I think of killing people.
I might be the stranger you pass on the street or the person seated next to you on the bus but wherever I am, just know I’m probably imagining what it would be like watching you die. Or writhe in pain.
Whether it’s dragging your face along the asphalt or smashing your head in with a crowbar, such thoughts do pop into my head sometimes.
Having such violent thoughts has always puzzled me though. I’m not someone who gets angry easily and I’m definitely not a fan of gore or violence.
In fact, when I naively agreed to catch a horror flick with my classmates back in secondary school, I spent the entire time cowering in my seat whilst trying to distract myself with Jesse McCartney on my iPod.
So to find out why a colossal wuss like me entertains and even enjoys such violent thoughts sometimes, I met with Dr Annabelle Chow, a clinical psychologist, for a deep-dive into my subconsciousness. And to see if there was anything wrong with me.
I’m not that worried about them, but should I be? Am I normal?
It’s perfectly natural to experience anger, and occasionally, entertain thoughts of carrying out acts because of that anger. It’s part of what is commonly referred to in psychology as “intrusive thoughts”.
Intrusive thoughts are a common way the mind processes anger (and other emotions), in secrecy and in safety, designing scenarios and thoughts that give effect to your anger. In fact, studies have shown that even in healthy, well-functioning adults, the majority admitted to having had violent thoughts of harming others. It’s really natural.
But that said, if you’ve experienced strong urges to physically carry out violent acts or have done so in the past, then it might be a symptom of a larger issue. For example, there would be cause for concern if these intrusive thoughts turn into obsessions that cause distress to you or those around you.
Is this something that’s found in murderers or serial killers? Is converting these thoughts into actions the only difference between them and me?
Everyone experiences intrusive thoughts but most people recognise that they are unwanted and unwelcome, and so don’t act on them. At the same time, it’s not as simple as to say that the only difference between a murderer and you is that you don’t act upon these thoughts.
There are many other reasons or factors as to why a person would commit murder, rape or other violent crimes. Social-economic circumstances, family dysfunction, societal pressures, or alcohol/substance abuse (just to name a few) all predict criminal behaviour.
In particular, people with disorders affecting impulse or behavioural self-control, cognitive functioning or those with an antisocial personality disorder may more readily engage in the act of “converting” such thoughts into action.
While intrusive thoughts may arise from these factors, it’s not as straightforward as simply “converting” these thoughts into action.
Does the “severity” of inflicted harm in these thoughts make a difference? For example, thinking of killing someone versus just punching them or getting into a fistfight.
This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on what you mean by “make a difference”.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’s completely natural to have occasional thoughts of violence, even if you think they’re severe. The extent of harm in your thoughts, in and of itself, doesn’t determine whether they are a cause for concern.
What does, is if they cause distress to you or those around you. How a person responds to these thoughts—rather than the characteristics of the thoughts themselves—is what matters. It’s the relationship you have with the thought that’s important.
For example, the intrusive thought might occur at a frequency or severity that causes you to become worried, fearful, or ashamed with yourself. Others may adopt behaviours to ensure he or she doesn’t perform the acts, resulting in a significantly altered quality of life.
If you’ve developed such behaviours or feel that your life has been adversely affected by such thoughts, you should definitely seek help from a mental health professional.
In some of these thoughts, I don’t think of killing the person but just hurting them. Am I a sadist Doc? Would there be a difference if I thought of killing them?
The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual version 5 (DSM-5) associates the term sadist with sexual sadism disorder.
What you may be referring to is what psychologists call Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD is characterised by a disregard for or violation of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood. You must meet all of the criteria before a clinical diagnosis may be made; diagnoses are rarely made on the basis of a single act or thought.
Can you tell me why this happens and what goes on in my brain when I think such thoughts?
This is a question that has plagued researchers for years: no one really knows what causes these thoughts or why our brain causes these thoughts to arise. One possible explanation is that our brains sometimes just create “junk thoughts” that are simply a part of our stream of consciousness.
I’m sorry but no! (laughs)
Given that these thoughts merely pass through your consciousness from time to time, they don’t reflect anything about you as a person. They don’t make you good, bad or creative.
So it makes me normal?
