Michael P. Boyle is a speech-language pathologist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Montclair State University where he directs the fluency disorders research laboratory, teaches graduate courses in fluency disorders, and mentors graduate students conducting stuttering research. He has authored many research articles and book chapters on stuttering. His main research interest is in documenting the stigma experienced by people who stutter, and developing assessment methods and intervention strategies to combat it. Dr. Boyle is the author of the Self-Stigma of Stuttering Scale (4S), which has been translated into several different languages. He continues to identify evidence-based stigma reduction strategies utilized internationally by researchers, speech-language pathologists, and advocates. Dr. Boyle received a B.A. in psychology from the University of Delaware in 2006. He received a M.S. in 2008 and a Ph.D. in 2012 in communication sciences and disorders at The Pennsylvania State University.
My perspectives in this paper are informed by my experiences as a speech-language pathologist, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders, support group leader, and person who stutters. Therefore, I draw upon a range of sources, including clinical insights, research findings, and my own personal experiences, in making these observations and recommendations. Perhaps what I have to say rings true to some of you who read this, and may serve you well. The following are some reflections and recommendations about being resilient in the face of stuttering. Overall, my intent is to provide a potential road map for continued growth. What follows does not presume or argue that stuttering can be “overcome” in the sense of eliminating its physical symptoms. Rather, the aim is to emphasize the notion that it is possible to live well and communicate freely while continuing to stutter.
An ongoing journey
In the fields of psychology and disability studies, there are models of adaptation suggesting that most people go through phases or stages in response to dealing with a chronic disability (Livneh & Antonak, 1997; Smart, 2001). Although specific names of the phases vary, in general, the process moves from initial shock, confusion, defensiveness, and depression toward tolerance and acceptance. Beyond acceptance, we sometimes see pride and transcendence as well. These phases are non-linear and there is overlap between stages. Some people skip certain phases, or revert to previous ones at different times. Not everyone ends up with the same outcome, or even has the same definition for what that ultimate desired outcome should be. While keeping in mind these variations between people’s journeys, I think this model of adaptation can be helpful if it is viewed as a general process.
Throughout the years, we have heard stories told by people who stutter that seem to illustrate this journey from more negative to more positive ways of dealing with stuttering. Many people who stutter come to accept their stuttering, some show pride in it as being a valuable part of their identity, and some transcend it to the extent that it just isn’t a major factor in their lives anymore (for examples of such stories, see Bradberry, 2016; Campbell et al., 2019; Hood, 2008; Reitzes & Reitzes, 2012; and St. Louis, 2001). In my own life I can certainly relate to starting off feeling different from other people because of my stuttering and that this difference was negative. I remember being frustrated and angry because of the way I spoke, and wanting to hide this aspect of myself from other people. As I got older, I began to tolerate stuttering more and more. Ultimately, I learned to accept it as a part of my identity, just like any other trait that I have. I now feel pride in my stuttering as an aspect of myself that has given me the life I have and made me the person I am. This shift in how I perceive my stuttering seems to be the result of facing many challenges and experiencing revelations that have helped me think about stuttering differently.
The pendulum does keep swinging although the swings aren’t as wide as before, and sometimes I find myself being more or less comfortable with stuttering depending on the circumstance. I now realize that this is natural, and that the endpoint is not constant. I doubt I’ll ever get to a point where I can just “stop” and feel that I have reached the top of the mountain and can stay there forever. This is an ongoing journey that requires continued resilience. Rather than looking at this as a problem, I view it as a necessary and valuable aspect of life. People who stutter can learn from the journeys of others to see that their own experience is not strange, but rather it is shared by many other people. With that realization, we see that we need not go on this journey alone.
Outside the comfort zone
Realizing that there are shared paths in the journey to live well with stuttering can be reassuring, but how can we make progress in accepting stuttering and integrating it as a part of ourselves? The answer is by experiencing challenges, and changing our attitudes and behaviors. Doing something that requires risk and uncertainty gets us out of our comfort zone, and this can be somewhat stressful. Staying safe and comfortable in terms of our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors leads to stagnation. It limits the quality of our lives. We have capacities that only manifest when we are challenged. We are forced to transform beyond what we currently are in order to handle them. Those situations in which we have challenged our beliefs and assumptions, or acted differently than we normally do, although uncomfortable, are those very situations where we grow the most and shape our identities.
I can think back to a period of time where I was trying to hide stuttering constantly. My focus was on trying to protect myself. I dreaded not being able to communicate, not being able to control myself the way I wanted to, and receiving disapproving reactions from others. Speech therapy throughout most of my life seemed to focus exclusively on eradicating stuttering and implementing strategies to make me more fluent. This approach just fanned the flames of my concealment and reinforced the notion that stuttering was undesirable, and should be avoided whenever possible. For me, and many other people who stutter, progress came from challenging the assumption that stuttering was bad and needed to be minimized at all costs. It also meant stuttering openly without avoidance. I made substantial changes in my mindset about stuttering only when I challenged my assumptions, got out of my comfort zone, and embraced stuttering. In essence, I did the exact opposite of everything I had ever tried to do, or thought I should do. This can be quite uncomfortable in the moment, but incredibly freeing in the long term. I can still remember two incidents that gave me tangible evidence that I had expanded my comfort zone substantially. One was when I told a listener to look at me in the eye when I was stuttering. The other was when I called someone back on the phone after being hung up on and admonishing them for hanging up on someone who stutters.
