Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP

In Therapy

Swearing in Therapy

When bad language is good.

Posted May 11, 2012


“And then I said ‘eff you’ -- pardon my French.”

“She called me a b-word, you know which one.

“Some driver cut me off and I yelled some choice words I won’t repeat here.”

Why not?

Today we’re talking about swearing, a.k.a. cursing, cussing, using profanity or expletives, saying “bad” words, and/or having a potty mouth. These are the words you wouldn’t say in a job interview, or while visiting your grandmother or during your Oscar acceptance speech. These terms are impolite, uncouth, undignified and something we try to avoid in the presence of children. They turn a joke into a dirty joke and a PG into an R.

But they do have some value. Many find a well-chosen profanity deeply satisfying. In the right setting, nothing drives a point home quite like swearing. Sometimes there just aren’t non-offensive words that convey the same message. And according to at least one study, swearing can be good for your health. If it provides benefits, is there a place for swearing in therapy?

This poses a dilemma for many therapy clients. Here you are in this professional environment, spending professional dollars to someone with a wall full of professional degrees, talking about the most important issues in your life. It can feel so clinical, so serious. Is this really the right setting to sound like a Tarantino movie? Some clients feel stuck between being polite vs. being real. Some common reasons people censor themselves in therapy:

  • You assume therapy is like other courteous relationships where swearing isn’t polite. Nope. It’s professional and hopefully courteous, but the emphasis is on authenticity, not etiquette.
  • You are afraid of what your therapist will think of you. A common concern. This is the person you're asking for help, the last thing you'd want to do is alienate them somehow, right? I’ve got an idea, how about you bring this up? Sounds like a rich topic to explore.
  • Your therapist reminds you of someone who would disapprove or shame you for swearing. This takes the previous concern to the next level, entering into all that transference stuff. Again, good to discuss.
  • Your therapist explicitly told you not to swear in session. I haven’t personally heard of this, but I’m sure it’s happened somewhere. You might want to ask for the rationale and mention how this limits your communication and expression. Then you might consider whether it's more important for you to protect your therapist's fragile eardrums or to say whatever you want as you engage in the talking cure.
  • You’ve never sworn before. Welcome to my blog, Jonas brothers.
  • You didn’t know swearing was allowed until reading this. I don’t blame you, it’s not like we cover swearing in the consent form. Maybe you should read more In Therapy! This might not be the only limiting belief you have about therapy.

Yes, you can swear in therapy. At least you can with me and the therapists I know. Of course, if your cursing actually gets in the way of direct communication we'll probably raise that concern (to help you swear more efficiently, perhaps?). Otherwise, therapists really shouldn't prohibit moderate profanity. Those who do may be limiting the expression of what Donald Winnicott would call our “true self,” which would be a problem.

According to Winnicott’s theory, we have “a genuine wellspring of desire and meaning (the true self) and a compliant self (the false self), which is fashioned out of the premature, forced necessity for dealing with the external world.” (Mitchell, 131). In non-jargon, that means we have our pure, raw feelings and impulses, and the masks we regularly show the world to protect us and give us positive PR. If you bring your false self, the mask that appears to have it all together, into therapy, I'm pretty sure we won't get too far. If you take the risk to move past the censors and let the real you be seen, we can do some work. And you know what? That true self uses adult language sometimes.

It stands for facetious

I should clarify: it’s not really the swearing I’m looking for, it’s the lack of inhibition or censoring. Ideally, therapy is a place where you don’t need to self-consciously edit your words for fear of offending your audience. Therapy works best when we’re allowed to look at what you really think and feel, as raw and perhaps impolite as that might be. So as I’ve said before, if you swear alone in your car, swear in therapy. If you accent your stories with curse words to you friends, do it here, too. I’m not a four-letter fetishist with a specific need for vulgarity, I just encourage you to work past inhibitions and let the words flow -- profane or not.

Regarding therapist swearing: typically therapists will follow the client’s lead. If a client says he feels like __, we’ll probably ask why he feels like __. We won't go all HBO on you unless you go first. And if you're uncomfortable with our swearing, let's talk about it.

I’m not trying to incite a vulgarity revolution, but I do support the battle against defenses and inhibitions, especially in the therapy office. Sometimes that internal censor just needs to back the fudge off.


Your true self can visit my website and facebook page, dammit.

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