An excerpt of Chapter 21 from the book Advice to Those Who Stutter
By Larry Molt, Ph.D.
Years ago the late Joseph Sheehan, (see chapter 6) compared stuttering to an iceberg. The stuttering behaviors we see at the surface, above the water (the repetitions, blocks, substituted words, physical struggle) are just the tip of the iceberg. The greatest portions of what maintains stuttering lurks unseen in the depths. Four decades later this remains a fit analogy. My own experience as a person who stutters, speech clinician, stuttering support group participant, “listener” on the Internet stuttering list-serves, and researcher in stuttering, tells me there’s much truth in this.
By attacking and reducing the unseen portions of fear, embarrassment, and shame that so often accompany stuttering and play a primary role in maintaining the surface symptoms of the disorder, most people who stutter are able to make great gains. Let’s talk about how we can start chipping away at the iceberg. What we need are tools: icepicks, axes, and sunshine! The actual tools to melt and devour the iceberg are within our grasp. They are gifts we can give ourselves, and they include: Forgiveness, Understanding, Courage and Patience.
Forgiveness: We who stutter are our own worst critics. We are too hard on ourselves, which is a very normal human trait. Science is still unsure what causes stuttering to begin. Much research indicates that we possess a speech production mechanism that tends to fall apart under lesser amounts of stress and communication pressure than the average speaker. Nearly everyone’s speech becomes halting and broken with adequate pressure, but for us, it takes less pressure to make us stumble. We may be more sensitive and susceptible to communication pressures. So let’s start by forgiving ourselves for stuttering just as others must forgive themselves for perceived shortcomings. While we will probably always have to live with the tendency to have our speech fragment into stuttering, there’s much we can do to minimize its effects. Secondly, let’s be willing to forgive ourselves when we occasionally fail in our attempts to make changes. Making changes in our stuttering behaviors isn’t easy: otherwise, we wouldn’t still be stuttering! We will encounter setbacks. We may run away or lapse instinctually back into our old behavior patterns, but let’s view these as opportunities to learn, to evaluate, and to develop strategies for how to do things more constructively the next time, rather than concluding with a failure and setting the stage for yet another failure in the future.
Understanding: We need to understand ourselves and our listeners. We need to understand that our own beliefs about stuttering are very different from those held by people who don’t stutter. To us, stuttering is something embarrassing, humiliating, and even shameful; to the average person who doesn’t stutter, however, it’s often little more than noticing that we’re having a terrible time talking.
Why is this? It’s human nature to fear and want to avoid anything negative that makes us appear “different” or “flawed” or obviously “less able.” Stuttering carries negative connotations for us because everyone else we know seems to be able to speak easily. Even children can say what they want to without fear, so there must be something wrong with us. Our reasoning isn’t helped by what we see in the media, where stuttering is used to indicate character flaws such as indecisiveness, cowardice, or even worse, psychopathology or criminal deviancy. It’s rare to find a heroic stutterer in print or movies!
But it’s important to remember that we notice such things because we stutter ourselves; the average non-stutterer is pretty oblivious to such connotations. It’s important to remember that the flaw is much more visible and significant to the person carrying it than to anyone else, just as it is to the insecure fashion model who can somehow find all kinds of facial and figure imperfections in herself and can’t believe that others find her beautiful. Or, the analogy of a pimple that appears on our face during our teenage years: to us, it’s huge and eye-catching and we’re sure everyone is staring at it. But, in reality, few people ever notice it. Simply put, stuttering isn’t that important to most people who don’t stutter! We’re a heck of a lot more embarrassed and concerned about it than they are.
We need to understand the reactions of others. Most normally fluent talkers know very little about stuttering, and come across it very infrequently. If we’re having a “killer block” it may catch them by surprise, and generate the responses that we’ve come to fear. But generally, those impaired souls, whose own self-image is so poor that they must ridicule others’ weaknesses to make themselves feel better, are few and far between. Most people would love to help us if they only knew what to do. When people learn that I’m a speech-language pathologist who specializes in stuttering, I’m almost immediately asked the question, “I’ve got a friend who stutters. When he stutters, should I finish the word for him if he can’t seem to get it out, or should I just wait?” Listeners can tell when we’re feeling awkward and embarrassed. They don’t know what to do, and this ultimately leads to awkwardness and embarrassment on both sides.
