Forbidden Thoughts – How Do You Cope With Them?

“I wouldn’t dare, or would I?  Where is this coming from?  Is there something wrong with me?  Am I crazy?  Am I the only one who thinks like this?  Should I tell someone?”


Have you ever thought of……

cheating on your spouse?  What about slapping an obnoxious colleague?  Or ramming some jerk off the road?  Have you ever had thoughts about taboo or wild sex?  Or divorce?  Or leaving home?  What about harming someone close?  Or even harming yourself? 

Then there are the tamer varieties:  Do you not fantasise about food, for example, when you are on a diet?  Who has not gloated over someone else’s misfortune or coveted a neighbour’s house, car, or flashy lifestyle when we want to picture ourselves as perfectly content?

Few of us would dispute the notion that humans spend time thinking thoughts we’d rather not have.  Maybe not all the time, but we’ve all been there at some point.

Most of us will never act out our forbidden impulses.

Yet, just the fact that we can think such thoughts may be so disturbing that we make Herculean efforts to repress them, to keep them secret.  “I couldn’t even tell my husband,” recalls Beth, a gentle mother of three, after experiencing vivid thoughts about hurting her own children.  “I spent a lot of time asking myself, Am I sick or something?  Have I really lost it?  What does it mean”?

For as long as humankind has celebrated the creative and wonderful powers of the mind, we’ve been forced to confront the more darker side of the imagination — thoughts so mortifying, so frightening, so contrary to social custom and our own principles that we recoil in disgust, guilt or fear.


In 1852, nearly three decades before the founding of modern psychology, author Herman Melville offered one of the more poignant observations on the workings of the mind.  “One trembles to think,” he wrote, “of that mysterious thing in the soul, which….in spite of the individual’s own innocent self, will still dream horrid dreams, and mutter unmentionable thoughts.”

More recently, C.S Lewis in his book “Surprised by Joy” is very descriptive and vivid or graphic in relation to our inner self-talk and thoughts in that he says that when he looked inside himself he found “…a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds“.

In times past, we blamed these dark impulses on the Devil, or on our own weak moral character.  We regarded thoughts as but a step away from deeds, and beat up on ourselves — or were reprimanded by others — to squelch the inappropriate notions at every turn!  It was “sinful” to even have the thoughts in the first place.  (No coincidence, surely, that five of the seven deadly sins – anger, avarice, envy, greed, and lust — refer specifically to states of mind.)

Even today, after more than a century of scientific exploration of the mind, Melville’s “unmentionable thoughts” still raise vexing questions.  What causes them?  Do they reflect the “real” us?  Should they be read as warning signs?  Are some thoughts truly off-limits?  If so, when does a thought cross the line, and how should it be dealt with?

“For a lot of people, it’s like discovering they have an animal inside them,” says University of Washington sociologist Dr Pepper Schwartz who studies sexuality and sexual fantasies.  “Oftentimes the feeling is ‘My God!’  Am I one of those weirdos you read about in the paper?”

Research is yielding some intriguing, if not altogether reassuring, data.  Forbidden thoughts — thoughts we feel we shouldn’t have because they violate unwritten, yet ingrained, cultural codes — are universal, although the specific content varies across cultures, populations, and historical periods.  Unwanted sexual fantasies, for example, typically involve behaviours our culture tells us are inappropriate, such as adultery, homosexuality, incest, and rape.  What emerges is an intriguing and complex picture of the mind, encompassing everything from genes and neurotransmitters to self-esteem and “family values.”  Ultimately, the dilemma of forbidden thinking rests on the courage to believe in ourselves.

Where Do They Come From?

Studies suggest that our individual vulnerability to forbidden thoughts is partly inherited, and that some of us are simply “wired” to dwell on worrisome thoughts.  Yet studies also show that nearly all of us can be made vulnerable thought a variety of external influences — influences that, in many cases, are intensifying.  In fact, some psychologists speculate that our culture’s increasingly fluid and permissive value systems may paradoxically be rendering us more vulnerable to forbidden thoughts — and less able to cope with them.

“At one time, we had much narrower standards of what thoughts were right and wrong — and nearly everything was wrong,” says the University of Washington’s Schwartz. “Today, it’s far less clear where those lines are.”

