The Power of Leaving Our Comfort Zones – James Hayden

About the Author: James Hayden is a 26 year old New Orleans resident, New Orleans Saints fan, Survivor super fan, writer, and a person who stutters. James is the author of Dear World, I Stutter: A Series of Open Letters from a Person Who Stutters. James’ work has also been published by The Stuttering Foundation, The Mighty, MSN, and Yahoo.

Growth through speaking is the best way to describe my journey with stuttering over the past two and a half years. It took me getting out of my comfort zone and openly talking about stuttering to many people, mostly of who were complete strangers, to get me more comfortable with stuttering. It sounds like a lyric that Alanis Morissette could include in an updated version of her song “Ironic,” doesn’t it?

Let’s backtrack to how we got to this point. If you would’ve told me two and a half years ago that I would be more than happy and actively looking for opportunities to stand on a stage or appear on podcasts to discuss my journey stuttering I would’ve laughed in your face and said, “Not in a million years.”  Funny how things can change over two and a half years. Now, talking to different groups about stuttering and my journey with it is one of my biggest passions.

It started in spring of 2017 when the chapter leader of my stuttering support group asked me if I wanted to speak to his SLP class about my journey with stuttering.  I said, “Sure.”  I had only been going to these meetings for a little more than a year and I was ok with and had generally accepted my stutter.  I was ok with talking about stuttering in my support group or one on one conversations with people I knew, but this was a whole new ball game.  I had done a similar thing during my time in speech therapy, but it was done more so to get me comfortable with public speaking than willingly sharing my story.  At the time, I thought it would be nothing more than a cool experience and a day off of work. Little did I know how much that invite would impact my life.

The day arrived and I loved it. I realized that talking about my journey with stuttering, up to that point, was cathartic for me.  Also, I enjoyed educating the next batch of speech language pathologists. Around the same time, I participated in a panel discussion about stuttering that was open to the community.  These two events got me more comfortable with talking about stuttering and as a result helped me discover my voice as well as my passion for stuttering advocacy.

Once I spoke to his class and was a member of the panel, I knew I wanted to continue speaking about stuttering. So I took my speaking to a different medium, the written word.  I began writing about my experiences through stuttering.  My writings eventually turned into a book and opened doors for me I could not imagine possible.  I write because it is cathartic for me, shows others they are not alone in this journey we call stuttering, and most importantly it allows me the opportunity to be the person I needed when I was younger: someone who says stuttering is ok and nothing to be embarrassed by.

This pinnacle of this journey, so far, of growing through speaking was on June 12, 2019 when I was one of the eleven speakers at the inaugural TEDxOchsner.  I spent nearly five minutes talking to a room of 300 colleagues and livestreamed for 25,000 more and stuttered hard during my entire talk.  Yet, I walked off the stage as proud as can be.  Yes, I stuttered big time, but more importantly I accomplished a goal and wasn’t mad at myself for stuttering nor embarrassed by it.  Those are two things the 21-year-old James didn’t think were possible.  It was growing in confidence, through speaking, that allowed this to happen.

Since that first invitation in the spring of 2017, I have guest lectured at nine different universities, presented at the NSA conference, appeared on a stuttering related podcast, and as previously mentioned given a TED talk. More importantly, I’ve grown in confidence in myself and in my stutter through speaking about my experiences with stuttering.  As I have been told numerous times and have told others, “There’s no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone.” At times this wasn’t comfortable, but I’ve grown so much by getting out of my comfort zone and speaking about the one topic younger me never wanted to discuss.

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The Power of Leaving Our Comfort Zones – James Hayden — 26 Comments

  1. Hi James!

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am currently a graduate student in speech-language pathology and I am very interested in this area of the field. Recently, I have been going through the realization that progress/growth cannot happen until the present becomes just uncomfortable enough to push us into the next phase. I love the quote you included: “there’s no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone.” It is nice to be reminded that this is a normal feeling that we must push through and learn to take advantage of.

    You mentioned that you have spoken to classes of speech-language pathologist students. Can you give me one (or two) pieces of advice as a beginning SLP?


