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Help, I can’t stop swearing

Weekly Q&A

Help, I can’t stop swearing
Posted on September 21, 2021  - By Dr. Scott Shiffer

To put it very bluntly, I have a problem with swearing — mostly the F-word. I don’t usually use this language — I hate it when people do. It just comes out when I’m very angry with myself. In those moments, I just can’t control myself. The rage bursts out and I swear without control.

I think the reason it comes so easily to me is because I am constantly surrounded by people — people I cannot avoid — who use such language. It doesn’t affect my regular conversations. But when I’m very very angry, those are the words that come out first. 

I want to know if there are any practical ways to solve this problem. I hate who I am when I’m angry. Please don’t give me the theory; I know [swearing] is wrong. I want to know what I can practically do about it. Sorry for the long letter. Please tell me if you can help. Thank you and God bless you.

Thank you so much for the question. I would like to begin by making a few observations. 

First, cursing is a social issue. Societies determine which words are and are not appropriate and these words vary from place to place. There is no one list of expletives that are globally recognised as cuss words. If there was, the F-word would likely be close to the top of the list. In places where it is considered profane, it is usually seen as the worst one.

Second, the verse (Ephesians 4:29) Christian often quote as a reason why we should not use curse words has little to do with such words. The verse reads, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” 

In its context, the passage has less to do with using curse words and has a lot more to do with our manner of speaking to others. We are not to use our words to intentionally hurt others. Often our most hurtful words are not profane; they are statements that cut to the heart. 

This, however, does not mean that cursing gets a pass. While we are not to use our speech to purposely hurt others, many times when we curse, our words are still aimed at people. This is something we should not do.

As Christians, we should refrain from using reasoned curse words to tear others apart

Kinds of cursing

Perhaps using curse words when you get angry is the result of constantly hearing that kind of speech around you. But it may not be just that. There are typically two kinds of cursing: reasoned and reflexive. 

Reasoned cursing is the act of thinking about what to say and then saying it in a specific situation. An example would be when someone is rude to you, and you let them have it. This kind of cursing originates in the same part of the brain where we store our language. 

Reflexive cursing is “what happens when your emotions override your rational thought.” They originate from the amygdala that manages our emotions and our fight or flight tendencies. When we hit our thumb with a hammer and we let out a curse word, it allows us to better deal with the pain. This is because, in those reflexive moments, our speech comes from the part of our brain where our emotions reside. 

Cursing in these situations releases chemicals like dopamine that increase our abilities to withstand pain. But studies have also shown that the more one curses, the less effective the words become over time. In other words, cursing seems to help us in times of emotional distress, but when overused through reasoned cursing or too many emotional situations, the words provide less ability to deal with the pain.

How cursing seems to work

So, what does all of this mean? First, curse words are simply words. They only have the power we give them. Second, as Christians, we should refrain from using reasoned curse words to tear others apart. We should seek to use our words to build others up. Third, because we are human, we must understand that sometimes our emotions get the best of us and learn to cope with this.

Studies have also shown that people who curse tend to be more honest than those who do not. Some psychologists argue, beyond providing pain relief (unless you curse too much in everyday speech), cursing also provides a non-violent outlet for our anger (at ourselves or others); that it helps us cope with difficult situations; it gives us a sense of control or power over negative situations; that it aids in social bonding, increases blood circulation, produces serotonin and gives an overall sense of calm; and that it can spark our creativity — which may be why many actors curse when trying to get into certain characters.

Replacing a bad habit

In order to stop a bad habit, one must replace it with a different (good) habit

Based on your question, it seems like the majority of your cursing habit is reflexive. You even mentioned not being in control. In fact, you mentioned feeling rage. It seems like you curse when you feel out of control and angry and that the words help keep you from violent action.

I am not suggesting here that you simply embrace the habit. I have chosen for myself not to make a habit of using curse words. I simply find them in poor taste. 

But just as studies suggest that cursing has benefits, they also show that people cannot replace bad habits with nothing. In order to stop a bad habit, one must replace it with a different (good) habit.

Here is my practical advice to help you stop using profanity when you feel overcome by rage:

  1. Remember that God created us as emotional beings and that we have got to make room to experience our emotions.
  2. Recognise that our emotions are a valid part of who we are. Our emotions are a piece of the puzzle of our character.
  3. Do not make it a habit to practice reasoned cursing. But do not beat yourself up if a word comes out now and then in a highly emotional moment (especially if you are trying to deal with pain).
  4. Think of several words or phrases that you can use to replace the words or phrases that you want to stop using. I recommend ‘breath prayers’ that can point your focus towards God.
  5. Practice using those words in common speech to help introduce them into your vocabulary. When something happens and you become very angry (at yourself or others), try to use these phrases instead of the terms you wish to avoid saying.
  6. Keep practising, adopting any new habits take time.

I am not simply suggesting that we replace curse words with secondary words such as darn, heck, dang, etc. Here is an example of something you could say instead: “Jesus, help me!” If you are driving and someone cuts you off, quickly say it and mean it.

Saying something that places focus on God not only helps you deal with the situation, it also keeps you from sinfully acting out in anger against the other driver. It will take time to adopt these kinds of new habits, so be patient with yourself, show yourself some grace as you adjust, and keep at it so that over time, you develop a new, good habit.

Dr. Scott Shiffer

About Dr. Scott Shiffer

Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Faith and Culture Now, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations, including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for many years. Scott is married and has four children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges every day.



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