Unwanted thoughts creep over us out of nowhere.
They’re weird, graphic, strange, disturbing, ugly, taboo, and embarrassing.
Most of us forget or ignore them – but some of us can’t help but feel ashamed by them. Some of us just can’t look away. In fact, these thoughts may plague us so much that we might feel scared, out of control, and even on the verge of going crazy.
If you’re having unwanted thoughts, dark thoughts, obsessive thoughts, or simply ‘bad thoughts’ I’m here to help. As someone who has had many bizarre thoughts in the past (and who has suffered a lot as a result of it), I understand why they happen and what to do when you have them.
What Are Unwanted Thoughts?
Unwanted thoughts are the spontaneous thoughts we sometimes have that disturb us. Typically, unwanted thoughts are taboo or of a graphic nature. Examples of unwanted thoughts might include:
- killing someone you love
- killing yourself
- mentally/emotionally sabotaging someone
- getting revenge
- raping someone
- stealing something
- cheating on your loved one
- physically disabling someone
- … and so on
This is not an exhaustive list, but it includes the most common unwanted thoughts out there. (By the way, if you’re having suicidal/homicidal thoughts and are seriously considering causing harm, please contact a helpline immediately. You can and will get through this. I send love and support to you <3)
Is it Normal to Have Dark Unwanted Thoughts?
Here’s the million-dollar question. Is having unwanted thoughts normal?
YES! It’s absolutely normal.
The shame that naturally surrounds having these thoughts can make you feel alone and like you’re some kind of freak. But actually you’re not. You’re one of the many billions of people out there who have bizarre, uncalled for thoughts – just ask any therapist, psychologist, or counselor.
As a spiritual counselor myself, I have come across many people who have strange dark thoughts that haunt them.
So you’re not alone. You’re not weird. You’re not a freak. You’re just a human being, like the rest of us.
Why Do We Have Unwanted Thoughts?
We could equally ask the question, “Why do we think?” Well, from an evolutionary standpoint, the neocortex (thinking brain) helped us to evolve and survive. But why the dark thoughts?
From a psychological standpoint, dark thoughts are connected to the Shadow Self (the dark side of our nature). We aren’t our Shadows, but our Shadow is a repressed part of us. Anything taboo or graphic is cast into this darker half of us – and all of this rejected content is buried within the unconscious mind.
From a spiritual standpoint, dark thoughts are just thoughts that have no real meaning. They are the howlings of the monkey mind and have no more importance than the temporary clouds in the sky.
Depending on what lens you choose to look through, unwanted thoughts aren’t ultimately your fault. And I’ll explain why more in-depth soon.
Fear and Neurotic Fixation = The Cause of Suffering
Why do unwanted thoughts cause us to suffer so much?
The answer is that we fear them, fixate on them, and believe they mean something about us.
There are a number of reasons why we might be more prone to neurotic fixation (as opposed to the average person who just ignores the thought and lets it go by):
- the culture we were brought up in (especially if it was repressive)
- religious conditioning
- low self-worth
Essentially, if we have been sent the message (or have come to believe) that there’s something “inherently wrong with us” we will be more prone to neurotic fixation. Why? The answer is that our ego (or sense of self) is trying to reinforce that self-image (because even though such an idea harms us, it makes us feel safe and solid). Such a toxic core belief is at the root of a lot of our fearful behavior and it’s what drives us to fear and fixate in the first place.
When Unwanted Thoughts Become Intrusive Thoughts
Unwanted thoughts become intrusive thoughts when we fear and fixate on them. And the more we fear/fixate, the more power and energy we give such thoughts so that they keep returning.
Have you ever played the “Pink Elephant” game before? The funny thing about this game is that the more you try to avoid thinking about a pink elephant, the more likely the thought is to arise in your mind. Kind of ironic isn’t it?
But this game, in essence, is the premise for a psychological phenomenon known as the “Ironic Process Theory” that states that the more you suppress a thought or thoughts, the more they will appear.
This phenomenon is directly connected to intrusive thoughts: the more we try not to think about something, the more we think about it.
Anxiety, Depression, and OCD
What is the result of fearing and fixating on our unwanted thoughts? Often, the consequence is increased anxiety and depression.
We feel terrified that there’s something deeply, horribly wrong with us at a core level (anxiety) and it makes us feel worthless and full of grief (depression).
But what about OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)?
