Written by Matthew O’Malley
About ten months ago, I began writing content for this blog. In my opening post, I wrote, “If 5 years from now, I am at square one and have made no progress, I may finally accept my dysfluency, as I will truly know there is nothing I can do about it.”
Well, I have about 4 years and 2 months to go. In the ten months I have been writing this blog (and really about a year before that when I began seeking answers to stuttering’s mysteries), I have learned an immense amount about stuttering. I have turned over some stones that have revealed a lot about the nature of it which has given me hope for change. In that nine months, I mainly experienced improvements in my speech and in my mentality in terms of understanding what was going on with stuttering. However, the past number of weeks have brought about some struggle; not only in speech but in life in general. As a result, I removed myself from being so focused on speech improvement for a bit.
For the sake of staying true to the reality of the stuttering journey, I want to state that I did experience significant setbacks in fluency over this time span. I was taking on new roles in life which required increased communication and I felt I was stretched beyond the limitations my dysfluency imposes. I felt I had made strides big enough in my speech where I could handle these new roles and still maintain a reasonable level of comfort. However, I experienced some drop-offs in fluency that I found myself unable to correct. These fluency drop-offs result in increased daily anxiety for me and a bit of a cycle begins (yes the fluency drop-offs come first and as a result, anxiety goes up; not the other way around). Despite some of my efforts, I was unable to arrest this process.
I want to document on the blog that I went through this period. If in the end I am able to make significant and lasting progress on my dysfluency, this post will speak to the fact that significant setbacks can be part of the journey. It will speak to the fact that these setbacks are not reason to give up. On the other hand, if I am unable to make significant and lasting improvements on my dysfluency, it will speak to the chronic, relapsing and unchanging nature of the condition. I guess I’ll find out which one it is.
As I stated above, I am continuing on my journey to test the limits of how much change I can create in my dysfluency. As a matter of fact, my experiences in the past couple months have me looking at the stuttering condition in new ways which I feel could lead to more revelations. I am asking new questions and am experiencing flashes of insight as a result of looking at the condition from these new vantage points. As these insights form more fully and clearly to where I can give clear language to them, I will share them in the coming months.
Just to reaffirm, I am still committed to learning about stuttering and pushing my limits to improve it. However, my recent experiences also brought me to the point where I was at least contemplating acceptance. While thinking about acceptance, I began to more fully grasp both the consequences of taking this route as well as the liberation one might experience by taking it. That is what the rest of this blog post is about, although I do have to go off in some different directions to explain it fully.
Divergence of the “true self” and the “manifested self”
As I’ve shared in previous posts, I began stuttering when I was eleven years old. My childhood prior to that was one I fully enjoyed and thrived in; easily made friends, was a good athlete, did well in school and was just a nice, good kid. I’m really not sure what caused the onset of my stuttering at eleven. I have some theories but I’m not sure.
Anyway, my life became significantly more difficult after the onset of my stuttering. I was not aware of this at the time being just a kid, but there started to be a split between my “true self” and my “manifested self”. To define these terms, my “true self” is the person I feel deeply that I am. It is the real me. The “manifested self” is the person that shows itself to the world. It is the individual people see and perceive. The true self is the self that is. The manifested self is the one people see and perceive.
In relation to stuttering, my true self is the one that would say things when I wanted and how I wanted. It is the one who would not carry significant social anxiety as a result of not having an abundance of stuttering experiences. My true self is the one who would not feel held back by stuttering and would act accordingly. It is the one who could freely and fluently express itself. On the other hand, my manifested self is the one people see. It is the me that shows itself to the world with the stutter. It is the one who often will not/cannot say exactly what I want and how I want. It is the person people perceive to be me.
