Stuttering as a mirror to understand the world (Sybren Bouwsma)

About the author: Sybren Bouwsma – 39 years old from the Netherlands. I have been stuttering all my life and I am an active member of the Dutch Stuttering Association. I attended and organized several international meetings for people who stutter. I have a background in Public Administration, Ethics and Social Research. I recently graduated as Outdoor Life Coach and now working as Nature Coach and Online Coach and coach people in their personal development. See for more information.

Stuttering has caused a lot problems and frustration in my life: bullying at school, it was hard to make contact with other people and for a long time I had a low self-esteem. Although my stuttering is still a limitation in my life, it has also become a huge driving force in my personal development.

When I get into a situation in which I stutter, I still feel a lot of unrest that impede me. Besides the impediment, I learned to use my stuttering as a signal to stay with my attention close to myself in order to help me to speak better. Because I stutter, I am much more aware of myself than I would have been otherwise.

I am not only very aware of myself, but I am also conscious of the reactions of others to my stuttering. These reactions (of people who don’t stutter) can be very different, from empathy to impatience or insecurity. Especially negative reactions or laughter can be very arduous to me. However, I don’t see it as a direct response to me anymore, but that I am just triggering a feeling. The emotion I evoke by the fact that I stutter says a lot about the other person, as I am a kind of mirror for the feeling of the other. I sometimes ask about the feeling that the other experiences behind his reaction. This can leads to a very interesting conversation, in which they often admit that because of my stutter I help them to understand themselves better.

In my life I have met a lot other people who stutter. Many of the people I’ve met seem to be very self-aware and sensitive to their environment. I think behind our self-awareness and sensitivity lies an enormous power that we can use to create more awareness in our direct environment. And if we combine our experiences we could be like a big mirror that can help to bring more reflection and understanding in the world…

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Stuttering as a mirror to understand the world (Sybren Bouwsma) — 27 Comments

  1. I love your analogy, Sybren. The more conversations I have with PWS, the more I learn about myself, the quality of my conversations and my listening habits. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Tricia 🙂

  2. Hello Sybren,

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am currently a speech language pathology Graduate student and found your point about not only being aware of yourself, but aware of the reactions of others to your stutter. You mentioned how stuttering caused a lot of frustration in your life such as bullying in school and difficulty making contact with others.

    As a future speech therapist, can you suggest to me the aspects you feel are the most crucial for a therapist to work on with a young child who does stutter?

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Hello Stephanie,

      What is most crucial I think is to make a child stutter not judge himself, and that there is a caring environment where the fact that you are sometimes not fluent is OK! So laying not too much attention on the stuttering part of the child, but the qualities and abilities of the child!


  3. Hi Sybren,

    Thank you for sharing such a powerful analogy. As a young adult, students are often bullied and treated terribly, with or without the presence of a stutter. The idea of understanding yourself as a “mirror”, in order to allow others to reflect upon their own awareness.. is a very complex and multidimensional thought.

    I feel that many people could avoid a lot of frustration and pain from truly understood this analogy. For the purposes of sharing this idea with young adult clients who stutter, my question to you is : how would you approach this concept of self-awareness with clients who are being bullied and developing fears, without furthering their awareness and negative self-image because of the reactions coming from their peers?

    • Thank you for your reaction, Ambrosele! Bullying can be a very negative experience and create a lot of fear in a young person’s life (including my own…). As a begin to approach it in a way of self-awareness, I think it is important to understand why the other person is bullying you? And I don’t mean the reason why someone is a victim, but why the other ‘bullyer’ starts to harass other people. I think there often lies a lot of insecurity behind that. I later spoke to some of the person who bullied me, and they really were not aware of what had caused in my life, but also, it were very sensitive persons themselves. I think by learning to be a real mirror for another person (and questionning what makes someone else doing what he/she does) can create a lot understanding between people who are being bullied and who bully. At least, it makes the person who is being bullied less personally touched because he sees the bullying more as something from the other person..


