The Swearing In of A Therapeutic Space: How to Therapeutically Swear and Fucking Mean it!

As therapists, we are aware of how powerful language is for both healing and harm. We are also appreciative of how limiting language is of human experience. Otto Rank, Sigmund Freud, and Wilfred Bion all theorized that we are born into trauma due in part to not being able to verbalize our initial experiences. Imagine if we had the capability to just exclaim a big “WHAT THE FUCK!?” when we were ripped from our mother’s wombs how cathartic it would have been.

While I was made aware of how important language was throughout my education and training, I received no formal education around the usage of expletives during a therapeutic encounter. I was fortunate enough to have one field supervisor who actually touched on this deficit in education. He noted that he found a lot of catharsis in swearing— especially, a well timed, well enunciated, “Fhhuck.” These F-bombs were sometimes sprinkled into our supervision sessions. I noticed how they made our supervision space feel more genuine and leveled the playing field. We didn’t have to censor ourselves, and I could feel stronger vibrations of how my emotions resonated with my supervisor. There is definitely a vulnerability to being able to swear with others.

Those interactions with my supervisor were pivotal in my growth as a clinician, and allowed me to learn about the intricacies of “use of self” in therapy. So what have I learned since that time? A shit ton.

Therapeutically Speaking

The Do’s

Be true to yourself.

If you swear in your day-to-day life, you can bring that part of yourself to the table in session too. Growing up near Boston, I feel like I grew up with swearing as a birthright and also as punctuation. Fucking right, guy?!

Be intentional.

Choose how and when you swear, just like you would with any other language you use. As you attune to your patient/client, it is important to pick up on the emotional tone they are setting. While you can wait for the client to initiate swearing, it is also reasonable to take a first stab at this based on content and their tone. You are serving someone who told you they just recently totaled their car in a car accident…Shit! You are serving someone who was just diagnosed with cancer…That is bullshit! Your client hasn’t seen their family since March because of the pandemic…Fuck that.

Take cues to reattune from your client.

I was once in the first session with a client who had been recently diagnosed with a blood cancer right after retiring. As part of us meeting each other and exploring the shock waves he was feeling, I suggested that “This is such bullshit.” He made direct eye contact with me and said, “No, this is FUCKING bullshit.” He was right. That “fuck” was necessary to hit home his emotions.

It is more than just swearing.

Eliciting and using the cursed words with your client can be more than therapeutic. It can also be a form of restoring justice for those who are labeled by society as being “young, angry, and Black.” Or victims of the “Angry Black woman” trope. While this is just a small piece of awareness for practicing therapy multiculturally, it can be important.

 I had a devastatingly short relationship with a young Black male (around my age at the time—early 30’s) who was going through difficult treatment for an aggressive blood cancer. He wanted to talk to me because he felt like he was having problems controlling his anger. We both riffed a lot about comics as this was an interest we shared. He saw himself as the Hulk because he wasn’t under any control of himself. While it was almost too “My secret is I am always angry” vibes, we had a big shift in our relationship when I asked him about what it was like feeling angry and Black as he interfaced with healthcare. Together we induced the Hulk (through a lot of swearing in our sessions) without judgement and with purpose. He had every fucking right to be as angry as he was. The beautiful part about it was we were able to get a much better depth for who he was as a person after we realized he didn’t have to struggle with “Hulking out.” We could embrace, hold, and release that anger through descriptive emotional words and a large quantity of “fucks.” 

The Don’ts

If you don’t swear normally, don’t push it in session.

Your clients will be able to see right through you. An example of me pushing myself outside of authenticity was when I first started providing therapy as an intern. I was working with teenagers in a residential school setting and I found myself casually swearing throughout sessions. I noticed that I would sometimes say “fuck,” or “shit,” to try and loosen things up and break the ice during my sessions. These kids were wise to me and one actually told me “You talk like you don’t even know how to swear good.” That really fucking hurt my feelings and my ego.

Swearing should be used to emphasize and allow better expression.

If used exclusively, as the full range of expression, it may actually hinder naming of important emotions. For example, something can “really fucking suck,” but that doesn’t mean that identifying whatever that “fucking suck” is isn’t important. It is still important to dig into if grief, sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, and fear are a part of that “fucking suck.” The cursing can be a catharsis, or release valve, but doesn’t necessarily help to create space for tough emotions or traumas.

Don’t swear gratuitously.

Not because it would make you a bad person, or make you sound like less of an expert, but because, like with any word, gratuitous use tends to lessen the meaningful impact said word has. I love using “notice” in sessions, but I notice (get it?) that if used too much the mindful intent of that word gets lost and feels more casual. Just as if I used “fuck” too much in sessions it would loose all fucking emphasis and just be another fucking way for me to take a fucking breath, rather than exclaim on how fucked up someone’s fucking situation is.

Don’t dive right in.

With some exceptions, don’t go for F-bombs right out of the gate. A thorough psychosocial assessment and initial rapport building with your client can be helpful in navigating how therapeutic swearing will be. Who knows, they may even give you a dose of their own swear-laced narrative within that first meeting.

I hope that this examination of cursing in session is of benefit to new and seasoned therapists, alike. I also hope that it is eye opening for clients who may be worried about how they censor themselves when first meeting with therapists.

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