Why You Pick Fights When You’re Stressed Out


One moment you and your partner are discussing where to eat, and the next, you’re angrily defending your dietary choices. Does that sound familiar?  

Or perhaps you’re embarrassed about how poorly you wrote that last report when your colleague says, “Great job.”  

“You try writing 5000 words at midnight, genius!” you snap…before realizing they weren’t out to get you at all. 

How did those situations escalate so fast!? 

Whether things tend to explode with coworkers, friends, or clients (I hope not), these are two examples of scenarios that could have been avoided. Somewhere along the line in these cases, you decided that the best defense was a good offense—probably subconsciously—and you want to know how to prevent it. 

If you regularly pick fights when you’re feeling insecure or a little off, this article will help you understand why it happens and how to stop.

Why Do We Pick Fights When We’re Stressed? 

Chances are, you don’t deliberately set out to pick fights. They’re upsetting, tiring, and probably confusing, too.  

So why do you do it at all? 

Whether you like it or not, picking a fight will almost always get you just that: a fight. Here’s why it happens in the first place. 

Why Do We Do It? 

We’re more likely to go on the offensive when we: 

  • Feel unsafe, physically or psychologically 
  • Feel like we’re being corrected or attacked 
  • Are forced to face our vulnerabilities, whether real or perceived 
  • Sense that others aren’t taking us seriously 
  • Believe others are rejecting us or judging us negatively 
  • See ourselves negatively and/or 
  • Place great importance on what others think of us. 

Can you think of a time when you’ve fought for any of these reasons? 

Maybe, but it can be very hard to spot in the moment. 

Like many other defense mechanisms outlined in the Stress Coaching Cards, “going into attack mode” is often an automatic habit that people develop over time without realizing. 

Maybe it helped you win some peace and quiet from rowdy siblings, or it was the only way to get your opinion heard with your family. 

However it developed for you, it can be hard to realize that you’re the one picking fights when it happens—that makes it a tough habit to break. 

It’s even harder to realize when: 

  • There’s no clear “trigger” for the fight you’re in, like an insult or provocation 
  • The person you’re fighting with doesn’t “put the brakes on” and call you out. 

Let’s take a look at how things escalate. 

Defensive Communication: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy 

As we’ve seen, going on the offensive is actually (and rather paradoxically) a defense mechanism. 

When you become “aggressively defensive” in your attitudes and communication, you are instantly assuming that your conversation partner holds a negative opinion of you. It creates an unpleasant context for communication, and the more defensively we try to communicate, the more it works against us. 

In practice, attacking others is a very quick, easy way to upset or anger them too, which leads to a fight. 

Things inevitably heat up, and it can be hard to realize that you—yes, you—are the one who’s perpetuating the cycle.  

Going down the warpath is not a great communication strategy if you want to build strong, positive relationships with those around you. Because it’s fuelled by stress and leads to more stress, I created the Picking a Fight Stress Coaching Card. 

3 Tips To Stop Going Into Attack Mode 

If defensive communication is your go-to strategy, you’re probably always going to have some rationale at hand for why you do it a certain way. 

In other words, your natural response will be to justify yourself, even if you’ve never been asked. 

Here are three tips to help you break that cycle. 

1. Reflection 

You can start to understand why you get defensive by looking back at past fights and analyzing what happened.  

Either alone or with a trusted partner, here are some reflection questions that may give you more insight into your triggers and reactions. 

This can help you prevent it from happening more often. 

  • What happened on that occasion? 
  • What were my reactions? 
  • What words/actions/details triggered me? 
  • How did others around me respond? 
  • Why do I go into “self-defense mode”? 
  • When are these fights most likely to occur? 
  • What are some common elements in these scenarios? 

2. Count To Ten 

In stressful situations where you’re probably likely to get defensive, another simple tip is to pause for a moment before you react. 

Picking a fight is an impulsive reaction, not a considered response. 

So, count to ten before you do or say anything, as even this short break can very often be enough to stop you from reacting without thinking. 

3. Express Yourself! 

The habit of defending yourself might have been developed very early on in your life, possibly when you didn’t have the emotional expression skills that you do now. 

Back then, it may have been the only way to achieve a few goals: 

  • To seem bigger or more powerful 
  • To avoid acknowledging painful feelings 
  • To avoid expressing them out loud, either because you couldn’t, or you didn’t want to. 

There’s never a bad time to start developing your emotional expression skills, especially as this can help you avoid creating unnecessary conflict. 

Try asking yourself this first question as a baby step: What am I feeling? 

Then, you can work your way up. As you develop the ability to control your feelings and mindset, you will tackle some of the main reasons you get aggressive when it’s not called for.

Nicolien Dellensen

Nicolien Dellensen, Senior Consultant and behavioral specialist and creator and owner of the ’Sphere of Influence 360º’ a comprehensive concept and (360) online tool about interactive dynamics.

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