Important side-note: There is a sentiment in some factions of the stuttering community that you should just say what you want to say no matter how it comes out. It is thought that this frees you from stuttering as it is not holding you back and you are still expressing yourself as you would. I agree this is a better way to be than to hold back what you want to say, however there are still significant problems in expressing yourself with this approach. Who you are and how you are understood and how your message is received is still very significantly affected even when you take this approach. Why is this? This is because how you say something; how you express yourself is even more important to your message than the actual content of what you say. I’m sure many people have heard a statistic like 90% (not sure where they get this number, but rest assured the percentage is high) of the message you send when expressing yourself is not what you say; yet it is how you say it; it is your tone; it is the rate at which you talk; it is how long, how often and when you pause; it is how sure of yourself you seem; it is your body language; it is the command with which it seems you have mastery over the content of what you are talking about; it is the eye contact; I could go on with all of the factors which significantly affect how a speaker’s message is interpreted and perceived. All of these factors combine for the listener to evaluate you and your message. It is a combination of these factors that creates the impression. Therefore saying something like, “Well, just maintain eye contact then” doesn’t work. If you maintain eye contact and hit significant blocks, there is a much different feel to the interaction than if you maintain eye contact, speak fluently with charismatic tone and sureness in the rate of your speaking. Many of these non-content factors are extremely affected by stuttering, causing much of the message and the impression one makes to be very distorted and lost in translation. Just as important as the message which is being evaluated based on all of these factors is the impression the speaker is making on the listener. The person we are communicating with is not just evaluating the content we are sharing, they are also forming an opinion of us. The same factors I mentioned above (tone, timing etc.) very significantly affect the impression we make on our listener; very significantly; more than the content. As a result of all this, how we speak is extremely important. This is why just saying what I want to say no matter how it comes out has not worked for me.
In continuing, from the time I started stuttering, there has been a divergence between the true self and the manifested self. This is something I have struggled with on a daily basis since my dysfluency emerged. This problem has compounded as days turned into months; months into years; and years into decades. The manifested outcome of my life is dramatically different as a result of my true self being tied down by stuttering than it would be if I were a fluent speaker and could have freely expressed myself throughout my life; dramatically different. This truth is a very large part of my psychological make up. I think about it a lot. I see what my true self would have done in almost every interaction. Of course, often times my manifested self did something significantly different than my true self would have. Usually this is something I have no control over. For example, I’ll go to say something and it will come out in a way I did not intend, due to stuttering.
Side-note: I do experience days and weeks where my fluency reaches quite high levels; I would say I approach normal fluency; not quite, but close. On these days, I feel like my true self emerges for the most part. I see the difference this has on my life. I experience it. I see and experience its impact and it is quite significant.
So, the first and most limiting way stuttering suffocates my true self is in the moment of interaction. I am unable to be myself in interaction. I am unable to freely express myself. I am unable to say what I want, when I want and how I want. It comes out distorted. My tone, timing, content etc. are all impacted by stuttering, causing my true self and the message I am sharing to get lost in translation. This has happened in interaction with me since I started stuttering. Going through this interaction-after-interaction has taken its toll over decades.
While the most limiting part of stuttering is the inability to express myself in the moment, it also distorts my true self based on my life’s history.
To further explain, let’s say I never stuttered. I do believe that I would have excelled in a lot of areas of life that I have not excelled in as a result of stuttering. Let’s assume I lived up to what I believe I would have. So for example, let’s say I was very socially active in high school and in college. I had a lot of friends and girlfriends and had no problems doing well in school in the field of my choice. Upon graduating college I got a good job, excelled in my career, had a positive impact on the people close to me and was just a well-rounded high achieving person. Would I have had some setbacks in life? Of course. Nobody is immune to this; nothing like what stuttering has brought on though.
Side-note: I have heard the argument that I wouldn’t be what I think I would without the stutter. I have entertained this thought and given it credibility. I try hard to keep an open mind about things. I try to ensure I do not allow myself to have blind spots in my view of reality. I work hard to make sure I weed out my own biases. In doing this and giving the view of “I wouldn’t be what I think I am without the stutter” a fair and thorough analysis, I come to the conclusion that this view is not accurate. I would be what I think I would be or something close to it. I have experienced periods of high fluency as I mentioned and my daily experience changes dramatically. There is a lot more I could list to rebut this, but I truly have given this view proper respect and feel strongly it is not accurate.
