From Anxiety to Zen

Getting you on the other side of anxiety

Why I Swear in Therapy

The case for colorful language to move therapy clients toward change.

image therapy swear jar
Therapy Swear Jar
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“Profanity and obscenity entitle people who don't want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.” ~Kurt Vonnegut

Psychotherapy is similar to profanity when it comes to people’s propensity to shut out the truth.

As a former card-carrying member of the Head in the Sand Club, I get the resistance.

Who wants to be reminded that the relationship you’ve invested half your 30s in is toxic?

Is it fun paying $150.00 to hear you’re stuck in the childhood role of The Little Caretaker?

How about your therapist’s not-so-subtle glance at the desk clock as you make excuses about not standing up to your mother-in-law?

The truth telling business is paved in rough. For this reason, I’m a therapist who pairs the carefully-timed interpretation with the occasional swear word to drive a difficult point home.

Why?

Life is messy. And you need to feel your feelings. Sadly, the therapy room may be the only place where authentic conversations exist. Strong language can communicate the urgency to put action behind intent. I work with anxious clients who often over-censor themselves to the point that spontaneous communication is lost. If an expletive slips out, they rush in with the apologies. I remind them therapy is a safe place to express themselves freely. Would I encourage them to swear at the board meeting, or in front of the children? No.

I follow the client’s lead about swearing. If they’re uncomfortable, I keep it clean. There’s no need to add another layer of stress to the issues at hand.
 
Is it essential for a clinician to utter obscenities to highlight client John Doe’s tendency to see himself as powerless over his life?

No.

But if John is so bound by convention, so afraid to peel the layers, and so resistant to trying new behaviors, then maybe, yes. At least one study found swearing can be helpful to our health.

Allow me to digress.

A few years ago, I attended a couples counseling seminar in Los Angeles, CA. Our presenter Dr. T, shows videotaped therapy sessions to showcase his theory that high-conflict couples rarely split up.

One married pair stands out. They enter session calmly and politely. Dr. T begins with the therapeutic niceties, and within seconds the couple is off and arguing.

As if they’re the only two people on earth.

Dr. T tries to refocus them, to get them to stop talking above one another, but it’s no use.

“Fine, I’ll just be over here checking email, if you need me,” he replies. Off he goes.

Cut to the end of the session, the wife stops suddenly, looks in Dr. T’s direction, glances at her husband, cocks her head, and loudly and incredulously asks, “Are you checking email?!”

“Why, yes, I didn’t feel like you two were lis...” he begins.

Pause.

A split-second later, as if a movie director yells, “Action!,” they’re at it again.

When the video ends, a few clinicians eagerly raise their hands to ask Dr. T what is therapeutic about his intervention. Another asks about swearing in session.

I don’t remember all the details of the teaching moment, but I remember the message (to paraphrase Dr. T): Sometimes you need to be the most outrageous person in the therapy room. You need to be louder, bolder, and more creative than your clients in order to register an impact.

This includes ignoring tantruming couples, swearing, or acting silly. It’s mirroring their behavior one minute, and acting the exact opposite of how they behave, the next.

Over-the-top behaviors can teach rigid and concrete-minded clients to open up to spontaneity and whimsy.

Ignoring contentious couples signals you’re willing to wait until they act like adults.

Back to John Doe.

Let’s say he grows up in a house where his feelings are dismissed. He internalizes the belief that his emotions don’t matter. After all, if his parents don’t acknowledge them, why should he?

John learns that conformity is the ticket to love and acceptance. He doesn’t cause waves like his rebellious sister Karen, or study art like his older brother Tom.

Because different means difficult. Which means people at church and the kids at school whisper about you. And then you bring shame to the family. Then you’re punished. Or worse, ignored.

Thirty years later John shows up to therapy because he’s sick and tired of denying the truth. Decades of acting as if everything’s fine has finally caught up. John’s sleep deprived and depressed.

With tears in his bloodshot eyes, he whispers, “I have no idea where I begin and where I end. I’m lost.
My wife is mad because I don’t earn more. My kids are embarrassed because I can’t afford summer camp. I got a DUI. I’m ashamed that my dad had to bail me out. But the worst part?...Disappointing my mom. She cried and said, ‘I don’t understand what’s become of your life, John. Your father and I raised you differently.’ ”

“Well -- she’s g*ddamned right about that one, isn’t she?,” is how I might respond.

Or not...

 

About the Author:

Linda Esposito is a licensed clinical social worker. Read about her work on overcoming anxiety here.

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Read Linda Esposito's psychotherapy blog here

Linda Esposito, LCSW is a psychotherapist helping adults and teens overcome stress and anxiety.

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