    • Hey Marissa,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my article. A couple of advice for you:

      1. Allow your client to set their goals.
      2. Conform your plan to your client. Don’t conform your client to your plan. What works for one person may not work for someone else.
      3. The word therapist is in the job title of “speech therapist.” There will be days where your client may just need to vent about whatever non-speech related thing they are going through. Be that pair of ears for them.

      Hope that helps.


      • Hi James and Marissa,

        I am also a graduate student studying speech-language pathology. I appreciate your advice on what makes an effective/”good” SLP during fluency treatment. I like your point: “Don’t conform your client to your plan.” Therapy is not a “one-size fits all” model. A clinician needs to be flexible to his or her individual client’s needs. I am finding that truly skilled clinicians accepts feedback (such as your own) as constructive, not critical. Your advice is helping me understand how I can better serve my future clients. Moreover, I can use your story as an example of empowerment and growth. Thank you for your post.

  2. Hi! I am currently an undergraduate student in speech-language pathology and loving it. Reading your story really inspired me. It shows that people should not be ashamed of who they are, instead they should embrace it. You took something about yourself that you were uncomfortable with and turned it into something beautiful. As a future SLP, I want to help people to not feel ashamed of themselves because it’s not something to be ashamed of. I read that you went to speech therapy, what’s one thing that you would have changed about your experience with therapy or what was not helpful?

    • Hey Sidney,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my article. I’ve been through speech therapy twice. The first time was from ages 5-11 and the second time was from the ages of 20-22. I’ll answer your question based on my second go round. The two things I would’ve changed are: I would’ve gone sooner in my college career and I would’ve been more open about the fact that I was in speech therapy. My pride prohibited me from looking into speech therapy as soon as I started college. Once I was in speech therapy, I did everything possible to hide the fact I was in speech therapy. I think had I done those two things, I’d would’ve accepted my stutter at an earlier age.

      In terms of what was not helpful, some of the techniques I learned did not help me. Fortunately, once I told my speech therapist that I did not like a certain technique we no longer used it.


  3. Hello James!

    I currently am an undergraduate student in speech-language pathology.Your story spoke to me because I struggle with getting out of my comfort zone as well. I am very afraid of public speaking but, I do wish to get better. Your story inspired me because you were able to public speak confidently and be proud of yourself while doing so.

    I was wondering how did you overcome your fear/shyness when it came to public speaking?

    Thank you,

    • Hey Angelena,

      I’m glad you got something out of my article. I was never afraid of public speaking, I just didn’t like how I sounded in public speaking situations. Two things helped me become more comfortable with public speaking. The first was learning to not be mad at myself for openly stuttering/stuttering severely in my public speaking opportunities. The second thing was simply doing it. The more I spoke in public, the more comfortable I became with myself and my speech. It took years, but I am no longer mad at myself for openly stuttering/stuttering severely in public speaking situations.

  4. Hi James,

    Thanks a lot for writing about your journey, and educating us on the value of getting out of our comfort zones and speaking openly about stuttering as a ways, some would say THE way, to get comfortable with stuttering. The point you make is very important, and I am sure that many people will learn from it.


  5. Hi James,

    I’m currently an undergrad speech language pathology major. I found your story to be inspiring and ironically perfect for me at this point in my life. I’m wondering if you have any advice on how to tell whether something is too far outside of your comfort zone or attainable zone? Also, I was wondering what the biggest thing is that you would change about your speech therapy?

    Thank you!

    • Hey Kristen,

      I’m glad you enjoyed my article. My only piece of advice on how to tell whether something is too far outside of your comfort zone is to trust your gut. If your gut says this step is too big, then start taking baby steps towards that same goal.

      I went to speech therapy twice in my life. The first time was when I was 5-11 and then from 20-22. Based on my second time, I would’ve gone back sooner. My second time in speech therapy consisted of a series of baby steps that helped me accept and ultimately embrace my stutter.


  6. Hi James –

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am a second year graduate student in speech-language pathology and will be entering the field as a speech-language-pathologist next year. I appreciate you sharing your experiences.

    Your comment about how “There’s no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone” spoke to me. If we only do what is easy and safe we will never push ourselves to see what we can be capable of. That’s a scary thought, and one that holds a lot of truth. It reminds me of a concept I explored at a fluency intensive in August. You can take actions that place you in the safe, challenged, or overwhelmed zones. The trick is to find that balance point, where you are challenged and able to make progress, but aren’t completely in the overwhelmed zone.

