty nice benefits. It lets them off the hook (in their mind) for lying to you, yelling at you, exposing you to silent treatments, betrayal, inaction, stealing, cheating, indulging in selfish pleasure, etc.
It all gets erased by shifting the blame to you or someone else. Suddenly, they have nothing to feel badly about, because if only you had done or said ‘XYZ’ this situation would not have happened. For the narcissist, it means their fragile sense of self resets back to their belief that – “I’m the good guy!”
Flawed Thinking Enables Abuse
A recent study examined cognitive distortions in adolescents engaged in bullying behavior. The researchers looked at “self-serving cognitive distortions” which included thoughts and beliefs that allowed the offenders to minimize and justify their harmful actions, such as blaming others, minimizing the harm caused, and making negative assumptions about others (Brugman et al., 2023).
The study found that the adolescent offenders tended to show high levels of these distortions, along with lower moral reasoning abilities. While this study focused on an adolescent population, the concepts of “self-serving cognitive distortions” align with common cognitive distortions seen in narcissists and psychopaths, such as externalizing blame, minimizing harm, and feeling entitled to mistreat others.
The research suggests cognitive distortions that enable blame shifting could contribute to harmful behaviors like bullying and, I suspect, narcissistic abuse. However, more research is needed to specifically examine these distortions in narcissistic adults.
This adolescent bullying study provides some potential initial evidence that distorted thinking patterns could play a significant role in narcissists’ tendencies to aggressively blame shift and rationalize the harm they cause in relationships.
The Path to Empowerment
In relationships with narcissists, blame shifting serves as a manipulative tactic to avoid accountability. Behind this behavior lie two powerful drivers: cognitive distortions that allow narcissists to justify blame and protect their fragile egos, and emotion dysregulation tied to hypersensitive ego-threat responses (e.g., anger), which reduces their baseline morality and empathy.
Though narcissists firmly believe their own distortions, the accusations and blame they unleash remain baseless and unfair. For survivors, understanding this flawed mindset makes clear that the blame reflects the narcissist’s limitations, not their own faults.
Rather than accept undeserved blame, this knowledge can empower survivors to recognize the narcissist’s blame shifting stems from disordered thinking and poor regulation of negative emotions.
By focusing inward on healing and seeking genuine connections, blame-shifting experiences can ultimately help identify healthy relationships moving forward.
🌱 Looking to find actionable strategies, deepen your understanding, and work with me? I created a course just for that!
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Best ♡ Rhonda Freeman, PhD | Neuropsychologist
© 2017 All Rights Reserved (Updated 2023)
(2023) Moral judgment, self-serving cognitive distortions, and peer bullying among secondary school adolescents, Journal of Moral Education,
Kaufmann, M., Quirin, M., & Baumann, N. (2022). Blaming others: Individual differences in self-projection, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 196,