In an interview from April 2018, James Comey, former director of the FBI, spoke about the difference between the language he used publicly as the director of the FBI and the way he speaks in his current book. He curses in the book because that’s how he thinks, he said. But when speaking with members of the media, he cleans up his language so it’s more socially acceptable.
Most people follow his form, watching themselves when they think they might be judged harshly for cursing and letting loose when they feel safer and more comfortable. As a therapist, I believe cursing helps connect people who are seeking help or working through issues. I have a bias towards this view, as I was taught by Dr. Albert Ellis, who, in my opinion, was the absolute best cursing therapist in the history of the profession. When I started studying with Al 40 years ago, I found it incredibly refreshing to hear him curse while explaining his theories of what he initially named Rational Emotive Therapy. (It was later renamed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy).
Cursing as a Tool to Connect
When people stub their toe, they don’t say, “Darn!” They usually swear. Studies have shown people who curse when in physical pain experience a diminished perception of pain. There’s no study I know of that shows this to be also true for emotional pain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be the case.
If we, as therapists, don’t use the language of the inner self, we risk not connecting as well. I firmly believe this. I have learned from my 40 years in practice that there are three things a therapist can do to help people feel safer:
- Model authenticity
- Dress casually (but not sloppily)
- Use real language, not a white-washed version of your speech. That means cursing, or the language people use vocally or internally, depending on the situation and who is within earshot.
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting you curse at a person you are working with. Rather, I am speaking of cursing as a tool that can help forge alliances. Not everybody will appreciate this. Some people do not swear and may be offended. This is why, when I first use a curse word, I ask the person I’m working with if they find it offensive. If they find cursing offensive, I do my best to resist the urge. My goal is to relate to the person in the deepest way humanly possible so they can feel heard, known, and respected.
Another goal I have, which is in keeping with dressing casually, is modeling what it means to be my true self with the people I work with so they can feel comfortable being their true self with me. My true self is someone who curses for emphasis and relief. I also think it’s my right as a woman to be able to swear, since men have had the freedom to curse from time immemorial.
When people feel comfortable using language they would use with a close friend or family member, they may then feel encouraged enough to let other boundaries loosen up a bit. These boundaries may have kept them from disclosing something they felt was embarrassing or shameful, for example.
Another goal I have, which is in keeping with dressing casually, is modeling what it means to be my true self with the people I work with so they can feel comfortable being their true self with me.
Cursing is simply a way I show my allegiance with the person I’m working with. I am not a dispassionate, uninvolved therapist. I really care about the people I work with. When they have a problem, I passionately want to help them. Cursing helps me convey that intention. By cursing I also give them a cosmic permission slip to feel more passionate about their own life.
In addition, I show it’s safe and okay to feel angry sometimes. It’s even fine to express this anger. In my experience, cursing does not lead to violence. It may even prevent it, as unleashing an epithet may help release some emotional heat before it builds into a violent conflagration.
Many people, especially women, think they shouldn’t show or feel anger. When I model outrage at something and the world keeps spinning on its axis, they realize they can express the same outrage. Cursing is a way people can express a negative or heartfelt emotion without any major negative repercussions.
Part of therapy is helping people feel safe being who they are. All of us have rage. Some is conscious, some unconscious, but we all have it to differing degrees. Feeling our feelings, including anger, is acknowledged as one of the most important steps in accepting and working through those difficult emotions. You can’t heal what you don’t feel.
Cursing is just another way to connect with your feelings. It’s not the only way. But some people find it allows them freedom to express how deeply they feel about something. Once we access and own the depth of our emotion, we can then work more wisely with it.
- Gross, T. (Host). (2018, April 17). James Comey to ‘Fresh Air’: The FBI isn’t ‘on anybody’s side.’ [Radio broadcast episode]. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/04/17/602849276/james-comey-to-fresh-air-the-fbi-isnt-on-anybodys-side
- Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009, August 5). Swearing as a response to pain. Neuroreport, 20(12), 1056-1060.
- Stephens, R., & Clatworthy, A. (2006). Does swearing have an analgesic effect? Poster presentation at the British Psychological Society Psychobiology Section Annual Conference, 18–20 September 2006, Windermere.
- Stephens, R., & Umland, C. (2011). Swearing as a response to pain–Effect of daily swearing frequency. Journal of Pain, 12(12), 1274–1281.
- Stephens, R. (2013). Swearing-The language of life and death. The Psychologist, 26(9). Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-26/edition-9/swearing-language-life-and-death
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