Do You Have Bad Thoughts?

03.03.24 06:30 PM By Peak Mind

Do You Have Bad Thoughts?

I have a confession...and I hope you'll hear me out before you run screaming, appalled, and hit unsubscribe. 

I had an intense urge to kick a dog. 

Let me clear, I didn't do it, but I thought about it. 

I am, admittedly, not a dog person. But I'm not a monster, either. I was in Puerto Viejo, a cute little beach town in Costa Rica where some dogs just sort of roam around. Maybe they're strays or maybe they have homes and are just off leash. I don't know. What I do know is that they bark at all hours. There I am, lying in bed, trying to get some sleep and unable to because of the incessant barking. I was super annoyed.

And in that moment, my mind did exactly what minds do. 

I had the thought, "Man, I want to kick that dog." I envisioned throwing on pants and shoes, stomping outside, and raring back to connect my foot with that animal with as much force as possible.

The reality is, I am not the kind of person who actually wants to harm dogs, or any living thing. I just wanted it to shut the heck up. 

If you're still with me, I have one more teeny confession...I don't feel bad in the slightest that I had those thoughts. Again, I'm not a monster. I just know how our minds work and why those thoughts showed up. 


Our Minds Are Problem-Solvers

Our minds are natural problem-solvers. That's what they do. Spot a problem, fix it. This is a really helpful feature, but it can also lead to what people label as "bad" thoughts.

For me, I wanted to sleep but couldn't because of the noise. In other words, I had a problem. My oh-so-helpful mind started throwing out solutions. "Kick the dog to make it stop." That's it. Just my mind trying to solve a problem. 

At it's extreme, this is often where suicidal thoughts come from. When people feel so overwhelmed or sad or hopeless, suicidal thoughts arise as a solution to the perceived problem. In this case, the problem might be wanting to get rid of feelings or not be a burden or escape untenable circumstances. Whatever the specifics, it might technically be solved by no longer being alive. Now, hear me. It's not a helpful, viable solution - much like kicking the dog isn't, either - but that's all it is. Just our minds trying to fix things.

I've heard all kinds of other "bad" thoughts from people who aren't awful humans, either. If you've ever wished (which is just another word for thought) that someone would die, you could be horrible...or you could be experiencing a lot of distress in that relationship and you feel stuck in it, and your mind is just looking for an out. Same thing for you parents who've had the thought "I wish I'd never had kids." You're not a bad person. Parenting is hard, and you're probably having that thought right in the midst of a challenge. Again, your mind is simply attempting to solve a problem.

Consider times when you've been bothered by the thoughts that go through your mind. Do they make sense if you consider them from this angle? Is it possible that your mind might've just been trying to solve a problem for you? 


Minds Are Like Toddlers

Sometimes "bad" thoughts aren't necessarily in response to problems. Sometimes they come up - and keep coming up - because minds are like toddlers. 

What happens when a little cutie stumbles across a cuss word? It's surprising to hear foul language from a little mouth, and the response from grown ups is often laughter. Toddlers love attention, so what do they do? Put that word on repeat, going so far past funny. 

Minds do the same thing. They might create a weird or upsetting thought for some unknown reason (I think of it like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks). But if it gets a reaction - like horror ("How could I even think that? That's so disturbing!") or fear ("Oh my gosh! This could really happen!") or disgust ("Gross!) - toddler mode kicks in. It got a reaction from you, so it keeps right on going, pressing that button like an annoying younger sibling playing I'm Not Touching You.

For example, everyone who has driven over a bridge has had the thought, "What if I just drove off the side." Lots of folks react to that thought with "Oh, that's a weird thought," then continue on driving. Others, however, are really bothered by it. "I shouldn't have that thought. What does it mean?!? Does it mean I want to do that? That I WILL do that? I can't think that way!" They're clearly bothered by that thought, which means reacting to it, giving it attention...and the toddler mind will put it on repeat.


What to Do with Bad Thoughts

If you've ever found yourself bothered by some sort of "bad" thought, first, congrats. You're human. We all have them. In fact, there's a classic study that looked at the thoughts of people with and without OCD (a condition characterized by intrusive, repetitive, upsetting thoughts), and the results might be surprising....there's no difference. Everyone has weird, disgusting, violent, bothersome, disturbing thoughts at some point. The difference is just whether you get freaked out by them or not. 

So what do you do with "bad" thoughts? 


You don't have act on it, and you don't have to give it any attention. You can simply note it and go on about your business.

Besides, in my opinion, there really isn't any such thing as bad thoughts. They're just thoughts, and they almost assuredly make sense in some way, if you take into account how minds actually work. 

It's important to remember that minds are thought generating, problem-solving machines, spewing out stuff and seeing what sticks. If you give it a reaction or take its suggestions seriously, it'll take that as a sign that it's on the right track, and it'll keep doing what it's doing. Instead, simply say, "Thanks, but no thanks" or give it a non-committal, non-phased "Whatever, Mind." Even better, find the humor or absurdity in it. 

Remind yourself that you are not your mind. A lot of thoughts arise, unbidden. We're not thinking them on purpose, and their presence doesn't mean anything about us (other than we're normal human beings). Thoughts are just thoughts. Mental hiccups - annoying and weird but essentially meaningless. We can't control a lot of our thoughts, so there's no need to beat yourself up or feel ashamed about them. And that's why I don't feel bad about anything that crosses my mind. 




"Just because I don't do bad things doesn't mean I don't have bad thoughts." - Kristin Kreuk 


Dr. Ashley Smith photo

Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Peak Mind Co-founder

Peak Mind

Peak Mind Co-founders Peak Mind: The Center for Psychological Strength