Having commenced stuttering in early childhood, I developed a wide range of strategies to protect myself from shame and embarrassment. I began avoiding words that appeared to cause me difficulty. Almost unconsciously, I substituted them with others that I felt more confident in using.
I developed an incredible expertise and could instantly provide a wide array of synonyms (commencing with different letters) whenever a ‘difficult’ word loomed large on the horizon. I became a ‘walking thesaurus’. This, generally, allowed me to conceal the true impact of my struggles.
In 2000, I learned about the immense implications of such a practice. I had previously been unaware of the fact that, whenever I changed a word, I fuelled my fear of saying that word. Each time we avoid something, we strengthen its influence over us. We can evade for so long, but the time will come when the situation demands that we have to say a specific word, or speak in a particular situation. When that happened, I found that my fear level had increased to such an extent that I stuttered more severely.
Although I had been using avoidance strategies for many years, it was only when I closely examined my behaviours that I realised just how widespread they had become. They had infiltrated so many different areas and involved considerable effort and energy. It was enlightening (and in some ways frightening) to discover the extent to which avoidance had crept insidiously into my life – influencing so many of my decisions.
I immediately adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards all kinds of avoidance. I vowed that I would never again substitute a word, nor shirk the challenge of any speaking situation.
In common with many other persons who stutter (PWS), I found my name to be particularly challenging, so I only said it when it was absolutely essential.
I addressed this issue by routinely introducing my name into everyday conversations. I didn’t wait until it was imperative (for me to say it) – I began uttering it at every opportunity, even when it may have appeared inappropriate. I would simply slip it into exchanges when there was little pressure, particularly in the company of friends and family.
After a while, I found that my name presented fewer problems. Each time I said it, a heartening message was transmitted to my subconscious saying, “Hey, you’ve just said Alan Badmington”.
Throughout my life, the same little voice had constantly reminded me that I could not say it – thus strengthening my self-limiting belief and contributing to future anticipatory fear. By reversing the adverse dialogue that I had been having with my inner critic, I eventually convinced myself that I could say that emotionally charged combination of words.
The thoughts that occupy our minds prior to engaging in a speaking situation are hugely significant. What we believe about ourselves, as well as the manner in which we perceive the environment that we are entering (or the persons with whom we are due to come into contact) will, undoubtedly, influence our approach and expectations. In addition, it will almost certainly have a considerable impact upon the outcome. If we anticipate a negative scenario, we prepare ourselves for that eventuality. But when we believe that things are possible, they are more likely to occur.
I became extremely proactive and began introducing challenges into my conversations throughout the day. I would deliberately create sentences that incorporated words I perceived to be difficult.
I also commenced utilizing visualization – a tool used by successful athletes. This involved creating internal movies that depicted me speaking in a positive manner. To a very large extent, our accomplishments (or lack of accomplishments) are as a direct result of the images that we hold in our head. The empowering mindset that I developed (through visualization and real life triumphs) enabled me to reduce (and subsequently eliminate) expectations of anticipatory fear.
I should stress that I did not simply use visualization, in isolation. I employed that technique together with a myriad of other approaches (including physically expanding my comfort zone by systematically placing myself in a wide array of challenging real-life speaking situations).
The more I challenged myself (and did things that I previously believed I could not do), the more comfortable I became in undertaking those new roles. After a while, I felt comfortable fulfilling them and readily accepted that they fell within my compass. My self-image had extended to accommodate them.
In addition, I began answering the ‘dreaded’ telephone with my name. When it rang, I would pick it up and immediately say “Alan Badmington”. I avoided any preamble or surplus words (such as “Hello, this is Alan Badmington speaking”). That would have been an easier option but I intentionally made the decision to confront my fears head-on. Even today, I instinctively answer the telephone in the same manner – it has become so automatic. The difference is that it now holds no fear whatsoever.
I also adopted a similarly proactive approach in respect of other letters/sounds that held an emotional charge. Each day, I would call toll free numbers that I had plucked from the Yellow Pages directory, creating fictitious enquiries in which I would intentionally use words commencing with ‘challenging’ letters (and they were plentiful). The more I said them, the more confident I became.
I rang hotels and restaurants, reserving tables/rooms in the name of “Alan Badmington”. I would call back 30 minutes later to cancel the reservation.
I approached total strangers in the street and requested directions to locations that I perceived would be difficult to say. Sometimes I would ask for such places as `Badmington Road’, ‘Badmington Drive’ or ‘Badmington Gardens’, even though I knew they didn’t exist. When visiting the USA, I would seek directions to ‘Badmington Boulevard’ (a double dose of the ‘dreaded’ letter ‘B’).