  4. Sybren, I’d like to affirm your positivity in the face of so much negativity. It takes a great deal of strength to be able to ask, “Why do you feel the way you do about my stuttering?” instead of simply accepting that because this person reacts in a way that is destructive to your self-esteem, they must be right and that you really are as insufficient as they make you feel. I am sure it took a long time for you to build up that level of fortitude. Thank you for challenging people like me who don’t stutter to be much more aware of how our automatic responses can either damage or build up a person much more than we can ever realize in that moment.

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I found this article to be very interesting and insightful. My question for you would be how do you find a balance between building up a student’s self esteem when they do stutter but still having them know that attending therapy and practicing their skills outside of the therapy room are important?

  6. Hi Sybren,

    Thank you for sharing your story! I am currently in graduate to school to become a speech-language pathologist and I am taking a class that focuses on voice and fluency. I think it’s courageous that you address others when they respond to your disfluency.

    I have a few questions for you:
    1. How do people respond when you address their reaction(s)?
    2. What made you want to become an Outdoor Life Coach?
    3. Has your job helped you to communicate more fluently with others during work and outside of work?
    4. How do your clients react to your disfluency?

    Thank you for your time!

    -Lindsey Lail

    • Hi Lindsey,

      Good questions :).
      1. People often react great when I respond as a mirror. I am quite open about the fact that I stutter, and try to give people a feeling of feeling safe (of coursed I learned that as a coach). That makes it more easy for others to react to it.
      2. At a certain point of my left I felt that I really would like to be in nature and to help other people. And somehow this came on my path :).
      3. Being a coach helps me a lot to understand myself better and also to be an example for others. But communicating more fluently is a completely different thing, I still stutter a lot… However, with a better understanding of what communication really is, now I communicate more ‘fluently’ (but with stuttering…).
      4. I can not be a coach for everybody. So if people choose to be my client, they know there is dysfluency involved. That could be an advantage, because you have more time to think :). I am now finding my way in what clients really fit with me.


  7. Hi Sybren,
    Thank you for sharing your experience as a PWS. As a graduate student in a speech pathology program, I really appreciate your unique perspective. I found it interesting that you use your stutter as a tool to help you become more self-aware when speaking, do you have any other techniques or strategies that can help PWS see stuttering as a positive opportunity rather than a negative experience?

    Thank you!

    – Isabel K.

  8. Hi Sybren,
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience as a stutterer. You are an inspiration to others. I am currently in graduate school studying Speech Language Pathology and found your story very interesting. I really like your mentality of showing others how it feels to be in your shoes. My question to you would be how do you teach children who stutter to have this “confidence” you have when it comes to the reactions of other people around you?

    • Hello Jacqueline,

      I don’t work with children at this time, more from adolescent age, but all the reaction I get now really make me thinking about what I can do for young children with a stutter. At a younger age I was not confident about myself, so if I would have had a ‘coach’ that helped me dealling with all the feelings I had. Of course, I had very good SLP’s who adressed this. But to have an example of someone who really has a stutter would be a plus. I will think of some ideas!


  9. Hi Sybren,
    Thank you for telling us your story! I completely agree that you can be a mirror reflecting what you want out of the world and other people. I was recently a graduate student SLP for an intensive clinic. It was amazing to see the client’s become aware that when they approached others with confidence and being overall more comfortable, the conversational partner would also appear confident and comfortable with the interaction. Also by being more open you create awareness of stuttering and leave a lasting positive impression on the people you were interacting with. I really appreciate your insight on living with a stutter.

    Thank you,

  10. Hi Sybren,

    I am so inspired by your post! I love your view on stuttering and how it can help others learn more about themselves. I am currently studying to become a speech language pathologist and hope to work with children who stutter. You said in the first paragraph that you dealt a lot with bullying growing up. What would be your advice on how to help some of the children I work with overcome some of the social obstacles that come with having a stutter such as bullying?

  11. Hi Sybren,

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom as a person who stutters. I am in my final year of graduate school at the University of Minnesota Duluth studying speech-language pathology in which I am currently in an advanced fluency course. As a future speech-language pathologist, I felt many points from your article are worthwhile to me to hold and provide to my future clients who stutter.

