Here’s a common experience from my counselling practice that usually occurs in the first or second session. The client will be sharing his or her story and describing what’s going on for them. And sooner or later they’ll head into emotional territory and blurt out a swear word or three. At this point they usually stop short and apologise, looking rather sheepish and embarrassed. As if they’ve done something wrong to swear in my presence. They make direct eye contact to see if I’m offended. I never am.
That’s because swearing and the use of profanity are highly potent means of expression. And what is it that they express? Emotion. I’m certainly not the only one to think so. A recent study found that people swear more colourfully and frequently when emotionally aroused. These findings bring support to the notion that swearing is emotional language. That rings true to me.
In the therapy room I view swearing as emotional release, as catharsis. It can be a way to feel empowered and find one’s voice. To express. I remember one client in particular. Jen was shy and meek from being put down and criticised all her life. Her voice was subdued and soft, difficult to hear even in a therapy room. She often described wanting to make herself as small and anonymous as possible in order to escape notice and blend in. One day she described being bullied at work by a colleague. I could feel the building pressure of all those pent up emotions over the years, all that backlog of energy. As she spoke her voice began to rise, both in pitch and force.
“If you could say anything, what would you say to her?” I asked.
“Anything?” She asked.
“Yes, anything at all,” I replied.
She took a deep breath. I saw she was shaking a little. “I’d tell her F*CK OFF you cow!!”
Now we’re getting somewhere, I thought.
Indeed, profanity is often the go-to language when a situation feels surprising, threatening, or out of control. When we want to create some power, and when we want to assert that power, we can use profanity in an attempt to do this. Swearing is primitive, base, coarse. It’s an effective and quick way of dipping down into primal territory, all in order to use these energies for support and expression in particular situations. The word ‘profane’ sums it up really, meaning anything that is not religious or sacred. Profane means secular, which to many people means ‘real life.’ In other words, you get real when you swear, and you express those real emotions and feelings that are sometimes very difficult to put into words any other way.
However, we also view profanity as irreverent, disrespectful, and violating. And it certainly can be. It feels that way when the swear words are directed straight at us. That kind of experience is damaging, jarring, and painful. But there’s a world of difference between using profanity towards a situation in general – as a way of expressing excess emotion – and using it to attack and harm another individual.
When someone swears (and when I swear), I wonder which emotions are being expressed. Is it fear, anger, excitement, disbelief, something else? If the profanity is seen as a message, a carrier of emotion, it can be interesting to translate that into deeper understanding. In the U.S., we liken our more potent and taboo swear words to bombs, as in “oooh, he just dropped the f-bomb.” And that’s exactly what they are, verbal bombs that detonate and discharge emotions and energy into the atmosphere. They can be a release, and they can also be a weapon.