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Dark Thoughts: 7 Precise & Practical Tactics For Defanging Them

I battle dark thoughts every single day.

Often minute-by-minute.

I’ll share some of my best coping mechanisms with you today, but first a question.

Does dwelling on bad things invite terrible outcomes?

It certainly could, and it is well worth looking into getting some help, especially if you’re not bothered by having them.

But the fact that you are bothered by having dark thoughts is a good sign. Your moral compass is intact.

And even though I still have to show up and fight the good fight against the cesspool of my mind, I’m glad I found the tools I’ll share with you today.

Recently, I’ve needed many of them more than ever before because something totally unexpected happened that pulled the rug of calm out from under me.

I hit the ground hard, but I’m on my way back up. And I’m confident this upward spiral will take me to fantastic new realms of comfort better than ever before.

So if you’re ready for the full story and my best tips and tactics for dealing with mental noise and unwanted thoughts, let’s dive in.

What Are Dark Thoughts?

It’s possible to have many different kinds of dark thoughts.

These might include thoughts of:

  • Self harm
  • Harming others
  • Worries about environmental or nuclear catastrophe
  • How others perceive you
  • How others may be ignoring you
  • Hopelessness, purposelessness or existential dread
  • Health concerns
  • Criticism of external forces (like advertising)
  • Unhelpful “should” thoughts from yourself or memories of others telling you what you ought to do

I’m sure you can come up with many more types, and some categories have many flavors. For example, I’ve suffered suicidal ideation off and on, which is just one kind of possible self harm.

These thoughts can be impulsive or intrusive, meaning that they come on when you least except them. Surprise mental content can create anxiety attacks that require special solutions.

There are also some dark thoughts that are perfectly appropriate to hold. In a chapter called “Decayed Teeth” from Thoughts and Meditations, Kahlil Gibran says:

A nation with rotten teeth is doomed to have a sick stomach.

His metaphorical writing suggests that the mental content of an entire country is as bad as a disease.

And here’s something that a lot of people don’t do that might help them. Pull back and ask a slightly different question. Because thought itself might be something like a disease.

What Is Thought Anyway?

Listen, I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to this question. No one has solved what is called the hard problem of consciousness, which essentially asks how it is possible for matter to be aware of itself.

As Noam Chomsky recently noted, trying to solve how and why the brain produces our experiences of thinking leads to what he calls a lot of “pseudo-questions.” Our questions look like questions, but they can’t be answered, so they’re just posing.

But I think it’s instructive to look at the origins of the word thought, which suggest that our ancestors considered thought as a process. It was not a final state, which essentially means that none of our thoughts are actually true. They move and change too quickly to be fully meaningful.

Gary Weber gives an exercise in Happiness Beyond Thought that will help you experience your thoughts as a process. Basically, you draw a straight line and see how far you get before a thought arises. When you think about something, you move your pen up or down. Most people wind up with a bunch of scribbles because they can’t stop themselves from thinking long enough to draw a straight line.

Thought As A Virus

William S. Burroughs once said that language came from a virus. Whether or not this is true, Richard Dawkins used similar framing in his book, The Selfish Gene. The notion of memes that we use today stems from his thinking in that book, later clarified and even doubled-down upon in a Wired interview.

There is little doubt that thought is the source of much suffering. Buddhism and many other belief systems are built around this conception.

But thought doesn’t have to be the source of suffering. And some kinds of thought can be used as a tool that neutralizes unwanted thoughts. I shared a specific mantra in my TEDx Talk that does exactly this:

The fact that this talk went “mini-viral” is quite interesting, especially given the polarized nature of the comments. My message resonated with some people, and made others criticize me.

Either way, the thoughts I shared generated more thoughts for other people even as the tools I shared have been very successful in reducing my own thoughts.

Here are a bunch of other tactics you can try. They’re all battle-tested, and I’ve tried them on for size in experimental ways. That said, I almost always decided to experiment because I’d seen valid scientific evidence.

Why waste time on something that hasn’t been pre-validated by others? The risk is too high that failure will only lead to more dark thoughts, after all.

7 Ways To Successfully Defang Your Dark Thoughts

Notice that I’m using the word “defang,” rather than eliminate.

Although I have experienced PNSE quite a few times (Persistent, Non-Symbolic Experience), I have yet to make a complete break from thinking.

That’s okay. It strikes me as a pseudo-goal anyway, so I just do what I can to “defang” the thoughts I do have. I believe by doing this, I’m avoiding errors in the same way that Chomsky urges us to avoid asking pseudo-questions.

I’m also essentially practicing what is called a Hamming Question. Since even people like Gary Weber who have mastered PNSE admit to having thoughts when tired, hungry, or planning things, the better goal is to work on the real problem:

The suffering that comes from unwanted thoughts. So with that in mind, let’s check out some of my favorite tools.

One: Bring Light To The Darkness

In Thoughts From The Dark Corner, J. P. Pereira writes:

Not all thoughts are made for well-lit places.

Philosophically, this notion may be true. But that’s not what Harm OCD researchers have found when it comes to successfully handling unwanted thoughts. Quite the opposite.

There are three ways to shine light on the darkness:

I’ve experienced each of these therapeutic approaches with different specialists and worked with them on my own. They are powerful.

They’re powerful even if you don’t immediately experience the benefit.

For example, I once saw a therapist in Germany for over a year and would not let him take me to a bridge for exposure therapy to deal with my unwanted self harm issues around heights.

He patiently worked me until I moved away and for years I felt that nothing had happened. But later, I saw the effect and influence of his treatment. It just took time.