I try not to use the word “normal” because the idea of normalcy is often dependent on society. It’s dictated by the time, generation, and of course, the culture of where you’re currently living.
I mean, a long time ago, some societies saw plump and voluptuous women as beautiful, so that body type was “normal” for them at the time. Years later, being skinny was in, as evident from the anorexic-looking models on runways. And then it became about being fit. The point is that what’s “normal” constantly changes.
So I think what’s important to focus on is whether the thoughts are healthy or unhealthy, and whether or not they’re impairing you in any way.
Ahhh, I see. Can I attribute these thoughts to watching violent TV shows like “Happy Tree Friends” or “Jackass” in my youth though? How true is it that watching violent stuff makes for violent people and why do people like to think this?
Even though studies do report an association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour, having fleeting thoughts of violence is not equivalent to actual violent behaviour.
Also, though it may be easy to pin aggressive behaviour down on a single contributor like media violence, there are again numerous factors that contribute to violent tendencies, including biological predispositions and social factors such as the frequent use of violence by family members or peers.
Should I be actively trying to shut these thoughts out? Or do I just accept them?
Actively trying to shut out unwanted thoughts makes us think about them even more and is thus counter-productive. Psychologists often demonstrate this by asking one not to think of a pink elephant—not the easiest thing to do once your attention is focused on that thought. It’s what’s known as Ironic Process Theory.
It’s best to accept these thoughts and just let them pass.
Then would there any merit to finding avenues in which I can “purge” these thoughts, Doc? (i.e. slamming a baseball against the wall or punching a pillow and imagining it’s someone we think really deserves it?)
No, it wouldn’t. Research suggests that giving in to your anger only leads to even more anger and ultimately doesn’t resolve any underlying issues.
In a study, angered participants who hit a punching bag ended up feeling even angrier compared to participants who didn’t. This is because when participants hit the bag, they ruminated more on what was making them angry and this intensified their anger.
Throwing things or shouting are forms of releasing the energy inside of you out into the environment. It might be very cathartic at that point but doing so often don’t have long-term effects that are helpful. If that’s always the way you’re responding, it doesn’t help change anything and it’s not a healthy way of expressing yourself or managing/regulating the anger.
Instead of finding avenues to “purge” these thoughts, a better solution may be to simply acknowledge and accept that they are just thoughts and that they’ll pass.
Singaporeans are often termed “keyboard warriors”. Do you think people actually mean it when they threaten others online with violence? Why do they feel the need to say such things online? Is it because Singaporeans are just really stressed?
Online hate and cyber-bullying are pressing issues that our society faces today. The anonymity that comes with the virtual world potentially makes it easier for people to express hateful comments. Many times, commenters judge a particular person to have violated certain ethical standards and therefore, the person is thought to be deserving of harsh condemnation.
It’s truly puzzling why we feel a strong need to condemn another person, even resorting to violent threats, when most of the time we don’t even have sufficient objective information on the situation to pass such a judgment. Perhaps, having a strong sense of moral conviction makes us feel better about ourselves. Therefore, rather than attributing the cause to a single factor of stress, we should also consider many other factors such as the desire to elevate our own moral worth, online anonymity, and other social-economic or political factors.
I’m pretty sure everyone entertains maybe not violent, but slightly morbid/reckless curiosities from time to time. The “what if” questions such as “what would happen if I walked into traffic?” or “what if I jumped off this ledge?” Does this say anything about us? Are we normal? Are we still good people?
Once again, rest assured that it’s not unusual to have these thoughts every now and then. They don’t reflect on our personalities and we shouldn’t think of ourselves as ‘abnormal’ or ‘bad’ just for having these thoughts. We are simply human.
Dr Chow is a Clinical Psychologist accredited by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and the Singapore Register of Psychologists. She is a Fellow of the APS College of Clinical Psychologists, a Clinical Supervisor registered with the Psychology Board of Australia and with the Singapore Register of Psychologists. She has been in continuous practice as a Clinical Psychologist since 2013.
If intrusive thoughts have been, or are troubling you, please approach Dr Chow or any other mental health professional for advice.
If you have any other issues you’d like to learn about, tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org