Learning to swear

Learning to swear

One aspect of my OCD recovery has been learning that swearing is ok. While my goal is not to be constantly profane, I am not a horrible person if I curse. And neither is anyone else who does.

Growing up

As a child, it was rare for me to hear swear words. I remember being shocked in middle and high school to hear people cursing in the halls.

In my Christian upbringing, I was taught that swearing was wrong. In family or church lessons, it was considered breaking one of the Ten Commandments:

Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain;

Exodus 20:7

As I have become a parent, my understanding of the challenges my parents faced, and my empathy for them has continued to grow. My compassion for a frightened, confused little boy has also grown.

More than once, I was punished by having my mouth washed out with soap for saying something that my parents considered unacceptable. That was not unique—I’d heard of many friends experiencing something similar. The problem came in the specifics. “Darn” was considered acceptable, but “dang” was not.

I remember one particular time having soap in my mouth (I learned that liquid soap was much worse than a bar). The offending word I’d said was “crap.” My dad said that someone at his work had said something that he agreed with: “It’s just a replacement for another four-letter word.” I thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s the whole point. It’s a replacement!” That kind of logic did not work in those situations, and I wouldn’t have even dared to say that aloud.

In the sixth grade, we had a substitute teacher that I despised. I took to calling her “The Witch Bitch” to other kids in my class. I explained that I wasn’t swearing—I was just saying she was a female dog. Looking back now, I have a hard time understanding why that reasoning made it ok for me to be so horrible to or about that woman.

Throughout high school and college, I was in many situations where people around me swore frequently. It was a point of pride that I never joined in. Not even mentally. Those words were completely forbidden.

However, it always gave me a little thrill when a hymn at church had “hell” in it, or a scripture passage I was asked to read said “damned.” I knew I couldn’t get in trouble for swearing if it was for church like that.

There were two moments that seared into my memory. I’m able to laugh at them now, but at the time, I was deeply ashamed. One time, an older man I was working with told me to get the shit out of the truck, and I asked, “What shit in the truck?” The other time, someone told me that there was a shit list with names of people who were going to be in trouble, and I asked, “What shit list?”

Probably neither of the people I spoke with even thought twice about what I said. Especially because it was an immediate repeat of what they had just said. But, oh, how they haunted me.

Almost a year after getting married, I had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in my knee. As I came out of anesthesia, I was extremely loopy. I reacted to something in the IV, and they came to give me a shot to counteract the allergy. I pled with my wife, “Don’t let them do it in my right arm. I need that arm! Make them take the other arm.” The blood pressure cuff would periodically constrict around my arm, and I started yelling when it squeezed me. “Get this damn thing off of me.” Then, as I realized what I had said, I started crying to my wife. “I’m sorry! I don’t swear! I’m not a swearer!

The nurse asked my wife if I had a history of mental instability. She assured her that I didn’t. Ha! Little did we know.

Judging others

One of the real problems with my mental stance on swearing was the way in which I looked down on anyone who did. It wasn’t a conscious feeling of superiority—it was more a letdown of disappointment if I heard someone swear. They were no longer quite as good of a person as I thought before.

Most of the issue was that it made me deeply uncomfortable. At the time, I couldn’t process that. I just knew that someone had fallen off a pedestal a bit if I learned that they had ever cursed.

My grandfather served in World War II and in Vietnam in the Army Air Corps, and then the Air Force when it was created. He had printed his journals from the wars into a book for us to be able to read as a family. I remember it shocked me to learn that he had gone back through and removed all curse words. I couldn’t imagine my grandpa ever swearing. But that seemed to be the way to handle it—eradicate all evidence of it ever occurring.

When I was engaged to my now-wife, she told me once that she hated crafts, and they made her swear. I honestly paused and talked with a trusted mentor. “I don’t know if I can marry her—she said crafts make her swear.” Fortunately for me, that friend talked some sense into me, and I proceeded with the best decision of my life.

Early in my career, one of my favorite managers shocked me when she mentioned that some people tended to “bitch and moan.” I was crushed. My mind couldn’t process the apparent paradox. She was one of the best people I knew, but here she was saying things that good people didn’t say.

My turn

Starting in the summer of 2018, and culminating in early 2019, I had my great breakdown. I was having panic attacks multiple times every week, and spending much of my time sequestered away in the basement. I would try to watch movies or anything to get time to pass faster.