I also created challenges when I attended my first British Stammering Association and National Stuttering Association Annual Conferences in 2001(Liverpool, England) and 2002 (Anaheim, California) respectively. Those who are familiar with such events will know that each delegate is issued with a conspicuous lapel badge that makes their identity readily available to everyone else. I raised a few eyebrows when I removed the official name strip and replaced it with the following handwritten message:
“Please ask me my name, I enjoy a challenge”.
Those ventures were, in effect, extensions of the series of proactive projects that I commenced in 2000 in order to place myself in unfamiliar situations. They afforded wonderful opportunities to further expand my comfort zones, while also starting many interesting discussions.
Today, having consistently demonstrated that I can say my name in any situation, I have no fear whatsoever about introducing myself. Had I continued with avoidance, the same long-established disempowering beliefs and limited self-image would have continued to impose their restrictions.
Not surprisingly, I felt apprehensive when I first embarked upon my more expansive lifestyle. But, as my past behaviours were not serving me well, I knew that I had to do something different. We don’t change anything by retaining the status quo.
Choosing to say specific words (that I had intentionally neglected for so many years) was bound to be scary. In the initial stages, it is possible that those who were familiar with my usual speaking pattern may have considered that (on occasions) I was speaking less fluently. But that didn’t bother me. You see, I had come to view my word substitutions as “stuttering on the inside” and felt that I needed to bring the matter out into the open in order to resolve the issue.
Within a relatively short period of time, the apprehension receded and was replaced by a feeling of excitement. The external dysfluencies were also short-lived, as I grew in confidence. Today, there are no words, letters or sounds that continue to hold an emotional charge, or generate negative anticipatory thoughts.
I fully appreciate (and respect) that not everyone who stutters would wish to repeat my actions. Some PWS are accepting of their current position and have no desire to change. Each of us is responsible for the paths that we choose to tread. The decisions we make are personal and, invariably, relevant to our own unique circumstances. My stance against avoidance seemed appropriate for me at that particular time in my life. However, the concept that we may need to experience pain, in order to achieve gain, can be difficult for some people to accept.
It is important that we do not blame ourselves when we resort to avoidance. Avoidance is NOT a crime, so we should not feel guilty about using it. I leaned heavily upon such strategies for more than half a century – it was the only way in which I knew how to cope. Many people avoid doing things that generate fear or discomfort – such behaviours are NOT exclusive to those who stutter.
I’ve heard it said that “every cloud has a silver lining”. Well, in my case, that has certainly proved to be true. A lifetime of word substitution has equipped me with an extensive and varied vocabulary. Yet, for so many years, I only chose to call upon its services when I had occasion to write.
Transferring my thoughts to paper was, generally, the only effective way in which I could meaningfully express myself. The written option allowed me to communicate exactly what I wanted to say. I could select the most suitable words without experiencing the usual emotions associated with stuttering.
Past oral exchanges were frequently littered with words that I considered to be inferior, or in some instances, totally inappropriate. My mind was constantly in turmoil as it frantically searched for synonyms to replace those words that I feared. I purposely succumbed to mediocrity and accepted second best – simply because of my desire not to be seen or heard stuttering.
Today, having eliminated avoidances, I no longer differentiate between written and spoken occasions. The crippling oral shackles have finally been removed and I can now pluck whatever words I wish from the extremities of my vocabulary and say them without anticipatory fear. It is truly exhilarating!
Having discovered (rather late in life) that the human voice is such a wondrous thing, I now look forward to using it at every possible opportunity. After years of frustration and under-achievement, I am finally participating widely on life’s stage.
CHANGING THE WORDS AROUND
I couldn’t say muffin. I couldn’t say butter
If I ordered a burger, I’d stumble and stutter
So, instead of me saying the words that I should
I’d swap them for others, I hoped that I could
But you can’t always leave out the words that you dread
There are times when a certain thing has to be said
My sister’s called Sarah, my best friend is Ben
They just wouldn’t answer to Lucy and Len
Whenever I spotted a difficult sound
I’d hastily juggle my sentence around
I spent so much energy word rearranging
Whenever I spoke, I was chopping and changing
My efforts to search for an easier word
Resulted in sentences, sometimes absurd
At times, my selections just didn’t make sense
Which made me more anxious, frustrated and tense
Each time I avoided a troublesome sound
I felt rather guilty, and very soon found
That my fear of speaking increased even more
The number of ‘problem words’ started to soar
In time, I discovered that word substitution
Was simply avoidance, and not a solution
Although I was ﬂuent, or so it appeared
The words I avoided became much more feared
One day, I decided enough was enough
I made myself promise, although it was tough
To say what I wanted, whatever the letter
At times I still struggled, but I felt so much better
Today, I will say any letter or sound
Confronting my fears, is the best way – I’ve found
Should I ever be tempted to waver sometime
I’ll remember the message contained in this rhyme
An illustrated version of my poem is available at:
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