I remember working in a substance abuse facility early in my career and my male counterpart was vehemently against the idea of swearing. His philosophy was something essentially akin to “it brings you down to their level, it is unprofessional and it isn’t modeling pro-social behavior”. I didn’t fully buy into his philosophy. Personally, I felt that pontificating to my clients wasn’t really effective. I was more interested in creating a rapport, joining with them, or getting buy in for the treatment process.
At the time, I was primarily conducting groups. I would observe my audience and typically use a swear word when quoting or paraphrasing something a client said. The clients thought it was hilarious were completely surprised and. But, I think moreover, it sent a message that I was not that different to them and I was listening. I can also say that, part of my treatment philosophy is that, we all suffer and we aren’t that different, unique or as alone as we may feel at times.
Coming from a place of shared humanity, in my work, I don’t ask anyone to do anything that I haven’t done myself that I believe works. Of course, this doesn’t mean I am saying you have to have a cardiology problem to be a good cardiologist or have some dermatological malady to be a good dermatologist. But there is a certain realness that I bring to the process.
In therapy, I think there needs to be room for expression. People should be sharing things that they may have never had the space to share. Some of those things involve the use of swear words. In real life people swear. In my opinion, as a real person living in real life, professional or not, I swear. That’s not to say I am dropping F*bombs left and right. But I think there is a time and a place for swear words. I have highlighted some considerations for when, where and how to use swear words below:
Part of our job is to listen to the content and the way our client’s express themselves. If you have someone who never swears, it is something to make a note of. It is also important to note the reason why. Is it because they are against swearing for a particular reason? Or because they were not allowed to express themselves at some point in their life? Did they ever feel invisible or that their opinion didn’t matter?
Because their voice was stifled, there may be an area of anger and resentment to explore. I often ask clients to identify particular emotions and where they feel them in their body. This serves multiple purposes including identifying if they store certain emotions in a particular place. It also helps connect the mind and the body to increase awareness. If you know where you feel things it can be a tool to help you address feelings as they come up.
Where…Swearing and Context:
In my work, I often do chair work. Meaning, I have clients talk to parts of themselves in another chair. Or, I have them talk to other people (they imagine) in another chair. If a client is finally getting to express things to a parent or another person that they have long been withholding emotions from, swearing often comes up. If someone is angry or resentful towards someone who hurt them and never had a voice to express those feelings, what kind of words would you use? Would you say “I am really angry at you for exposing me to unsafe conditions and I am disappointed?” You may, but what you may have wanted to say was something like, “F* you, you F*ing suck, I hate you, you are the shittiest person in the universe, go *F yourself”.
My point here is to actually give someone the space to express themselves. They may need to do this in a way that they have not necessarily had the opportunity to do prior to bringing in healing. The idea being, in order to bring some things in, we also have to get some things out. Not everyone believes in this philosophy. It may not be part of your theoretical orientation and, as such, that is part of considering context.
In this article, it addresses how swearing can possibly lead to less physical violence when used as an alternative. I think it is important to create space, in meeting people exactly where they are at in a particular moment, to let people show up in the most authentic way possible and express themselves. Teaching alternative ways to communicate to get what you want can come after. Part of our job can be to teach where and how to use particular words. This includes the difference between passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive communication.
Where…Swearing in Mainstream Culture:
Mainstream culture is full of swearing and curse words. That is not to say that you should approach a session like a rap song. Rather, to have an awareness of the world and culture people are living in. If popular culture is full of profanity and you approach what comes out of your client’s mouth with judgement it can make rapport difficult. There are a number of ways that people can feel understood. Some of those things may be referencing things relative to their generation. This may include popular music related to their time or the occasional swear word. It could also mean different things depending on the generation. Like television programs for that age group or world events that may be known to them.
In an effort to let someone know they are seen and heard, quoting or paraphrasing a remark where they used a swear word could make a difference. It could also be as powerful referencing the world’s fair or the Kennedy assassination. So, I see it on a continuum of getting to know who you are working with. Their worldview and their language.
When….To Not Use Swearing:
If swearing is not part of your vernacular, if it is against your religion, or it just makes you wildly uncomfortable, it probably isn’t the best approach to take in a therapeutic relationship. If you don’t sound like you, then they won’t feel comfortable sounding like them. This is assuming it is ok for you as a therapist to listen to what they have to say with objectivity or curiosity versus judgment.
If your theoretical orientation involves judgement or shaming, then this article is not for you. In addition, consider context if you work with children and adolescents. Addressed here are Some considerations for children and language learning.
Finally, perhaps it goes without saying, but in terms of boundaries, swearing at your clients, I believe, can fall along the shame continuum and I don’t support it. Context has to be taken into consideration if clients are swearing at you. This includes if it is as transference and if they are being abusive.
How and When Swearing May be Effective:
In summary, swearing can be useful in establishing rapport and letting people know they are heard. But it can also be useful in driving a point home. A carefully placed swear word can help a salient point really stick out in someone’s mind in therapy like “wow that IS F*ed up”. When talking about things such as boundaries and what is not ok or is ok, sometimes swear words may come up. You may have to expressly tell someone, in a way that they will remember, it is ok to not let someone violate them or their space or take things that don’t belong to them.
There are perhaps other examples or circumstances, but the idea is choosing when to use them wisely. Finally, context, context, context, knowing your audience, the reason for use of swear words and benefits vs. outcomes have to be weighed as do other parts of the therapeutic process. So, after considering all of the above, go ahead and give it a try, the results may f*ing surprise you.
Tara is a licensed professional counselor, licensed alcohol and drug counselor and certified yoga teacher. She has worked in behavioral health for over 15 years and currently has a Private Practice in West Hartford and Cheshire, CT. Her writing has been featured in Wallingford Connecticut Magazine and she is a regular contributing guest on Radio 103.5FM WNHH “The Culture Cocktail Hour”. Having learned from personal experience she is passionate about helping people find more joy, mental health and wellness. To find out more about Tara visit taratherapyct.com, www.facebook.com/taratherapyct/, and twitter @taratherapyct.