As someone who has suffered with OCD I know what it’s like. The essence of it is fear, fixation, and obsession and the desire to regain control and a sense of calm through compulsive behavior.
OCD is connected to intrusive thoughts – and in fact, fixating on thoughts is one of the main symptoms of OCD.
Most people who have an unwanted thought ignore it and don’t take it seriously. But someone with OCD tendencies will have trouble letting the thought go. The thought will be so shocking to that person (who already struggles with anxiety) that, in order to prevent any similar thoughts arising, the person will start to ruminate and try to figure out how to stop having them. They’ll also feed the thought with terror, believing that it genuinely means something about them (i.e. they’re a sadist, murderer, pedophile, rapist, betrayer).
Can you see how this all spirals out of control?
Pretty soon the person with OCD tendencies will feel like they’re harboring a deep, dark secret that they have to protect from others – which only adds to the fear, and fuels the thought, increasing its likelihood to emerge again.
How to Stop Bad, Weird, Unwanted Thoughts
As we’ve seen, it’s normal to have unwanted thoughts. Furthermore, dark intrusive thoughts are fuelled by fear and fixation, they result in anxiety and depression, and they’re connected to OCD tendencies. Other factors like trauma, low self-esteem, religious conditioning, and social conditioning also contribute to having many unwanted thoughts.
But how do we stop them?
On my journey, I’ve tried many different approaches. Fun fact from my shadow work journey: at different points, I’ve believed myself to be a cheater, pedophile, freak, loser, and suicide-murderer – all based on random thoughts that have popped into my brain.
Was I tormented by them? Yes, for a time I was. It was a living hell. These were some of my greatest, most shame-festering shadows. I felt like I was harboring this big, dirty, terrifying secret – and that if anyone found out, I would be hated, go to jail, be an eternal reject, killed, you name it.
But thankfully, I now have a deep understanding of these thoughts and realize that there’s nothing essentially wrong with me.
Below, I’ll share with you the methods I used to liberate myself from anxiety, OCD tendencies, and toxic shame:
1. Practice Thought-Awareness Meditation
I’ve put this technique first because it is hands-down the most powerful practice that liberated me the most from my obsessive anxiety and shame.
Thought-awareness meditation, also known as Vipassana or insight meditation, is essentially the practice of seeing clearly into the nature of reality. In fact, vipassana itself is a Pali word that literally means ‘insight’ or ‘clear seeing.’
When we practice thought-awareness meditation, we anchor ourselves to the present moment using an object like the breath, the sounds around us, or perhaps the flickering flame of a candle in front of us.
Thought-awareness meditation helps you to discover the amazing truth that you are not your thoughts, your thoughts don’t define you, and you don’t even control your thoughts: they all arise spontaneously.
Therefore, if you aren’t your thoughts, don’t control them, and therefore they don’t define you, what is there to fear with a weird, taboo, or unwanted thought?
To practice this for yourself, you’ll need to dedicate at least 10 minutes a day to meditation.
Here is, more or less, the exact meditation practice I used:
- Find a comfortable, undisturbed, quiet place
- Light a candle to set the mood and create a symbolic space of calm/focus
- Sit upright in a chair or on a cushion (ensure you’re comfortable, but have a straight spine)
- Set a timer if you like on your phone or on a free app like InsightTimer, Headspace or Calm
- Take a few slow, deep breaths, and unwind your body
- Then, focus on your breath (or another focal point like noises outside, the feeling of your body, etc.)
- Take note of the nuances of the breath (or other object) – for instance, notice the rising and falling of your chest, the inflation and deflation of your stomach, the sound of your breath exiting your nose, the feeling of cold/warm air against your lip
- When your thoughts wander (which they will) bring them back to your focus object – your mind will keep getting distracted and that’s perfectly normal and okay, just keep gently bringing your focus back to your breath
- Eventually, you’ll shift into the role of the observer – this happens when you feel detached from your thoughts and can simply observe them without becoming them – this could last for a second, a few moments, to a minute (it takes practice)
- When you enter this space of thought-observation, simply ask “where does this come from?” and without analyzing, simply look and see for yourself
- You might like to ask this question (i.e., “where does this thought come from?”) every time you catch yourself absorbed in a thought
- Keep bringing your awareness back to your breath (or other focal object)
- When you’re finished, stretch your body, and take a few moments to reflect
It’s normal to discover that your mind is completely out of control when first meditating. So don’t fret. It’s normal. It can take practice to find that space of inner calm and simply observe your thoughts, but keep at it.
