Monday Modalities

As a person who stutters I grew up feeling that I could have few professional goals. To now be working as a psychotherapist, a profession in which I sit all day talking with people, is more than I ever could have imagined.

In considering my work as a clinical social worker as it relates to stuttering, I recalled the work of the noted British Analyst D.W. Winnicott. He began his professional life as a pediatrician, and his ideas were rooted in child’s play. I recently reread Winnicott’s article, Ego Distortion in Terms of the True and False Self.

Winnicott conceived of the concepts of “False Self” and “True Self,” which to me have a great deal of applicability to people who stutter. These are nuanced concepts, which I will address in the context of stuttering.

In thinking about Winnicott’s idea of False Self, “its defensive function is to hide and protect the True Self,” (page 142) and theFalse Self as a kind of “non-existence” (page 151), I remember growing up not wanting people to know that I stuttered. I thought stuttering would limit and define my life.

I isolated in my day-to-day life, and thought that no one would want to be my friend. I talked as little as possible, and with the use of as few words than were absolutely necessary to get my point across. As my false self.

To have met other courageous people who stutter exemplifies Winnicott’s ideas, “Only the True Self can feel creative and only the True Self can feel real. Whereas a True Self feels real, the essence of a False Self results in feeling unreal for a sense of futility.” (page 148)

I felt empowered and inspired by meeting other people who stutter who were working as social workers. To spend a morning at Elizabeth Mendez’s workplace in East Harlem, and see her supervising the staff in a busy office, while stuttering away, was more than eye-opening.

In my present career, I have felt comfortable disclosing at job interviews; speaking of how my stutter helps me empathize with my client’s life issues. I casually mention my stutter to clients, early in our work together. There have been a few notable experiences:

I had a new client who was blind. When I mentioned my stutter to him, he said “Oh, so you’ll be my first therapist who is also disabled!” I explored his feelings about this topic, which were positive for both of us.

There have been difficult moments. On one of my jobs I worked part of the week in an elementary school. At one intake with a student and mother in the room, I had a speech block. The student began laughing, and the mother asked what was going on. The child did not respond. I felt angry and frustrated, but regrouped as best I could and provide psychoeducation about stuttering. The mother did not respond, and the child laughed again and bent over. I moved on and did my best to finish the interview.

I get occasional odd looks. And making phone calls is still sometimes difficult. But I carry on, and have had few negative experiences in my nearly ten years as a therapist.

I still have difficult days, of course, but more importantly feel that I am able to live as my authentic True Self in living my life.

Winnicott, D.W., (1965) Ego Distortion in Terms of the True and False Self. In The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Jeff Shames

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Monday Modalities — 5 Comments

  1. Being authentic is a lifetime goal for me. Working as a social worker who stutters, in that busy office in Harlem, reminded me of this goal daily. I remember one experience when I was leading a staff meeting and I blocked on a word – for some reason I began rocking – almost to help get the word out. In that few-seconds block I managed to open my eyes and I saw folks to my left, then folks to my right, ALL ROCKING WITH ME. Here I was mortified that I just couldn’t release that block, and here they were – supporting me on this ride!! Yes – being authentic means daring greatly. Thank you Jeff for this valuable reminder.

  2. Thanks, Mendez, for your comment. The issue here is so much about authenticity. And what a great story about the agency staff rocking with you as you blocked on that word!

  3. Jeff,

    Your depiction of clients laughing at you or at the stutter or not knowing how to respond hits home. Sometimes my clients are unsure how to respond. Some may laugh or try to answer the stutter. Always a learning experience.


  4. Yes, Elizabeth, and their reactions to our stuttering becomes a part of our clinical work with clients.

    Thank you,


  5. Laughter is some people’s way to mask fear of the unknown. Are you certain that all the laughing at our stammering / stuttering is laughing at us? I choose to think the laughter is because they are ‘scared’ of the unknown. This never give me negative feelings to handle.