On occasion, a therapist will let an expletive slip, immediately regretting it. After hearing her apology, the patient will say, No problem, don't be silly. The therapist might ask, What would be a better word?
There's always a laugh and a consensus: There is no better word.
We're taught that the emotion should come from the patient, although people like to see signs of life from their therapist. It feels intuitively correct, this protocol, that if anyone should emote strongly, abandon control over words, it should be the patient. The therapist should control it; it is not his therapy.
Therapy is an empathetic process, however, and in that process of validating the patient's right to strong feeling and expressing it, a therapist might fall under the spell, emote too, communicate with too much empathy, use those expletives feeling the pain. Because expletives have the power to convey felt pain. Extreme pain inspires exaggerated language. Ever stub your toe?
We must take a more scientific look at this, and in the scientific process, define terms, clarify:
expletive (def): An additional word in a sentence that lacks intrinsic meaning; a word often interjected into a sentence as an exclamation, implies obscenity.Exclamations, we learn in school, deserve exclamation points. The example of the stubbed toe plays out this way:
"Oh, s___!"But we don't want our children to use that word, so convention has it to teach them other words, substitutes, like fiddlesticks (!).
And when writing, to use exclamation points.
"Jack returned to find his bicycle gone!"Jack was really upset.
The exclamation point eliminated the need for expletives.
Otherwise, a declarative sentence, one that simply declares, conveys information, ends with a period.
"Class is dismissed at 3:30."Now, of course, an emoticon would be expected, a variation of a smiley face, most likely, after Class is dismissed at 3:30. But assuming this a classic grammar class, only the period is necessary, in this way the words, and the period after them, must do the work. Ditto, the question mark.
"Did you ask permission?"Question marks, however, oddly, get in the way, sometimes, and are forgettable. And commas become a way of life, one that needs to change, become forgettable. Break up that sentence or use a semi-colon for G-ds sake.
Exclamation points win the prize as most highly valued punctuation marks, taught to be used sparingly in college writing classes; otherwise they lose their effect. The exclamation mark is privy to its own renaissance, however, in the past fifteen years, as THE preferred means of written emotional expression. Second only to CAPS and EMOTICONS.
WE CAN THANK THE MILLENNIALS, whose social networks far exceed those of the average baby boomer's, who felt the need for an effective emotionally loaded repertoire, and disseminated, however that is done, caps and contemporary hieroglyphics, those symbols that say so much more than a few words can express, worth a thousand words.
Emoticons are easy on the eyes, whereas letters are not, useful to convey what we are doing, feeling, (at all times), with symbols of food, drink, recreation, holidays, sadness, disappointment, anger and love, each color heart a different meaning, if only one learns the code.
All good, too, because online communication has had a positive effect on most of us, enables more and better communication. If we do it anonymously we can let down our guards, our defenses, unmask in a chatroom or with a blog, even a comment. Even with friends, in a text, we'll express feelings with emoticons and it feels perfectly safe. Even smart.
Therapy has always been a safe place to express the ugly, share when sharing with others is just too uncomfortable, too embarrassing, or has been unsuccessful in the past, accomplished nothing. And therapists have light-sabers with different settings that zap negative emotions, unexpectedly. They do it with just one look, sometimes, saber set to the look setting. If all anyone has to do, to feel better, is talk to just anybody, or shout out online, or on the phone, there would be no need for therapists.
Therapists would not need training in those Jedi schools. The economy would tank.
But should the expletive be a light-saber?
Four-letter words, the ones we're talking about, by definition imply obscenity, either as an action or a blasphemy. As such, these words successfully express negative feelings by temporarily externalizing them, like pregnancy, the feelings better out than in. Swearing tamps down the affect, displaces it, like slamming the door.
So for the therapist feeling badly for the patient, expletives work, too. But if they are not in the service of the therapy, if the therapist isn't using them intentionally, then it isn't right, might even upset the patient more.
Which is why Yiddish is better. For centuries, the old Jews, sweeping the floor of a hut or tiny apartment that never looked clean enough, rather than beat their wives or smack their husbands, kids, the dog, although they did some of that, too, used words that sounded funny but strong, externalized their pain. We should use them. They upset no one and make everyone laugh. There must be a list online somewhere.
Take the word, drek, rhymes with wreck, evocative of the "s" word. Typically, when one drops a pickle jar in the street or on a hard kitchen floor, what comes out of the mouth is:
But one could say, "Oh, drek!"
Except that this is not how the expletive is supposed to be used. It is more of an adjective: "The house smells like drek (if a pet has not been able to wait). Or better, "I feel like drek."
In fact, most yiddish words don't quite make it as substitutes for the "f" word, or the "d" word, or even the "b" word. Chaval. So forget that online search.
(Chaval means too bad, or what a shame, rhymes with la-doll. That you can use.0
So we are back to therapists controlling their use of strong language, remaining professional, letting the patient do the swearing.
And yet, (as Jonathan Safran Foer would say in that survivor book Everything is Illuminated):
I'm with a friend and we're talking about meditation, that tried and true intervention, a distraction from obsessive, recurring thoughts, stinking thinking in Alcoholics Anonymous-speak. Thoughts are self or other-blaming, self or other-punitive, cohabit with hopelessness and self-pity, fear and loathing, and maintain depression and anxiety, tempt substance abuse and suicide to alleviate the pain.
She was really down, rock bottom sad, and I felt powerless, had to ask, "Hey! Have you seen the F-that meditation video?"
No, afraid not.
"Oh, you should. It is really, really funny."
Will do, she says, still very sad.
A laptop in my purse, I pull it out, find the link, hope not to be hacked in a coffee shop. She laughs so hard, tears come to her eyes.
I determine to recommend this paradoxically conceived video to patients, one punctuated with expletives delivered in a soothing, therapeutic, relaxing cadence.
And never again to swear in therapy.
TOTAL NONSEQUITOR-- Best treatment I've ever seen on perfectionism, WHY I QUIT PERFECT, really good read.