By J. David Williams
alt textI can’t tell you how to stop stuttering, which is what you would like. But there are ways that you can stutter more easily, which sound better and make you more comfortable with your speech, and make a better impression on your listener. Listeners react to the way you appear to be reacting to yourself. If you seem to be tense, panicky, and out of control, they will also feel tense, to which you react by becoming more tense and hurried yourself. It’s a circular process that you can learn to control.
The basic idea is to do all of your stuttering with less struggle, tension, and panic. This doesn’t mean to talk more slowly in an effort to avoid all stuttering. Go ahead and speak at your normal rate, but when you feel that you are about to block on a word, slow down at that point and take your time saying the feared word. Don’t give up your effort to say the word, but try to stutter easily and slowly. Relax and let go: keep your lips, tongue and jaw moving gently without jamming. Don’t panic. Take all the time you need. Concentrate on confidence and sense of control. Keep moving forward but move slowly and positively. Resist any feeling of hurry or pressure. At some instant you will know that you are over the hump. Simply finish that word and keep talking along at your usual rate until you start to tense up again for another feared word. Then instantly shift into slow motion again. Many stutterers who originally had very tense, complex patterns of stuttering have worked themselves down to this easy, simple, slow stuttering with little tension or interruption in their speech.
Another technique that I have always found helpful, and used to practice a great deal, is to deliberately repeat the initial sound or syllable of a word on which I felt I might stutter. I made one or several deliberate repetitions before I even tried to utter the word as a whole. The effect was to give me a feeling of control. The listener might think I was really stuttering, but I was not. I was being deliberately disfluent to eliminate any fear of stuttering at that instant. Rather than giving way to panic, tension and struggle, I was doing on purpose something that I usually tried desperately to avoid doing. And it really worked. This technique weakened my fear of stuttering and I felt a delicious freedom and control. It’s an old, old idea: if you are terrified of doing a particular thing, your fear will decrease in proportion to your ability to do at least part of the feared behavior deliberately. And whatever else stuttering is, it is behavior that is increased by your fearful, struggling efforts to avoid doing it. The more I sidestepped uncontrolled tension by throwing in occasional deliberate disfluencies (repetitions or prolongations of sounds) the less I really stuttered.
Deliberate disfluency is a simple thing to do, but you may recoil in horror at the very idea. You may say, “People will think I’m stuttering if I do that!” It’s amazing how we who stutter can hold on to our illusions. We hate and fear stuttering, and try desperately not to stutter. We develop a repertoire of complex denial and avoidance attitudes and behaviors. So the idea of being deliberately disfluent, or publicly displaying what we have spent so much time and energy trying to hide, seems to make no sense. In reality it makes a great deal of sense, but you have to begin to convince yourself of that. People may think you are stuttering when you are being deliberately disfluent, but what do they think when they see and hear you doing your real stuttering? Think about this a bit, and perhaps ask a friend or two their opinion.
As you well know, when you stutter you feel out of control. You are struggling to regain control. The operative word is “struggling.” The more you feel you have to struggle to say a word, the more you are out of control. So anything you do deliberately to reduce tension when expecting to stutter or actually stuttering increases your control. You cannot stutter deliberately; you can only pretend to stutter. So the more you are deliberately disfluent, the less you will actually stutter.
It takes practice to start accepting this idea. Try it first when you are alone. Then try it in easy, non-threatening situations, and analyze your feelings. As you begin to feel more comfortable with your deliberate disfluency try doing it more and more, and in gradually tougher speaking situations. It is very likely to decrease your fear and increase your natural, inherent fluency.
There is no one way to speak, or to handle your stuttering, that is going to guarantee fluency within any specified length of time. The primary goal is to have a feeling that you are actively doing things that decrease your fear of stuttering and give you a sense of control. It’s great to realize that whenever you stutter, there is something you can do about it — relax and delay your stuttering behaviors, introduce some deliberate disfluency to counteract your tendency to panic, or change your pattern of stuttering in any manner that allows you to communicate more comfortably without trying to be perfectly fluent. If you are like most people who stutter, you are much more intolerant of your own “speech failures” than are your listeners. It took me a long time to learn that other people really didn’t care whether I stuttered or not. They liked me or they didn’t, but my stuttering had very little to do with it.