    I am working with my local NSA chapter and we are hoping to reach more individuals in the community who stutter. How did you find your chapter and start attending meetings?

    Thank you,
    Megan Izzo

    • Hey Megan,

      Thank you for your kind words about my article. I’m glad that it spoke to you.

      My story with finding the NSA is interesting. I found about the NSA in 2013 when my speech therapist told me about it. I looked into it and saw that there was a chapter in New Orleans, but I didn’t go because I went to college out of state plus a variety of other weak excuses. The main reason I didn’t go was because I wasn’t ready to walk into a room and admit to myself and others that I am a person who stutters.

      In the fall of 2015, I moved to a new city for my first job out of college. I looked back into the NSA and saw there was a chapter in my new city. Out of curiosity and for further self-acceptance, I decided to check it out. That was four years ago and I’ve been heavily active in the NSA since that meeting. When I moved back to New Orleans in 2017, I became chapter leader of the New Orleans chapter, the same chapter I ignored four years prior.


  7. Hi James,
    I enjoyed reading your story about how one event changed your life, it was truly inspiring. Currently I am studying to be a speech pathologist and I love every bit of learning as well as hearing different individuals experiences with how having a speech impediment impacted their lives. One question I have for you is what made you say yes to speaking in front of a crowd about having a speech impediment? I know that you stated that you were comfortable with your stutter at this point, but throughout that process did you ever think to back out of speaking about your stutter?

    • Hey Lohgan,

      Thanks for reading my article. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      That’s a great question you ask. A variety of factors played into my initial “yes.” One reason was it was a day off of work, which sounded great to me. More importantly, speaking to a group of people about stuttering gave me the opportunity to get more comfortable with and further accept my stutter. Willingly talking to a group of a strangers about stuttering gave me a huge confidence boost not only in my speech, but in myself. Talking to SLP students and giving them a non-textbook view of stuttering was also a factor in my yes. The biggest reason was it allowed me an opportunity to be the person I needed to be when I was younger. Growing up, I wish I knew of a person who stutters who said that stuttering is ok and nothing to be ashamed of. Every public speaking opportunity I have allows me to be that person.

      I did not consider backing out of this opportunity for two reasons. The first is once I make a commitment, I stick with it. The second reason is that if I stepped down, then stuttering would have won because it held me back from doing something. Everyday I do my best to make sure that my stutter doesn’t hold me back from accomplishing my goals, both big and small.


  8. Good Afternoon James,

    I appreciated reading about your experience and how one-event really impacted your life for the better. I also appreciated many of the comments to your post and your responses to them. Like many of the people leaving comments, I am a graduate student studying speech-language pathology. I have read many articles on the importance of a strong therapeutic alliance between the clinician and their client, as well as the importance of the clinician demonstrating a working knowledge of stuttering. In your experience with therapy, how critical was your relationship with your clinician? Do you have any advise for a clinician on how to gain a better appreciation or understanding of the stuttering experience besides studying the etiologies, signs and symptoms, assessment, and treatment options?
    Thank you in advance for your insight. Good luck with your next public speaking endeavor!

    Cami Finehout

    • Hey Cami,

      Thanks for reading my article. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.

      For me, the client/clinician relationship is key for successful speech therapy. As a client, I need to have positive relationship with my clinician so that I will want to go to speech therapy. I also need to trust that my clinician is doing what he/she is best for me and that I can safely confide in and vent to him/her. The clinician needs to trust that I, the client, am doing my homework and practicing my techniques outside of the therapy room. The clinician also needs to trust the client when he/she says a certain technique is not working for them. If there is no trust in the relationship, then I believe we are both wasting our time.

      To better understand the stuttering experience, I would suggest reading articles or books written by people who stutter. Every person who stutters views their stutter differently and reading different articles would you give you a wide range of views. Another way is to intentionally stutter the next time you’re ordering food at a restaurant. It won’t give you the full experience of what it is like to be a person who stutters, but you will have a slightly better understanding of it.