This is especially prevalent in the sexual arena.  Ours is a culture that promotes sexual fulfilment and liberation while simultaneously insisting on restraint and “responsibility.”  Absent any clear standards for “healthy” thinking, some individuals attempt to ban their own sexual thoughts with such vigour that they close off an entire sector of experience.

The notion that we somehow create forbidden thoughts may sound strange.  Yet many investigators argue that what we commonly refer to as “thoughts” doesn’t begin as either “good” or “bad,” but simply as a stream of randomly generated “value-free” images and symbols.  “If we were somehow able to build a thought recorder, what we would record would be just about every kind of thought imaginable,” states psychologist Dr David H Barlow, Director of the Centre for Stress and Anxiety Disorders at the State University of New York, Albany.  “Sexual thoughts, violent thoughts, some of them are very strange and bizarre — but for the most part, fleeting.  They go in one ear and out the other, and a millisecond later you’ve forgotten about them.”

Why Do They Stick?

Where things get complicated, and where the trouble can start, is when thoughts aren’t fleeting.  For a variety of reasons, the brain seizes on a particular thought, holding it up for scrutiny and determining whether action is required.  In some cases, however, this scrutinising mechanism appears to go haywire.  The partly processed thought somehow becomes permanent, or “intrusive,” and can generate unpleasant emotional or physiological responses.  In other words, researchers say, it’s not the thought itself that is forbidden, but our reaction to it — a reaction that can involve intense feelings of shame, guilt, and even fear.

Precisely how this fixation occurs is not fully understood, but investigators have identified several main factors that can bring it on.

  1. Some fixation, for example, is clearly chemically induced.  Research on individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), who appear genetically predisposed to focus, or “ruminate,” on painful or strange thoughts, suggests that vulnerability has a neurological basis.  Similar conclusions arise from studies on stress, a condition that can temporarily alter neurotransmitter flows and make subjects more likely to fixate on particularly unpleasant thoughts. These findings could help explain why drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft can inhibit or moderate the fixation process.
  2. One factor may be what psychologists call “controllability.”  Researchers have also identified certain higher-level cognitive factors that can influence the kinds of thoughts the brain latches on to, and how it interprets them.  Closely related to self-esteem, controllability is the measure of an individual’s sense of power, or control, over events in his or her life.  The more in-control we feel, Barlow says, the less likely we are to interpret any event, whether external or coming from inside our heads, as worthy or concern or rumination.  “On the other hand,” says Barlow, “if you feel that events are essentially out of your control, you’re probably going to be much more vulnerable” to forbidden or unwanted thoughts.  In other words, the vulnerable individual is likely to “read” more into a forbidden thought, just as a chronically anxious employee, for example, tends to read more into the boss’ tone of voice or facial expression.
  3. Dr Frank Fincham, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Wales indicates that, “how people react to unwanted thoughts depends a lot on his or her level of self-esteem.”  If we have low self-esteem, somehow or other, we feel more vulnerable and less able to cope.
  4. A more central and complex factor, and one that researchers are just beginning to unravel, is the link between our forbidden thoughts and our larger system of values — our internalised template for judging right from wrong.  A forbidden thought is, by definition, one that violates that template, and the resulting pain, researchers say, is part of what helps us to function as social beings.  Displeasure over a fantasy of violence or adultery, for example, “may simply suggest that people approach life in a principled way,” argues Dr Norman Epstein, a psychologist in the family studies department at the University of Maryland.  “If a thought like that pops into your head but you’re not bothered by it at all, that could be a problem.”  The absence of this painful response may help explain some violent and other antisocial behaviour.
  5. Studies also suggest that past experiences, especially during upbringing, play an enormous role and that individuals from authoritarian backgrounds are far more likely to overreact to, and overcompensate for, forbidden thoughts.  Research shows, for example, that persons raised in heavily religious households, where “evil” thoughts are regarded as evil deeds-in-waiting, are more likely than their non-religious counterparts to fixate on thoughts they feel are sinful or otherwise inappropriate.  Their “God’s will” world view may have produced a low sense of controllability and self-esteem, and thus a higher-than-average sense of vulnerability.

If I Sit on Them and Suppress Them Will That Work?