So in continuing, let’s assume the above life trajectory I outlined happened. Now obviously my friends, acquaintances, and family are aware of what I’m doing. We all have some idea of what other people around us are doing with their lives. So, when people think of me or meet me, they are greeting me and interacting with me and seeing me through the lens of my history. Who I am to them is largely based on this history. In adding to that, when you meet new people, they quickly want to know a bit about your life. If you tell them a few quick lines about your job, where you went to school etc. you are perceived a certain way based on this. So, if I have the life I described above, I am perceived a certain way; mainly positive; which changes how they view me as a whole and it also changes how they filter what I say and do.
However, because I do stutter, the life I described above was not the trajectory of my life. I had more struggle with finding my way in life. I did not immediately excel in my young adulthood. I was not Mr. social. I was not a lot of the things I listed above. As a result, the people I encounter perceive me differently than they would the person who had the life I think I would have if I did not stutter.
Now, I share this because I am the same person in both scenarios (of course I am somewhat different as a result of the differing life experiences, but I am the same at the core of who I am). If I had not stuttered I am abundantly confident my life would have followed a similar trajectory to what I described. To be honest, I think it would have been beyond what I described. However, I did stutter and do stutter and as a result my life followed a different trajectory. However, the person inside the body behind the stutter, is the same. Who I am has only manifested through the prism of stuttering which has distorted my actual self immensely.
Side-note: Some problems this divergence creates are I operate largely as though I am my true self. My self-image is more my true self than it is my manifested self. However, people have a different impression of me than what I see my true self as, because they only see my manifested self.
So, the below formula sums up the distorted perception of me relatively accurately:
(Distorted perception of me during in-the-moment interactions due to stuttering) X (Distorted perception of me based on my life trajectory/history due to stuttering) = (Extremely distorted overall perception of me)
Side note: I have also heard the argument that stuttering does not hold someone back as much as I have decribed. It is the person who held themselves back. Again, I have given this thought/view credibility. I have looked at my life through this lens and I have worked hard to remove any bias I have when evaluating if this is the case. I have asked myself, “Is it me that has held myself back?” “Maybe it is just me holding myself back.” Again, upon through evaluation of this view I found that it is not accurate. Stuttering has held me back as much as I think it has. Again, I could go off on an entire blog post on this, however, I’m already going off on too many tangents.
Acceptance, Mourning the Death of the Self
It is a bit hard to contemplate this, but the true self that is very dear to me; that is me; has never existed in the world. It has been a gigantic part of my psychological make-up and has occupied a high percentage of my thoughts for decades. Despite this, this true self has never been known to another person. My family has never known him. My friends have never known this person. Despite how big a part of my life this true self has been to me, it has had no existence to any other person. My true self has never come to fruition physically. I am viewed through the lens of what people see when I interact with them as well as through the lens of my history, which massively distorts who I am. However, this is who I am to all these people.
I have talked to some people close to me about my true self. They do see it somewhat. However, their perception of me is still much more based on what they see of me in interaction and through the lens of my life trajectory/history.
Side-note: I believe a huge part of the purpose of life is to be your authentic self. We are meant to freely express ourselves and be who we are. This is a deep human desire. We are meant to build deep, lasting and authentic relationships. We are meant to be ourselves and feel like ourselves in these relationships. Stuttering, in my experience, removes one’s ability to live this way; which goes against the nature of how it feels one was meant to live. It cuts to the very purpose of human existence. This is largely why the journey (stuttering) can be so difficult.
In continuing, to me, the revelation I had was accepting my stutter would have to mean accepting that this person inside me that I know I am and I have fought to have emerge, would have to be let go of completely. I would have to let this dream I had for myself and who I am die. Really, I would have to mourn the death of my true self; I would have to come to grips with the fact that my true self will never manifest in this world and I would have to move on from it. I would have to accept the limitation stuttering presents. I would have to accept that who I will be in this world and how I will be perceived will be based fully on who I show myself to be; not who I am.
