How Can I Control Bad Thoughts?

A reader asks:

It’s hard for me to control my thoughts, especially the really bad ones. Like where I find myself wishing I wasn’t married anymore. Any suggestions for how to control my bad thoughts better?

Your question hinges on two specific words you mentioned, bad and control.

Let’s start with the bad. When you classify a thought as bad, you’re implying that it’s morally wrong. While this may be true of some types of thinking, it’s not for others, and knowing the difference matters.

You can divide all thoughts into two types: deliberate and automatic. Deliberate thoughts are ones you choose. For example, if I asked you to think about what your favorite flavor of ice-cream was, you might mentally imagine several flavors, think of qualities that you like and dislike in each, then settle on a decision that vanilla is your favorite.

I prompted you with the question, but you chose to think more about it. Those are deliberate thoughts because you have control over them. And because you have at least some control over them, it’s fair to describe them as potentially wrong or bad. For example, if I told you to ruminate constantly over every small mistake your spouse or partner made, that’s probably a pretty unhealthy behavior that could lead to some very negative consequences for you and your relationship.

In other words, if you choose to repeatedly engage in deliberate thinking that’s unhelpful or leads to negative outcomes, I think it’s fine to classify that type of thinking as bad—or at least unhelpful.

On the other hand, automatic thoughts are ones you don’t have control over—that dream you had last night, or the wish that you weren’t married anymore that just popped into mind. Some thoughts simply arrive in our consciousness without any choice or intentionality on our part. And because we don’t chose or have control over them, it doesn’t make any sense to classify them as morally good or bad.

But if you do get in the habit of labeling them as bad or wrong, you’re teaching your brain to be afraid of them, which somewhat paradoxically makes them more likely to occur (when you tell your brain something is dangerous, it’s going to be more sensitive to and on the lookout for that thing). So, be careful how you classify your thoughts.

Now, let’s talk about control…

When most people talk about controlling their thoughts, they mean some kind of technique or strategy to get rid of them. Sometimes this is as simple as distraction (immediately watching TV as soon as the bad thoughts pop up) or more complicated self-talk strategies where you try to analyze what the thoughts mean in the hopes of somehow resolving them. In any case, trying to get rid of specific thoughts is not a good idea if you want to have fewer of them.

Decades ago, a researcher named Daniel Wegner showed in his famous white bear studies that thought suppression not only didn’t work, but it actually made things worse…

The harder you try to get rid of a thought the more likely that thought is to show up in the future.

So, what do you do in response to bad, scary, or unhelpful thoughts?

The short answer is that you should stop trying to control your thoughts, and instead, focus on controlling your attention or what you choose to focus on. When a “bad” or disturbing thought shows up, take a second to briefly acknowledge and validate it (“I don’t like this thought, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad or I’m bad for having it”) then refocus your attention on whatever it is you need or want to be doing—all the while being willing to let the “bad” thoughts happen without trying to control them.

When you validate those bad thoughts and are truly willing to have them (even though you don’t focus on them), you’re signaling to your brain that you’re not afraid of them, which, in the long run, will desensitize your brain to them and make them less frequent.

Learn More: If you’re interested, I wrote a longer guide about How to Deal with Troubling Thoughts here →

NOTE: If you’re experiencing thoughts about wanting to harm yourself or someone else, it’s important to talk to your doctor or qualified mental health professional.