Ever since Freud, psychologists and the lay public alike have understood that suppression of thoughts and feelings can have unintended consequences.  But in the mid-1980’s, research by University of Virginia psychologist Dr Daniel Wegner, gave a whole new meaning to the word “backfire”:  The harder one tries not to think of a particular thought or image, Wegner found, the more likely it is to become intrusive and repetitive (ever had someone say to you, “Now, I don’t want you to think about pink elephants” – and what do you do? – of course, think about pink elephants!)

Wegner’s experiments were ingeniously simple.  He set people in a room with a tape recorder and asked them to say whatever came to mind, with one caveat:  They were not to think about a white bear.  “People mentioned the bear about once a minute, despite the fact that they weren’t supposed to be thinking about it,” Wegner says.  “They would try all sorts of tricks, but it would keep coming back to them.”

So, why does it keep coming back? 

  1. It is suspected that in suppressing a thought, the mind is still “monitoring” the “contents of consciousness” for any vestige of the painful thought, and is thus more sensitive to that thought.
  2. Another theory is that in attempting to distract ourselves from one thought by thinking of another, the brain creates associations between the two thoughts.  As a result, the distracting thought actually helps bring back the thought it was intended to mask.
  3. Still other researchers theorise that by suppressing a forbidden thought, the brain never gets a chance to fully process the thought.  The individual then is never able to see that the forbidden thought is unrealistic and extremely unlikely to be translated into action.  In short, without full processing, the thought may remain unresolved and will keep re-emerging in the consciousness for more processing – and more suppression.

How Do You Get Rid of Them?

  1. Not unexpectedly, many researchers and therapists suggest that the way to loosen the grip of forbidden or unwanted thoughts begins with the de-suppression of them.  Wegner and psychologist Dr James Pennebaker, at Southern Methodist University, advocate confiding one’s forbidden thoughts.  In other words, tell someone about the thoughts.  They have found that subjects who do discuss their thoughts can feel better both emotionally and physically. Part of it may simply be getting a troublesome thought off our “chests.”  But research by Dr Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California-Irvine who has worked with Vietnam vets and other trauma survivors, believes that sharing helps us realise we aren’t alone in our anguish, that others have unwanted or forbidden thoughts as well.  This, she says, can help reduce the stigma that often creates the forbidden thought in the first place. That may mean seeking professional help, especially if we feel a thought is in danger of breaking out.  A good rule of thumb:  If a thought is causing pain, or interfering with your life, it’s probably time to talk to someone.
  2. We should not blindly rely on culture to supply our mental standards.  We must be willing to take matters into our own hands. In severe cases, where an individual is paralysed by his or her reaction to forbidden thoughts, drugs or intensive therapy may be needed.  In less serious instances, however, counselling or therapy helps people to recreate or recover a healthier, more realistic perspective on their thoughts.  And while these treatments are often conducted in the controlled environment of a therapist’s office, psychologists say, they may also be effectively applied in everyday situations.
    1. Some therapists, for example, give their clients “permission” to think the forbidden thought for a specific period of time each day, which, in less severe cases, allows our normal mental processes to wash away the anxiety associated with it.
    2. Others recommend what might be called the Big Picture approach.  “What we try to do is have clients step back and look at their life as whole, to be objective,” says Epstein.  “To what degree are the thoughts having an impact on the way one leads one’s life?  Do they tend to live by basic principles?  Do they tend to treat people in a fair way?”  Often, he says, people troubled by forbidden thoughts “have highly unrealistic standards for themselves.”
    3. The key is to consistently strive for a sense of perspective and realism.  As Neil Jacobson, professor of psychology at the University of Washington puts it:  “The fact is that to be married to someone is to sometimes think he is an asshole.”
  3. Whether we go it along or seek counselling, psychologists say, confronting our forbidden thoughts ultimately requires courageCourage to create, and live by, our own rules.  Courage to face our own worst fears, and to question our own self-prohibitions with the same intensity and passion with which we question society’s rules.  But it is also the courage simply to believe in ourselves. Forbidden thoughts may prevent us from committing heinous crimes and other regrettable acts.  They may help us to survive as participants in an intricate social dance.  But they can also serve as a means of undermining ourselves, of seeing ourselves in a primarily negative light in the end, the most damaging “forbidden” thought, the one we have been trained to block at every turn, may simply be that we are really okay.  “Most of us have had some pretty off-the-wall thoughts, and when we question ourselves, to some extent that’s part of the mental health process,” says Seattle therapist Michael Donnen.  “But we have to learn to be gentle on ourselves.”