Let me preface what I am about to say in that analogies are never perfect. There are always differences and parts of the analogy that don’t fit perfectly. There are certainly some ways in which the analogy I am about to use doesn’t fit. However, the most apt analogy that comes to mind in having to let go of the true self would be a parent losing a child. When a parent loses a child, you can see that they knew who this child was supposed to become. You can see their pain in that they felt the child had so much to offer the world; had so many gifts and so much good to offer. They are devastated that their child did not get to experience all that life had to offer them and to thrive in the world in the way they felt strongly was supposed to happen. The parent is heartbroken to have lost their child and to have to put to rest all the dreams they had for that child.
The above statements apply to how I feel about my true self and how I would feel towards having to let it go. As part of accepting stuttering, I must accept that my true self will not be able to freely express itself in this world. It basically will never exist in this world. I must let many of the dreams I had for myself die. I must accept that a lot of what I know I can offer this world; the good I feel I was meant to do will never come to fruition. I will have to put to rest who I feel very deeply and strongly I was meant to be on this earth.
One key difference in this analogy that I want to make note of is time. When a parent loses a child, it is usually sudden. It all happens in an instant. Therefore they are forced to accept these losses quickly and begin mourning them. It is also clear that there is no way to bring the child back. There is no way to remedy their pain. They must live with it and deal with it. With stuttering, people who stutter have been living with stuttering for a long time. They have gradually come to understand the limitations it places on them. They likely have lived a lot of their life with some hope that it will improve or go away. As a result, the process of “losing the true self” is much more drawn out than when a parent loses a child. As a result, the impact is not as sudden. This is why there is not one single moment or a couple month period of devastation when we are mourning this loss. We have been slowly mourning it for much of our lives. Despite it not being a sudden loss like the loss of a child, I would suggest it is similarly difficult, just much more drawn out.
Now, while letting go of my true self would be very difficult, I believe doing so is the only way to true acceptance of my stuttering. If I am holding on to the idea that one day I will freely express myself and my true self will be able to emerge, then I have not accepted stuttering. On the contrary, I am holding on to the idea that I will be free from it.
Now, I am aware that the picture I have painted of acceptance thus far is dramatic and dreary. I think it is an accurate picture however, and also explains why people often resist it so fervently. However, there certainly is a significantly positive flip-side to acceptance. As I was contemplating the path of acceptance, I saw the possibility of a lot of good coming out of it. The hold with which this true self has had over me for the better part of two decades is powerful. The emotions that result from being in touch with this true self and fighting to enable it to express itself freely are mostly negative. I have felt a lot of frustration. I have felt helplessness and despair. I have felt anger and sadness. I have felt a variety of negative emotions from being so focused on liberating my true self. Paradoxically, there would be a lot of liberation from giving up on fighting to liberate my true self; tons of it. There would be a strong sense of freedom in doing so. The positives are plentiful.
Tony Robbins has something he calls the triad. The triad consists of three controllable elements that significantly factor into our mood/emotion. One part of the triad is our focus. What we are focusing on in the current moment affects our mood. So, for example, if I am focusing on an upcoming vacation to the beach, my mood will be positively affected by this. If I am focusing on a work stressor, this will negatively affect my mood. In relating this to the post, a ton of my focus over the past twenty years or so has been on the gap between who I am perceived to be and who I actually am. This has taken up a lot of my thought; thus, negatively affecting my mood. In accepting stuttering and letting go of my true self (which I see as a completely necessary part of acceptance), I would be able to take my focus off of this gap. This in itself would be very liberating.
As I said, I am not yet at a place of complete acceptance. However, my recent experiences caused me to contemplate the acceptance path a bit more. As a result, I feel I have come to some significant conclusions about what true acceptance entails. There are some tough pills to swallow on this path, however there are also significant benefits. Acceptance of limitation can be a powerful tool for personal growth and transformation. While intuitively one would think it would be limiting and suffocating, I believe it can be quite the opposite. It can be an extreme liberation. It can free you from the bondage of self and elevate your experience of life. Acceptance of stuttering is certainly not without benefits.