We sense another horribly failed attempt at communication, and the iceberg of hidden hurt feelings and failure continues to grow. A little education on our part can make a big difference. Being open about our stuttering, and explaining it when it occurs, often opens the door to questions and dissipates the awkwardness and embarrassment on both sides. This generally results in a greatly improved communication interaction in the future. Openness lets in the sunlight that melts the iceberg, rather than keeping it hidden in the bitterly cold darkness that only helps
Courage: The greatest enemy to stuttering is courage. Stuttering thrives on our fears and failures, and stuttering wins every time we meet someone and immediately start playing the game “hide the stutter.” I’ve done this, and I’ll bet that you’ve probably played the game yourself: substituting words, changing what you’re saying, not saying everything you want to say, and using all those little tricks you’ve learned to “disguise” your stuttering. We’ve all done these things in the vain hope of keeping this person from finding out the shameful and horrible truth that we stutter. Of course, it’s not shameful and horrible to them; that connotation is primarily in our minds. If we are successful, because we have hidden it and they didn’t catch on, what have we won? Nothing, because we’re then forced to continue playing the game on every meeting with this person until the truth is at last revealed. Unfortunately, the pressure increases each time we do this. Hiding the stuttering means surrendering to the fear and shame, and this seems only to feed the cold darkness.
The problem of stuttering is complicated by the fact that our actions are in large part a normal part of human nature. It’s natural to avoid unpleasant and painful things, and in the short term this is much easier than facing the unpleasantness. Psychologists talk about the primitive “fight or flight” reaction exhibited when we perceive danger (increased heart rate and blood pressure, adrenaline flooding our bloodstream.) This originally developed in prehistoric times to give us extra strength to fight our predators or extra speed to run away. Many persons who stutter exhibit these symptoms when facing difficult speaking situations that we’ve come to anticipate as difficult and apt to elicit large amounts of stuttering. All too often we select the “flight” response, and attempt to evade and run away from the stuttering, using all our tricks and subterfuge to avoid stuttering. When this happens, stuttering wins once again, and it grows still colder and darker inside.
What types of courage do we need to fight the darkness? Rather than running away, we can begin by acknowledging and facing our stuttering. In this book, you’ll read about lots of techniques for this. Personally, I use the following three strategies fairly regularly.
Self-Identification. One way of quickly ending the game of “hide the stuttering” is to let the listener know that we stutter at the earliest convenience. Stuttering is now out in the open, and this generally removes a tremendous amount of pressure. If we do have some dysfluencies the listener knows what’s happening, but neither of us has to worry about what the other person is thinking. The listener knows we are comfortable enough with it to talk about it, and we know the listener realizes what is happening. More often than not, we’ve reduced the pressure enough so that we end up talking pretty fluently.
Voluntary Stuttering. We need to be willing to deliberately stutter, especially by feigning a stutter when we wouldn’t normally stutter on a word. This demonstrates an incredible amount of courage: we have faced and done the thing we fear the most. Moreno, we are doing the thing that the majority of our activity and efforts are spent trying to avoid. We no longer have to do those things. How incredibly liberating! We can for once look at our stuttering out in the bright sunlight, not when in a typical state of panic when the moment of real stuttering is upon us, and when our views of are anything but rational. Instead, we can now pay attention to our listeners, and to the outside world, and see their reaction in a more realistic light. They don’t seem appalled or frightened, but rather curious or even attempting to be encouraging. But what’s best is that we have once again stopped playing the “hide the stutter” game. Stuttering is out in the open; the game is over.
Play With Our Stuttering—voluntarily. This takes the concept of voluntary stuttering one step further. When we “play” with our stuttering, we are proving to ourselves that it isn’t this horrible and shameful thing, and more importantly, that it no longer possesses any power over us. Personally, I play with my stuttering by doing lots of feigned stuttering, being much more dysfluent than normal. I try all kinds of stuttering, with my typical avoidance behaviors tossed into the mixture. I may try to actually stutter, purposefully saying those words I often tend to avoid by substitutions or disguised stuttering. On a few occasions during therapy, I and another person who stutterers have deliberately unleashed the most unusual and noticeable stuttering behaviors we could create on an unsuspecting listener, trying to see who could be first to make the listener “flinch.”
All three techniques reduce the fear and let in the sunlight. They help to melt the iceberg. Each one takes a lot of courage to employ, for we’re going against our natural instincts. On the other hand, for years we’re tried following our natural instinct to run away, and that obviously hasn’t helped. Maybe it’s time to try the “fight” rather than “flight” part of the reflex.
Patience: Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the feelings and fears that have taken years to develop into that giant underwater iceberg won’t disappear in a few days or weeks. What is encouraging and exciting, however, is how fast those feelings and fears change once we start to expose and challenge them. It’s easy and very human to be overwhelmed by the immensity of attacking our stuttering, but remember, the longest and most important journeys begin with a single step, and that’s all we need to worry about taking right now. Make up your mind to make just one small change today.
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