One evening I started watching Inside Out. I had watched it before and enjoyed it. This time, it felt too real. When the islands of personality started crumbling, clear and loud, in my mind, I shouted, “Shit! I can’t take this right now.”

When I went to my next therapy session, I told the story to my therapist. My mind was screaming at me to not say it out loud—my therapist would think I was a horrible person. She’d probably stop seeing me. I risked it, and told her what I thought when watching the movie. I held my breath a little after I said it, waiting for the inevitable disappointment and condemnation.

It never came.

The rest of the session passed normally. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I told my therapist how significant that was for me. I shared some of my back story and why swearing felt like such a big deal to me. She told me was a good thing that I said it. I needed to swear to challenge the rule my mind had created. I needed to risk the threat and see that it wasn’t actually a catastrophe.

Swearing started to feel good. It was the forbidden toy that I had never gotten to play with, and now I could. I tried it out with people that I respected. People I worried would think less of me. I told them that I had realized that swearing didn’t make me a terrible person.

I told them I had learned it was fucked up what my brain was doing to me.

Each person that I worked up the courage to say that to was a small victory. I still felt each time like my stomach dropped out from under me. But there was also a little thrill. I had actually said “fuck.” Out loud. And I didn’t burn on the spot.

As I learned more about OCD, I found it helpful to externalize the thoughts a bit. I started calling my OCD “Fernando”, which I explained more in a post about how intrusive thoughts feel.

What I didn’t tell everyone was his full name—“Fucking Fernando”. That was reserved for people I trusted more.

When I started my intensive outpatient program at The OCD and Anxiety Treatment Center, I found other people who also had scrupulosity. One of the exposures that we had to do to challenge our mental rules was to play the card game Bullshit, and we had to yell out “Bullshit!” as loud as we could to challenge someone. Seeing other people struggle with swearing in the same way I did was validating. This was something that OCD was blowing up out of proportion.

As I progressed in my treatment and neared graduation, one of my last exposures was to perform some standup comedy. I had written about my acceptance of the fact that I am not that funny, and I had to risk failure. To enhance the exposure, I volunteered to do my routine for the whole department at work. I included a joke with profanity as an additional exposure:

The registration on our 12-passenger van had expired, and my wife was nervous to drive it. I told her that if she got pulled over, she just needed to tell the police, “Fuck off! I’ve got six kids in here.”

She said, “You can’t say that! The baby’s in the car! He might hear you and learn it.”

“Of all the children, we’re safe with him. I don’t think his first three words are going to be ‘ball,’ ‘dad,’ and ‘fuck.’”

You can watch the full nineteen minutes here:

Finding some benefits

These days, I’m much more comfortable with myself. If I hear, or even say, a swear word, it no longer shocks me. This has allowed me to enjoy things that I couldn’t have before.

Ted Lasso is a good example of that. A few years ago, I never could have handled the language. But now that I can sit with it, I was able to enjoy a truly uplifting show.‌

Board games, and even video games, now draw out quite a bit of profanity from me. That was how my siblings learned that I swear now. I have always been competitive, and while I have learned to tone it down, I still feel strongly when playing.

An interesting phenomenon has developed for me. As I have removed some of the iron-clad restrictions on forbidden thoughts, I have become more authentic. I’m not always perfect, and I’m ok with that.

I was at a friend’s house playing video games, and as his wife came into the room, I was swearing up a storm. He was much better than I, and every mistake on my part was punctuated with profanity. She laughed as she heard me, “I didn’t know you swore. I actually trust you so much more now.

Because strong feelings often bring out strong language in me, it has become something of a barometer. If small things are making me swear, it’s typically an indication that OCD is starting to take over. When that happens, I feel a low rumble of anger and anxiety constantly, which erupts frequently and with little provocation.

If I hear myself crying out, “Fucking hell!” because my favorite pants aren’t clean, I know it’s time for some emotion processing.


As I said at the beginning, my goal is to not to speak like a sailor all the time. (Or a pipeline construction worker like I worked with, who were very proud of how foul-mouthed they were.) But as I have let go of most of the judgement around swearing, my life has become easier and happier.

My brain still gets worked up at times, and tries to convince me that I am going to hell if I say “hell” outside of a church context. I still have to fight off thoughts of being unworthy of love.

But some of my best and deepest conversations with friends or with my therapist have included plenty of profanity.

In the end, there are things that matter much more to me now. And I hope that I can remember that.

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