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How Do I Stop Swearing Reflexively?

Learn to be at peace with spilling something on yourself (or at least how to say something beyond #$@# @*#*%!!!)


That’s my curse word of choice every time I drop something, or bang my motherfucking knee into my motherfucking desk a-motherfucking-gain.

But then, perhaps I shouldn’t call it my word of choice, because it feels completely involuntary: I can’t help myself from blasting out this phrase every single time I hurt myself, or spill my coffee all over the floor.

Now that I have a kid, though, I feel like I’ve got to cool it with the motherfuckers. And I figure, if people can conquer addictions, find inner peace or climb Mount Everest, surely I can stop swearing every time I hit that motherfucking desk.

Can’t I?

First, some excuses for my potty mouth: Cursing can have a number of benefits. Reflexive cursing — like me and my, uh, danged desk — can help increase your pain tolerance, as shown by a 2009 study at Keele University in the U.K. And according to Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego and author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves, social swearing can make you appear to be more trustworthy (so long as you’re in an environment where it doesn’t violate social norms). It also helps you to bond with others and make friends, as it makes you appear honest and forthright when you talk.

The thing with social cursing, though, is that it can usually be turned off — or at least modulated — given the environment, whereas it’s much harder with reflexive cursing. This explains why you generally tend to curse less when you’re visiting your in-laws, but if you trip over their couch, you’re still going to let out that barrage of “Shitwhores!!

In large part, this is because social swearing and reflexive swearing originate from different areas of the brain. “Language production normally comes from a part of the brain that’s evolutionarily new, and unlike any other species,” Bergen explains. “Parts of our cerebral cortex are bigger than other species, and this is what’s responsible for the complex thinking we do, like math and music.” And, given the topic at hand, where your casual, conversational swearing comes from.

Reflexive cursing, meanwhile, bursts forth from a much deeper and animalistic place. “Spontaneous profanity isn’t received through that part of the brain,” says Bergen. “Unlike the rest of language, it’s processed through the part of the brain known as the basal ganglia.” One of this area’s tasks is to select the correct response to stimuli when you get injured, so you end up cursing much in the same way a dog would instinctively yelp if you tugged on its fur.

“It’s a much more direct pathway,” says Bergen, who further notes that the reason why we curse in these situations — rather than yelping — is because these words are ingrained into us when we’re young to provoke, or be provoked by, emotional responses.

If it’s so hard-wired into our brains to curse reflexively, then, does that mean we’re powerless to stop it? Bergen admits that it’s extraordinarily hard, but one tactic you might attempt is to try and catch yourself partway through a reflexive curse.

“A lot of people find that they can modulate the end of the swear. So, if they slam their thumb into a door, they can change the end of the word to something like ‘motherfarker,’ or ‘motherfather.’” While this might feel much less satisfying than a good old-fashioned motherfucker, the tactic is often employed by those suffering from coprolalia — a condition associated with Tourette syndrome — where people cannot help but to hurl out offensive language at inappropriate times.

If sounding like Ned Flanders still isn’t enough for you, there may be a more drastic measure you can take. While Bergen cautions that there are no clinical studies where people have gone to such lengths to quit cursing, he speculates that your best bet is to use the tried-and-true method used by psychologists for decades: Behavior modification.

Used to treat those with anger issues or PTSD, one method of behavior modification is to systematically create scenarios that stimulate those experiences where you would curse reflexively, and then plan to say something else. If you can accomplish that, says Bergen, you can “set up some sort of reward system with that as well, by giving yourself a piece of chocolate, for example.”

Bergen cautions against repeatedly slamming your hand in a car door, for obvious reasons, but he does suggest something like watching a video replay of your favorite sports team’s worst defeats. This kind of method has been proven to be very effective in regulating other responses prompted by the basal ganglia, such as violent outbursts.

For me and my desk, though, I’m honestly not sure what I’ll do. I don’t know if I want to put myself through repeatedly watching the worst Yankees blunders of the past 20 years (there aren’t that many of them anyway), and I’m sorry, but saying “motherforker” everytime I get hurt just sounds humiliating. Instead, I’ll likely raise my daughter the same way I was raised: With me cursing like a drunken sailor in front of her, then yelling at her when she does it.

Wait, that’s a terrible idea, isn’t it?