You can also play the following game to help you understand that you do not control your thoughts, and therefore they don’t define you:
- Think of a flower
- Picture a face
- See a color
- Hear a song
- Imagine a word
Now, reflect and ask yourself, “where did that thought come from?” and “Did I deliberately, consciously choose that thought?”
You will discover each time that the thought you have is completely spontaneous: it arises out of the blue.
2. Practice Loving-Kindness Toward Your Shadow
If you find the psychological lens and theory of the Shadow Self helpful, you’ll agree that the unwanted thoughts we have are connected to everything we’ve repressed.
I find that it helps to take a micro (psychological) and macro (spiritual) look at the issue of dark unwanted thoughts. Showing compassion towards myself was one of the greatest ways I reduced the anxiety surrounding intrusive thoughts.
Realizing that all dark thoughts are connected with the rejected Shadow that simply wants to get my attention, I can be kind towards myself and explore the alienated parts of me.
For example, by learning how to love myself and practicing shadow work, I can gently explore my repressed anger and how it manifests as twisted sadistic thoughts because it has been festering away in the unconscious mind for so long.
You can do the same with any issue – but be careful of pathologizing yourself (which, ironically, is the shadow of psychology). When you affix yourself with a certain diagnosis/label (such as neurotic, socially anxious, clinically depressed, disturbed) you shut yourself into a little box and don’t make space for the entirety of your being.
Yes, it’s helpful to get a professional diagnosis (especially if there is a mental illness issue), but just be aware that you are so much more than a label or idea. This reminder is very important to understand as it can save you a lot of stress and anguish.
Some of the best ways to practice loving-kindness toward your Shadow include:
- positive affirmations
- showing gratitude toward yourself
- practicing self-care
- practicing self-forgiveness
- giving your Shadow a voice through art, journaling, etc.
Can you think of any other practices? If so, let me know in the comments.
3. Excavate your buried core beliefs
When you have a deeply held negative belief about yourself – also known as a toxic core belief – it’s very hard to be free of the guilt, shame, and terror surrounding dark intrusive unwanted thoughts.
For instance, if you believe at a core level, that you are “bad,” “unlovable,” “worthless,” “crazy,” or “broken,” your ego will seek to reinforce this belief by fixating on your unwanted thoughts.
Why does your ego (or sense of self) hold onto these toxic, damaging beliefs even though they harm you? The answer is that it gives your ego a warped sense of safety – that it knows who it is, where it stands, and how to protect itself in this world. What your ego fears the most is ego death: the experience of being nothing, not existing, and essentially, being annihilated.
So excavating and questioning your buried core beliefs can be met with a lot of unconscious resistance. You might be overly skeptical, overly busy, or too distracted to touch your core belief: all are defenses of the ego to try and protect your basic sense of self. After all, who are you when your core belief that “you’re fundamentally _______” is taken away?
The answer is that you can be whoever you want to be. Or, more accurately, you can be who you were authentically born to be. And you can replace this toxic core belief with a more realistic, healthier one.
Examples of healthy core beliefs include:
- I am capable
- I am lovable
- I am whole
- I am worthy
- I am beautiful
- I am intelligent
- I am strong
- I am interesting
- I am talented
- … and so forth
If you would like help with uncovering your toxic core beliefs, I recommend that you read our core beliefs article for more guidance. You might also like to look into reading books on core beliefs such as MindWorks: A Practical Guide to Changing Thoughts, Beliefs, and Emotional Reactions and Prisoners of Belief: Exposing and Changing Beliefs That Control Your Life.
Those of us who have dark thoughts (which by the way, is most of us) tend to harbor the deep conviction that “there is something wrong with me” or “I am a terrible person.” However …
the reality is that having a dark or disturbing thought does not make you a “bad” or evil” person.
The truth is that your thoughts are spontaneous and do not mean anything about you.
It’s only when you fixate on these thoughts and fuel them with fear that they start to gain power and increase in number.
By practicing meditation, loving-kindness, shadow work, and exploring your core beliefs, you’ll be able to liberate yourself from the shame, fear, and pain of thinking weird, taboo things.
This is not about “getting rid of” thoughts, as your thoughts are spontaneous, but instead, seeing through the illusion that your thoughts mean something horrible or terrible about you.