Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

Save the Swearwords!

Why an expletive extinction would be a really bad effing thing.

We Americans can be a puritanical bunch. Our culture finds the use of curse words to be such a repulsive habit, yet I have to admit, I've just never understood why. What, may I ask, is so wrong with swearing?

Feeling tempted to throw out the occasional curse word is fairly natural. Where people differ is in their respective embrace or avoidance of this temptation. What about you: Do you try not to swear, or are you okay with swearing as a rule?

I myself am guilty of using curse words on a fairly regular basis. While I occasionally use them to show emphasis, I primarily use them as a vehicle to vent negative feelings. While everyone - me included - may occasionally be guilty of what I call superfluous swearing (i.e., "this dessert is so f*cking good"), most bad words pop out when a person is flooded with a negative emotion. Over time, I have developed my theory on the topic and it's now quite simple and specific: I believe that how you feel about swearing mirrors your attitude toward showing anger.

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I've seen it firsthand in my clinical work: most people avoid showing anger and consider it to be one of the ‘bad' emotions that we're somehow not supposed to feel - that is, if you're a relatively happy, well-adjusted individual. Oh, if you could see me throwing my arms in the air in frustration (and of course silently uttering a curse word) at the thought of it! Quite to the contrary: Anger is good, and so is swearing.

Battling through the obstacle course you like to call your day-to-day life can sometimes strap you onto an emotional rollercoaster that truly tries your patience. When you have experiences that frustrate or anger you, why force yourself to suppress the natural feelings that swell up in you? If something makes you angry, and swearing somehow provides a vent for that negative energy, let it out! There's no universal textbook that gets to have the final say on swearing, and no reason why suppressing the urge to curse - and neatly swaddling your feelings in gentle language - is the right thing to do.

My greatest problem with others' Pollyanna-ish attitudes towards the cuss question is that it suggests that we should all aspire to be one-note robots, emotionally neutral and forever able to handle whatever life throws our way with a snap, an "Oh, nuts!" and a smile. You know what? The truth is that sometimes life simply sucks. Embracing that fact is a much healthier response than willfully ignoring it. And if swearing is one of the ways that you cope when life overwhelms you, this occasionally foul-mouthed shrink believes that you are managing just fine.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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