Ain’t Misbehavin’, Part I

 NB: I originally wrote this at the end of January 2008, but never got around to posting.  With very little blogging time available to me in the immediate future, I present it to you today.

Shortly after I announced my victory post to the Twitterverse last Sunday night, Jackie inquired:

@garageflowers -As I’m trying to give something up, I’m wondering: how do you know it’s a broken habit? I’m still thinking about mine -a lot

My response well exceeded the 140 characters limit, but as I wrote, I got to thinking about the behavioral and psychological implications of my silly little experiment. Here are my responses, compiled & edited for clarity:

There’s no way to “tell” for sure; I just have learned to better control my impulses – over the last 20 years or so, cursing has become reflexive for me, and I first started this project about a month ago, so I’ve had quite a few false starts. I finally feel like I have more control; I’m better able to stop and think and choose words more carefully before just letting loose.

I don’t know what Jackie’s thinking about giving up, but if you (or your spouse, or kids, or students) find yourself in a similar situation, it may pay to shift your thinking a bit.

Old & Busted: Why do I/he/she/it do that?

The New Hotness: What function does this behavior serve?

Generally speaking, human behavior can be boiled down to attempts to serve one of four major functions:

  1. It feels good (self-stimulation)
  2. It gets us out of having to do something difficult or unpleasant (task escape/avoidance)
  3. It gets (or keeps) us attention (um… pretty self-explanatory, I think)
  4. It reduces pain or stress (yeah, this one too)

For me, I think cursing suited functions #1 and 4. Go on, get real angry then say the “F” word – it feels so nice and percussive in that labio-dental sort of way – there’s a reason why we say that instead of “rutabaga” or “sassafrass”, you know. Ridiculous as it sounds, it soothed me when I was frustrated, angry, or in pain. Unfortunately, my wife hates it, and my kid’s starting to repeat it. Intellectually, I know I should stop, but the instant gratification I receive from the behavior is too strong. So what’s a reflective, self-aware pottymouth to do?  In the short term…

  1. Figure out the function, then find another way to serve that function
  2. Determine an alternate, preferred behavior
  3. Provide incentive to choose the preferred behavior over the target behavior

More in Part II…


  • What if you’re a compulsive hair puller? You suffer from Trichotillomania? What then?

    Most likely, it satisfies #1, arises b/c of #s4 & 2, and gets the wrong kind of attention from #2.

    But what if you do the behavior b/c of some event 14 years ago? What if you still haven’t found a way to address that event?

    Isn’t it possible that cursing could be a better alternative?

    What if you began noticing your 1 1/2 year old twirling his hair? What if you noticed your 1 1/2 year old pulling threads from blankets and coats and eating them?

    Would you curse your way through this one?

    Or would you cry and feel like you’ve already screwed up your kid?

  • Hey, just used your post and my comment for a post of my own…and I corrected the error in my comment above.

    The sentence about satisfying those causes…the end should read, “gets the wrong kind of attention from #3 (not #2).

    I’m my own best editer editor.

  • Interesting post…is the habit the physical action of the preoccupation? I think “thinking about it” doesn’t count as a regression ALA ABA–I know, but it’s still a problem.

    I read somewhere that stims like hair pulling/twirling have a strong genetic component–pretty normal.

    Ever read Lovaas? He’s the godfather of this stuff for kids on the spectrum.

  • DIU! stupid spam edublog server doesn’t like the word for when you bet money in the hopes of winning more. but it can’t pick up that cantonese swear i started this post off with.

    (i reflected for a half second and realized the irony of that opening, given the topic of your original post. but i’ll leave it.)

    anyways. i wrote (and lost thanks to a robot) a comment thanking you for this, damian. i made an assumption that you wouldn’t mind me taking chunks of your post and reusing it (with full citation of course) in one of my moral education lessons. we’re supposed to be covering “choices” now, and what you’ve got here was perfect for what my g7 students should think over.

    mebbe i’ll get up on my blog a proper post about the lesson…not exactly a stellar one tho, despite the core of it coming from the brilliance of bariexca.

  • @jeff: Aw shucks, a guy could get used to compliments like that. Thanks, man! Feel free to use whatever you want; I’d love to see what you come up with, if you don’t mind sharing.

    @chris: You’re right; thinking about it is fine, and in fact is a pretty significant part of the cognitive-behavioral approach. Once you recognize that you’re thinking about it, you can start positive self-talk or some other technique to rein in the impulse to engage in the behavior.

    I have not read Lovaas, but you’ve started off my summer reading list; thanks for the suggestion. I get the feeling that spectrum disorders will be an increasing portion of my caseload in years to come; in fact, I’ve gotten a little experience designing a behavior plan for a boy with autism through my internship.

    @ken: I owe you a longer answer than I can give in a comment; will devote a post to it, hopefully this weekend (I’ve been hella busy lately; sure you can relate!). Short version: cursing may, in fact, be preferable in your case; this stuff is all relative.

Join the Discussion

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.