I Have Bad Thoughts. Am I a Bad Person?
Updated: Jan 26
By Jonathan Hoffman, PhD, ABPP
You know, I never met a person who said they only have good thoughts – and I am a psychologist who talks with people about their thoughts a lot. Even if I did meet such a person, I would think they are either not being truthful or have arbitrarily decided that all their thoughts are good. Since psychologists are supposed to be nonjudgmental, does that make me a bad person?
Not if it is just a thought. I, for one, do not believe what goes through my mind necessarily matters at all in real life - although my thoughts occasionally seem like they are trying their best to convince me otherwise! Surprised that a psychologist is saying this? You would not be the first. My background in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) leads me to think that thoughts matter to the extent we attribute meaning to them, like conjuring animal shapes in random cloud formations.
Ok, I can hear what you are thinking. You are thinking that attributing meaning to thoughts is itself a thought and that if thoughts do not matter, why should CBT matter? You may be logically correct but are sadly mistaken if you think I will be going down that rabbit hole with you. But let us get back to you. Unlike me, are you a bad person if you have bad thoughts? The simple answer is yes, you are.
That was bad of me because I put something in writing that is not the truth, which is an action and mean-spirited to boot. But does this make me a bad person or just one who engaged in a specific bad action? It is entirely possible that I was thinking good thoughts when I acted badly in this instance. Then again, I might well have been having bad thoughts when I trolled you. The point is, who knows what is really going on in my mind? Often, not even me. Can you relate?
I do not think it would be fair to judge me or anyone based on thoughts (How would you know what anyone is thinking, anyway?), or judge ourselves based on them either. That is because thinking is fundamentally not under the control of human beings. Sure, we can focus our thinking for a bit, but only in a way that is like temporarily not blinking; biology will soon force us to blink. Eventually, an uninvited thought will enter our minds. Remember, I am not saying that I, or anyone else, does not matter – it is more about not judging who we are based on whatever thoughts are running through our minds at any given moment.
To me, a thought has no morality as to whether it is bad or good, which points to the idea that attaching guilt or shame to thought, while natural, is erroneous thinking. Whether something is bad or not is a value judgment that I think should only apply to actions. Thoughts can feel like they can cause bad actions, which can be anxiety-triggering. But while the experience of such anxiety is valid, the reasoning behind it is faulty. Thoughts have no physical ability to generate an action whatsoever. Ever think about doing one thing while doing the exact opposite? Me, too! I feel fortunate that my thoughts cannot magically cause actions. If you think about it, I bet you know what I mean.
The title of this writing asks if you have bad thoughts, are you a bad person? I hope I have shed some light on why it is a wild-goose chase to spend time pondering this question and why you should not rely on your thoughts to judge yourself as a person – and not judge yourself ‘as a person’ at all. What really counts is not what kind of person you are but the kind of actions you take, nothing more and nothing less.