There is still much speculation about the basic cause and nature of stuttering, but one thing is clear: your fear of it is the most disruptive and toughest aspect to deal with. If you weren’t afraid of stuttering, you would not have tried so hard and so ineffectively to deny, conceal, and avoid its occurrence. Fear disrupts rational thinking and voluntary motor behavior, including speech. If your fear of stuttering reaches a critical level at any given moment, it becomes literally impossible for you to carry out any voluntary speech modification techniques you have learned, and you’ll probably stutter as badly as ever.
So an important goal is to learn to keep your fear of stuttering within manageable limits. Try not to give way to blind panic at the approach of a feared speaking situation. You cannot just wish away your old, well-conditioned fear responses, but you can practice overriding the fear. It is always better to go ahead and talk even if you stutter, rather than to remain silent for fear of stuttering. This gives you just a bit more courage the next time!
In practicing changes in your way of stuttering and in reducing your fear of stuttering, you must be “actively patient.” Stuttering did not develop overnight, and you’re not going to make permanent changes overnight. Keep in mind that you don’t cure behavior, you change it. There is no known universally effective medicine for the cure of stuttering. There is only a learning process: learning how to change your speech behavior in desirable ways, and how to develop the right attitudes toward that behavior. Real and permanent change in feelings and behaviors does not happen easily, quickly, or automatically. You have to be active and repeatedly do things that bring about the results you want. You have to be patient. Improvement will come in direct proportion to the amount of active, sustained, daily effort you expend. Many small successes cumulate to produce a more permanent change than does one spectacular event.
Apart from the specific things you can do about your stuttering problem, such as modifying your speaking pattern and reducing your fear and avoidance, there is a more general and more basic goal. You need to increase your self-esteem and to enjoy life to the fullest. Stuttering is never fun, but it is only a part of your life, one of many parts. Keep it in per spective. Have a real istic view of the ways in which it may be a handicap and the more numerous ways in which it is not. Develop and capitalize on all your personal assets, your skills and talents. The happier you are in general, the more self-fulfilled you’ll feel, and the less important your stuttering will become.
Identify with people, and accept the fact that you are a qualified member of the human race. Have an “approach” rather than an “avoidance” attitude toward others. Remember that everyone has feelings of inadequacy and insecurity for one reason or another, no matter how they appear in public.
An emotional common denominator among all people is much more likely to be anxiety and a sense of inadequacy rather than supreme self-confidence and superiority. Anxiety and feelings of worthlessness keep you from enjoying life. They diminish positive, outward-looking attitudes, and practically wipe out any healthy sense of humor.
Way back, I did a good deal of self-modification of my stuttering, and I gradually overcame much of my fear, shame and avoidance. Slowly, with many ups and downs, I became more fluent and I enjoyed life more and more. I became aware that I was making phone calls without thinking twice about them, and speaking easily in many other situations that used to make me break out in a cold sweat. It felt wonderful, and still does when I stop to think about it. Mostly I just communicate with people without fear or struggle. I still stutter slightly, but it has long ceased to be a real problem. Occasionally, after one speaking situation or another, I’ll think, “Gee, that used to scare the hell out of me.” Then I go back to confronting other and more immediate problems that are the inevitable concomitants of age. Stuttering fades to insignificance.
I have no regrets other than the time and energy I wasted feeling sorry for myself because I stuttered. I think I would have progressed faster in coping with my stuttering problem if I had available the kind of valid, useful literature now produced by the Stuttering Foundation. I encourage all people who stutter to read everything they can about stuttering. In this way they will gradually increase their ability to distinguish between facile promises of unattainable “miracle cures” and solid, time-tested ideas and methods of self-improvement.
As a final suggestion, join or form a mutual-support, self-help group for people who stutter. There are several such groups in America, Europe and elsewhere. They increase motivation for self-therapy, provide social reinforcement and an opportunity for members to learn from one another. I have enjoyed and benefited from such activities for many years.