The Problem of Change

Habits begin as spiderwebs, and become cables. (Spanish saying)

The individual who has been stuttering for many years and wishes to change, faces some formidable opposition:

* Conditioned speech fears. Through the years he has learned to react with fear to certain situations, words, sounds, etc. Unfortunately fears acquired at an early stage can become very ingrained. Such fears increase tension on his vocal cords, resulting in stuttering.

* Conditioned struggle behaviour. He has learned to stutter in response to the 'freezing' of his vocal cords.

* Learned stress patterns. If you become tense in reaction to a specific situation, that stress reaction could in time become a habit.

* Current tension and stress. Stuttering is tension-related. Even where a person manages to overcome all his old fears, struggle behaviour and stress reactions, his vocal cords remain vulnerable to any new sources of tension to which he may be exposed.

* A self-image that may have been affected by the disability. As the years go by, stutterers tell themselves that they cannot speak fluently, that they are afraid of certain situations and that there are certain things they cannot do. Eventually their subconscious accepts these thoughts as fact.

The programme discussed in the next few chapters aims to address these problems. In this chapter I would like to make the point that stuttering does not exist in a vacuum. Changing one set of habits may set off a chain reaction with social and psychological implications.

Change and stress

Unfortunately change can by nature be stressful. From experts who study stress, we know that the major life changes such as marriage, divorce, moving house or a change in employment are rated as primary sources of stress. Changing deep-seated habits belongs in this category, and stutterers who want to improve their speech should keep this in mind. On the positive side it must be said that change-related stress is by nature temporary. In due course the mind adjusts to the change.

Change and self-image

Many stutterers, especially the older ones, may have to do something about their psychological make-up. Stuttering often becomes incorporated into the stutterer’s self-image, in some cases to the extent that the person becomes dependent on the stuttering. Some use their stuttering, consciously or unconsciously, to gain sympathy or avoid difficult challenges. To them, stuttering serves a purpose. If you want to become more fluent, first ask yourself a very basic question: Do you REALLY want to stop stuttering?

The topic of self-image will be discussed in a later chapter.

Change and social relationships

The stutterer also has to realise that he may be handicapped as far as his social and general communication skills are concerned. A person with good communication skills may have had many years in which to master the art of communicating with others. A variety of communicative skills are at his disposal: his speech (including pausing and varying pitch, loudness and tempo), body language and eye contact. Many fluent speakers learn how to use these skills to increase the ease of making conversation, to deal with others and assert themselves in social situations.

Not surprisingly many stutterers fail to develop these skills and, as a result, become asocial or antisocial or suffer from social anxiety.

An additional challenge is the potential threat to existing interpersonal relationships posed by an improvement in the stutterer’s speech. A wife whose stuttering husband has for years depended on her to assist him with his fluency problems, may feel threatened by his new independence. She may have derived a sense of self-worth from his dependence on her. His boss, long used to ‘that quiet chap who knew his place’, may not know how to deal with the improving stutterer’s emerging self-confidence. Stutterers who succeed in improving their fluency will have to approach their changing relationships with others tactfully and cautiously.

Improved self-assertion may also cause guilt feelings. Someone who previously failed to assert himself, may perceive his new self-confidence and self-assertion as socially unacceptable and aggressive. Hence his guilt. Stutterers on the road to improvement should realise that such feelings, while understandable, are not based on objective reality. Self-assertion will be discussed in a later chapter.

Change and success

The stutterer on the road to improvement typically experiences feelings of uncertainty and a lack of self-confidence. In order to change, one has to travel down unmarked routes, passing through unknown territory. This goes against our preference for trusted and familiar paths. Therefore change demands courage. Change is a risk. The fear of the unknown must be overcome.

One should also guard against unrealistic expectations. The stutterer must realise that improved speech will not solve all his life problems! Better fluency can make life a lot easier, but don’t expect that new doors will open automatically just because you have improved your speech.

An insightful parallel can be drawn between the transition from being a helpless victim of stuttering to gaining some control over it, and gaining control over alcoholism:

1. As with stuttering, research indicates that some people may be more genetically predisposed to alcoholism than others.

2. Alcoholism as such holds no promise of a cure, only the possibility of control. This is also true of stuttering.

3. As with stuttering, the potential for control depends on one’s personality.

4. The alcoholic, too, is subjected to social misconceptions and disapproval.

5. Similar to the stutterer, the alcoholic endures ongoing psychological and emotional damage.

6. He also tends to hide his problem. It is in the interests of both the stutterer and the alcoholic to openly admit to their problem and discuss it within a support group.

7. Alcoholics as well as stutterers may experience relapses – often because a period of success gives them a false sense of ease.

8. The stutterer, like the alcoholic, is subjected to ongoing social pressure: the stutterer has to resist the pressure to speak faster than he is able to; the alcoholic has to resist the pressure to drink socially.

People are creatures of habit. We like things as they are. We attain our sense of security in life from doing what we have always done. In order to preserve this security, we are even prepared to accept negative behaviour as part of our existence. Real, profound change is usually a painful process.


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