    I found it truly inspiring and incredible how you used your trials and tribulations that your have experienced throughout your life as driving force behind pursuing your passions for motivation of your development as a person.

    Relating stuttering to a mirror provided a huge light to me and I think of how I can assist my future clients in using their fluency as motivation to create more awareness in their direct environment. In our community we have a “Stutter Group” for community members of all ages to meet to socialize, discuss stuttering-related topics, and to communicate in an open and supportive environment. Have you been a member of a stuttering group? Do you feel a group like I described is supporting combining experience so that “we could be like a big mirror that can help to bring more reflection and understanding in the world”? This is a beautiful statement, and I want all my future clients to hold this at heart to bring more understanding and awareness to the world.

    Thank you again. Great great article.


  12. Hi Sybren,

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I am a first year speech pathology graduate student, and I am currently enrolled in a fluency class. We have discussed the internal impact stuttering can have on an individual, and I loved your positivity and personal insights into this concept. I appreciate your mentality and your perspective on the interactions you have with both those who stutter and those who do not stutter. It’s interesting and inspiring how you use your experiences and self-awareness to help instill this same feeling within others. I am wondering if there was an experience or person who helped you to develop your sense of awareness? If so, what advice would you give to future SLPs such as myself to instill this type of positivity/self-awareness within my clients?

    Thank you,

    • Hi Jenny,

      There are a lot of people that inspired me! Now I found the main inspiration within myself… Maybe for SLP it would be good to be really aware of themselves, including the fact what inspired you to become an SLP?


  13. Thank for this very interesting reflection, Sybren. I agree with you that the ability to be aware of other people’s reactions is rather common in those who stutter. And also to make other people question their reactions, why they feel what they feel, and maybe to change them. So stuttering comes as somenthing that can empower us to make a difference in the world. Helping others becoming more aware of their true self.

    I’ve recently had an experience that relates to what you describe. While taking part in a Youth Exchange for young people who stutter, in Italy, I had the opportunity to engage in a very interesting conversation with one of the volunteers, an Italian young man doing some work in the arboretto where the Youth Exchange took place. What he shared with me, and with another one of the group leaders, is that speaking with stutterers made him take the time to pause, “to slow down”, and really pay attention to the conversation he was part of. So, to be more present, to engage in a more authentic communication. In a world that goes in an increasing fast speed, that can really be a gift. Which reminds me of a quote, that goes like “In a gentle way, you can change the world”.

    • Thank you, Jose! This was a great week (with me as one of the organisers :). Indeed, this week was a great opportunity to be a mirror for non-stuttering people :).
      Hopre more of these opportunities will follow!


      • Hi Sybren,

        It was indeed a life-changing week, only possible because of your, and many other dear friends’, dedicated work. I surely hope more of those will follow!

        All the best,
        José Carlos

  14. Hi Sybren,

    Thank you for your insight to stuttering. I fully understand your metaphor of your stuttering as a mirror of other people’s feelings of themselves. I also feel that it takes great strength to get past a point of not caring what others think of you, especially if it comes from negativity. I want to know what advice would you give a
    stutterer who lacks a big support system to overcome the harsh reactions of people?

    • Hi Mary,

      Learning to understand where the ‘harsh’ reactions comes from (understanding the ‘pain’ of the other person) could be a step to deal with these reactions.


  15. Hi Sybren,

    I am a second year graduate student at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. I am currently in an Advanced Fluency course. I really enjoyed your story, it made me look at things again from another perspective. I am curious if you had received any speech therapy and what that looked like? As a future Speech and Language Pathologist would you have any advice for me going forward in this career?

    Thank you!

  16. I’ve known you for so many years and every time we meet, you make me smile, as you’re such a natural person. Your journey is an inspiration to me and so many others. You live your life no matter what, follow your dreams, start your own coaching business and inspire other young people who stutter to be who they want to be. You’re amazing, Sybren. May your light shine on all the people who are lucky enough to meet you.

    Liefs en Keep talking!

    Anita S. Blom, Sweden

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