  9. Hi James,
    Reading your paper was informative to me, a graduate student in speech-language pathology, particularly the component of sharing your story and experiences. I am currently learning about how an essential part of speech is to emphasize that the goal of treatment is not to become a fluent speaker; instead, it should focus on the acceptance of their stutter. A question I have for you is when you were going to speech therapy, what was helpful, or what would you have found beneficial when talking about the acceptance component of your stutter and exploring the underlying factors related to stuttering (i.e., emotions, stigmas)?


    • Hey Viviana,

      Thanks for reading my article. I’m glad that you got something out of it.

      Great question. I agree that speech therapy should focus more on acceptance instead of fluency. I went to speech therapy during childhood and the main focus was fluency. I don’t remember ever discussing my thoughts and feelings on stuttering. During my junior and senior years of college, I went back to speech therapy. It was during this stint in speech therapy that I explored and talked about my feeling with stuttering. The biggest key in that was the relationship I had with my speech therapists. I knew my speech therapy room was a safe place for me to freely explore and talk about the underlying issues related to stuttering. I knew that what I told my speech therapist stayed with her and did not leave that room. If I did not have that trust in those relationships, I do not think I would’ve only explored those emotions.


  10. Hello James

    Thank you for sharing, I wanted to ask you two questions as a speech language pathologist student and someone who is completely scared of public speaking.
    1. Do you feel that sharing your story has improved other aspects of your life? such as speaking with other individuals about topics that are not related to stuttering?
    2. Do you have any advice for individuals who are scared of stepping out of their comfort zone? do you have any tips for SLPs who are working with these individuals?

    • Hey V,

      Thanks for reading my article.

      1. Absolutely. Since I’ve started embraced my stutter and began openly sharing my story, I’m far more confident in my voice and in my self. I’m also not afraid to open up and have those conversations with people.

      2. Take baby steps. Any step forward is a good step. For SLPs, start with small steps. The first step could be having them give a presentation to just you, in the confines of the speech therapy room. Once they get comfortable with that, add a one or two other people to the group. The more comfortable they get with public speaking, the larger the crowd and venue could become. From personal experience, this entire process took about six to eight months.


  11. Hi James,

    Your story is really inspiring about getting out of your comfort zones, it is such a difficult thing to do for so many people and I am happy you share your story to help others get out of theirs. What motivated you to get out of your comfort zone and were you always confident with public speaking or did you go through hardships to get to where you are now?

  12. Hello James,
    After reading your story I would like to commend you for your bravery to step out of your comfort zone to share with others about your journey as a stutter. Your new journey has open opportunities for you to communicate your journey through writing. What is the name of your book? Will you be writing another book or are you on YouTube?

  13. Hi James,
    Thank you for sharing your experience you have had with stuttering. I absolutely love the quote you shared: “There’s no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone”. That is absolutely true and very applicable to the challenges of stuttering. Like many others that have commented, I too am an SLP graduate student. Recently we have discussed the importance of the therapist being able to pseudostutter during the therapy process. For many of us, this can be uncomfortable for various reasons. Do you have any advice for ways the clinician can step out of their comfort zones to strengthen the therapeutic relationship?

  14. Hi James,

    Congratulations on your successes, and thank you for sharing your story. I flagged “There’s no growth in your comfort zone and no comfort in your growth zone” as a quotation that will need to go up on my bulletin board. Lately, I’ve become immersed in Aisling Curtain’s book, “The Power of Small,” and I like the language she uses to describe making “towards moves” in the direction of our valued outcomes and our “life worth fighting for.” Your paper happily reminds me of the great value in exploring that territory beyond the comfort zone. Best,

    Rob Dellinger

  15. James,
    Thank you for your openness. I think your contribution to the field of education is invaluable because every time you get to share your story, it is a chance for students to understand the importance of the journey of self-efficacy and not the common belief that the goal of therapy is to become fluent. I love that after your TEDx talk you describe your evaluation of your stutter, but that it didn’t matter because you accomplished something so much bigger. My hope for people who stutter is that they would see that what they say is more important than how they say it. I imagine that whether you are talking live to an audience about stuttering or writing it down, it is extremely therapeutic. I want to keep this in mind should I have future clients who stutter. Did you have a clinician that encouraged you to write, or was that on your own accord?

    Amanda T

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