And it took the light he helped me bring into the darkness. Sure, I wish I’d taken advantage of it sooner, but when the darkness is really dark, light takes time.

Two: Practice Self Inquiry

Dark thoughts about life can be illuminated by asking questions about them.

One of the first times I learned this came from reading Douglas Harding’s On Having No Head. It sounds kind of silly, but the practice is really powerful.

Greg Goode has sensory exercise variations on a similar approach in books like Standing as Awareness.

Ultimately, there are many ways to practice, and my favorite remain the list of questions I shared in my TEDx above.

Getting started couldn’t be easier. The classic “neti neti” approach starts by saying “not this, not that” as unwanted to thoughts arise. A more “English” version is to say, “cancel, cancel.”

You can then ease into directly confronting your thoughts with questions like:

  • Are my thoughts useful?
  • How do they behave?
  • Where do these thoughts come from?
  • Where is the “I” that is having these thoughts?

Over the years, I’ve noticed that people find questions two and four difficult to understand.

By “behave,” I just mean, is the thought childish, silly, needy or based in scarcity? It’s essentially a labeling exercise, and giving things a name tends to help us dismiss unwanted thoughts. Or, as a second best option, we’re better able to tolerate them.

In terms of asking who is having the thought, it seems obvious that “you” are, doesn’t it? Developing some self knowledge will probably change your perception of that. Just as we’ve talked about thoughts as being a process rather than a stable thing, so too is our sense of self a process.

Three: Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants

They say that great minds think alike, but that isn’t always true.

Some minds think in highly contrary ways, and many of the most revealing philosophers flipped common conventions upside down.

No, I’m not talking about Stoics or Epicureans. They can certainly be helpful.

I’m thinking about people more like Nietzsche and Cioran. Stephen West has great material on Cioran’s strangely positive approach to some of the darkest thoughts possible. And in my reading thus far, Elijah Milgram has done some of the greatest work in unpacking what Nietzsche was really trying to achieve.

No doubt, philosophers like these aren’t for everyone. But if you’re willing to give them a try by reading the primary and secondary literature, you’ll undoubtedly feel less alone with the images and ideas that flow through your mind.

Four: Physical Plumbing

It’s not all about thought conquering thought.

If the materialists are right (they possibly are), the quality of our thoughts come from our physical state. That means:

  • Physical fitness
  • Diet
  • Sleep

I know, I know. You’ve heard this a million times before. You can barely get through three seconds on the Internet without a lecture about it. But sometimes it’s true.

Now, I previously did great with my diet. But my carnivore diet experiment ultimately crashed.

Mentally, eating meat was great. My thoughts were cleaner and clearer than ever before. But when I had to start eating plants again, suddenly I felt like I was back in 2016 before I started cleaning up my food, removing alcohol from my life and exercising like a fiend.

At one point, the wheat I was eating produced thoughts so bad, I almost caved in and went to see a doctor. I still eat a bit of wheat, but by reducing it the bare minimum on my new diet, the extremity of those unwanted thoughts has mercifully diminished.

So if you’re experiencing a wild mind, make sure to get your diet handled and throw in an exercise regime. There’s also mental exercise too, which is why I put this meditation for peace together for you.

Five: Journal The Gist Of Things

I’m a huge proponent of journaling for self help outcomes.

It’s a great way to look your unwanted thoughts in the eye and set them aside. Although I keep most of my journals, others are designed to throw away.

Taking a second to jot out unwanted thoughts and literally toss them in the trash has often helped me out.

Give it a try sometime.

Six: Laugh Until The Light Shines

We certainly live in serious times.

Never before have we had so much access to what other people think and how they go about sharing their thoughts. The “public square” of the Internet is becoming more and more “square” as we struggle to find ways to say what we really think without repercussion.

I don’t have a solution to the problem for the masses.

But between ourselves, it’s worth practicing good cheer and humor.

Rather than getting bent out of shape when you see something you don’t like, try to find the humor in it. Or make it humorous in your mind by imagining yourself thinking such a thing.

Most people push away such possibilities, but not Charlie Chaplin. He did the world a great service by showing us how to treat ideas and behaviors we don’t like. Check out The Great Dictator sometime to see what I mean.

Seven: Contextualize Mental Content

One of the most horrifying and yet freeing realizations I’ve ever had was realizing that I’m a lot like my dad.

It’s horrifying because my childhood brain witnessed some of his worst freakouts and my procedural memory has locked them in place. I still sometimes fall prey to using these strategies as an adult.

But there’s a positive stubbornness I’ve learned too. When that man got an idea in his head, he almost always made it happen. And more often than not, those ideas had to do with helping others.

The point is that everything I do and all the thoughts I experience have a larger context.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable to think through some of those old memories, but I’ve used a variety of memory techniques to help combat them. Some of these techniques work great for reducing depression too:

Dark Thoughts Have No Special Meaning

Once you turn the tips you’ve discovered today into a habit stack, you may find yourself entering a flow state. These states will likely afford you a greater state of personal control, something this study has demonstrated to build on decades of research.

While in flow, you’ll probably be enjoying the experience so much, any negative thoughts that do arise have no meaning.

And if they start up again, the task is to come back to activities like the ones I’ve shared today.

I’ve fallen off the horse myself. And I’m so glad I spent time learning these tactics and techniques. They’re still here for me and they still serve.

I’m confident they’ll serve you too.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to get out there and say “no thanks” to a few unwanted thoughts and start experiencing more light in your life?

As you consider your answer, if you’d like more help becoming your highest possible self, please consider going through my Daily Discipline Masterplan guide and video course. It’s free:

Dail Discipline Masterplan free guide and video course

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