Forgive yourself and others
Stuttering can be a difficult thing to live with. Most people don’t understand it and they convey this misunderstanding to people who stutter. Ultimately, we can internalize those misconceptions. Growing up I seem to have had a lot of “black and white” thinking about stuttering. This belief could be summarized as: “fluency is good” and “stuttering is bad.” The natural extension of this was that: “success is fluency” and “failure is stuttering.” Early experiences in speech therapy seemed to perpetuate this way of thinking. After all, fluency was all that was focused on, and all I was reinforced for. I look back at my early life now and realize I was too hard on myself and that others often had expectations and goals for me that turned out to be inappropriate. If I stuttered noticeably, or lost control of my speech, I would think that I had failed. Since then my understanding has evolved considerably. Stuttering is a chronic, neurodevelopmental condition. I’m going to continue to stutter because, well, I stutter. That doesn’t mean I have no influence on how I communicate, but I realize that not everything can be controlled, and that’s okay.
It is also important to be forgiving of yourself when you are “not okay” with your stuttering. As discussed earlier, the journey is non-linear and it is common for people to swing back and forth between feelings of acceptance and non-acceptance. Stuttering can be hard. If you avoid a situation, or catch yourself switching a word, remember to be forgiving of yourself in the knowledge that this is a challenging thing to live with. Being unrealistic in your expectations can also apply to thinking you should never avoid anything ever again, and instead be totally open about it in every situation. For most of us, this just isn’t a very realistic expectation. We are constantly navigating the demands of the external environment and our own internal states, and we get different results at different times. Be okay with this ambiguity and variability. It’s normal. Don’t let your idea of perfection in every situation get in the way of seeing progress overall and overshadow the good things. Also, forgive others for not understanding stuttering. Most people just don’t get it. Often, they don’t mean any harm, they are usually just ignorant. Specifically, they oversimplify it, have mistaken attributions for it, and act in ways that are often unhelpful. Take the opportunity to educate them about what stuttering is and how they can be helpful and respectful in the interaction. Hopefully they’ll do better next time, or for the next person who stutters.
Decide what it means
Nothing in life has any meaning except the meaning we give it. We don’t always control what happens to us in life. We can, however, play an active role in finding a positive meaning for anything that occurs. What does stuttering mean in our lives? I used to assume it was a major problem that needed to be eliminated or at least concealed to prevent my life from being negatively impacted. It felt like handling a crisis at times. But maybe without knowing it at the time, this thing called stuttering that I hated with so much intensity was actually providing me with the resistance I needed to help shape who I would become later in life. When I stopped asking questions like “Why did this have to happen to me?” or “Why can’t I be like everyone else?” and started asking different types of questions like, “What is valuable about this?”, What can I learn from it?”, and “How can I use my experiences to help other people?”, I began to find empowering meanings to my stuttering. They are there to be found if you look for them intentionally. Many people who stutter have found benefits to living with stuttering (Boyle et al., 2019). To me, this is the ultimate resilience: the knowledge that no matter what happens you can benefit from it if you consciously look for empowering meanings. If you had this belief, can you see how it could help you face any situation, regardless of how many times you had been knocked down? For me personally, this different view on stuttering led to me having a very fulfilling and meaningful career and life in general. Therefore, I am grateful for my stuttering and appreciate it for giving me the life I have. I can’t imagine it any other way. How can it be bad if it led me to where I am?
I hope that these observations on the process of seeing stuttering differently, including the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, being forgiving of yourself and others, and being a creator of meaning, are useful concepts to you. I’m sure that my own insights on these issues will continue to evolve over time, as the challenges and opportunities keep coming.
Boyle, M. P., Beita-Ell, C., & Milewski, K. M. (2019). Finding the good in the challenge: Benefit finding among adults who stutter. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 4, 1316-1326. https://doi.org/10.1044/2019_PERS-SIG4-2019-0024
Bradberry, A. (Ed.). (2016). Reflections & wisdom: Looking back and thinking forward. National Stuttering Association.
Campbell, P., Constantino, C., & Simpson, S. (Eds.). Stammering pride and prejudice: Difference not defect. J&R Press.
Hood, S. B. (2008). Advice to those who stutter (2nd ed.). The Stuttering Foundation of America.
Livneh, H., & Antonak, R. F. (1997). Psychosocial adaptation to chronic illness and disability. Aspen Publishers, Inc.
Reitzes, P., & Reitzes, D. (Eds). (2012). Stuttering: Inspiring stories and professional wisdom. Stutter Talk, Inc.
Smart, J. (2001). Disability, society, and the individual. Aspen Publishing, Inc.
St. Louis, K. O. (Ed.). (2001). Living with stuttering: Stories, basics, resources, and hope. Populore Publishing.
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