Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

A Light Touch with Dark Thoughts

You likely experience plenty of random thoughts and impulses that are scary.

If you are honest with yourself, you’ll admit that you experience plenty of random thoughts and impulses that you really wouldn’t want your mother, spouse, children, boss, or anyone for that matter to know about. These free associations (or self talk) are not pretty! They rarely are anything but upsetting and disturbing if you focus on them for very long or expect something better from yourself. Sexual and aggressive themes are typically the order of the day. One good example is the thought or impulse to engage in sexual behavior with those who are clearly off limits—an attractive neighbor, co-worker, friend, stranger, and even a teen. Aggressive thoughts and impulses about our spouse, co-worker, boss, children, and strangers also can be very disturbing too.

Perhaps it would be useful to take a more mindful perspective on these impulses and thoughts by acknowledging that they exit and can be expected from anyone. Yet we can also remind ourselves that we don’t need to attach or act on these impulses either. Taking a light touch with dark thoughts may actually help us not act on them. Just because you have an itch doesn’t mean you need to scratch it! I have found this approach has been helpful to many of my patients who struggle with their naughty impulses and desires. 

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One important example regarding intimate relationships is the notion that once you are married or in a fully committed relationship you should never again have sexual thoughts or impulses about others. In conducting marriage preparation classes as well as couples therapy, I have often heard couples articulate this myth in one way or another. The notion that once you are in a committed relationship you will no longer find others extremely compelling is certainly a myth. You will, but you don’t necessarily have to act on the impulse to have affairs.

Another important example involves sexuality and minors. We so often vilify any adult who sexually engages with a minor (especially those in authority such as teachers, coaches, and clerics). Of course this behavior is illegal, immoral, and very destructive for sure and must be condemed. Yet anyone who works closely around minors (especially teens) will admit that if they are honest with themselves on occasion they have found themselves sexually attracted to some of these youngsters. Think about it. A few years ago Miss America (not Miss Teen America) was only 17 years old—a minor!

A final example is aggression towards others. Ask any parent and again, if they are honest, they have had times when they have wanted to slap their child, shake their baby, or strangle acting out teenagers. They have had moments when they would like to punch their spouse, in-law, and parent, boss, and so forth.

We all experience dark thoughts that include impulses and temptations that are embarrassing but also impulses that are immoral, illegal, and downright disgusting. But what we actually do with these impulses matters a lot. Normalizing our impulses and then working to maintain good impulse control is critical. Easier said than done, for sure, but to deny our dark side might ultimately harm us more than accepting it and coping proactively with our inner most dark thoughts and impulses. Forcing these impulses underground, refusing to discuss our dark side, and having unrealistic expectations about our thoughts and impulses may actually increase the odds that we inappropriately act out later.  

So, what do you think?

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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