To change from the consciousness of a stutterer, with all that that entails on both physical and emotional levels, to that of a nonstutterer, is to touch the bedrock of one’s being. --- Dr Grady Carter, co-author of Stop stuttering
Stuttering, for most sufferers, is not merely a physical problem, as we saw in the previous chapters. Eventually stuttering tends to inflict psychological damage as well, especially to the self-image.
This does not apply to all people who stutter (PWS), however. Some PWS have loads of confidence and an excellent self-image. In many cases these lucky individuals do not mind stuttering and do not care what others think of them. They would probably not be the likely readers of this book. I take my hat off to them and hope to learn from them. For other PWS, please read on:
Developing a bad self-image due to stuttering
Psychology teaches us that self-image is to a large extent the product of your perceptions of the way others react to you. If somebody is positive about you, eg praising your appearance or behaviour, it improves your self-image. Unfortunately the PWS often gets a negative reaction from his audience. This starts at an early age, with parents either expressing their concern or disapproval directly, or indicating it with their body language. It continues as he grows older when other children tease him, or when unsuspecting listeners are taken aback by his struggle behaviour – even if they only show it by looking the other way when he speaks. In time such social disapproval may lead to intense shyness and feelings of inferiority and guilt.
As the child grows older he becomes increasingly aware of the contrast between himself and other children. He experiences problems when using the telephone, buying something at the café or reading and speaking in class – other children do not. These problems impact on the natural development of his self-confidence, which is part of his self-image.
What is self-image?
Self-image is the image one has of oneself; one’s opinion of oneself, to some extent represented as visual images. This image is stored in your subconscious and forms part of your subconscious 'programming'. A child with a good self-image believes that others like him; he has a sense of his own worth. Such a child can relax with others and has the self-confidence to take risks. A child with a poor self-image feels unpopular and worthless. He may become quiet and withdrawn, or else compensate and become a ‘clown’. A poor self-image can in general have a negative effect on one’s behaviour and achievements and set in motion a vicious circle. Research has in fact shown that most people – including fluent speakers – have an inadequate self-image.
We dare not underestimate the extent to which the self-image influences our daily life. Psychologists report that the self-image affects virtually every aspect of life, and that many psychological and physiological problems have their origin in a poor self-image.
If the opinions of others influence your self-image, it follows that one’s social and job status become part of the picture: the way your immediate family, colleagues and employer see you will have a significant effect on your self-image.
The adult PWS tends to have a stutterer’s self-image, and see himself as a ‘stutterer’, often even as a social outcast; someone who is, to a lesser or greater extent, limited in what he can do.
As his poor self-image is fed by the disorder, one would expect that, should the individual’s fluency improve, his self-image would automatically follow and get better. That’s not at all a foregone conclusion. Consider the story of Susan, aged 28 years and overweight. Her case was discussed in a women’s magazine:
The case of the overweight programmer
Susan was a computer programmer and very unhappy about her obesity. She had attractive features, but felt that her weight severely limited her social life. One day she decided to get rid of her problem once and for all. By combining a crash diet with other dietary aids she soon acquired a slender figure – as well as the attention of some male admirers. Her friends all praised her beautiful appearance. This went on for six months, and in this time she managed to suppress her desire to overeat.
Eventually, however, she resumed her former eating habits, and regained her previous weight within weeks. She concluded her story by saying that she now accepts that she will always be overweight. She added that the beautiful woman courted by all those men was not really her. ‘I felt so strange all the time. And the men’s reactions irritated me – it was as if they only noticed my body, and not my personality. I have come to terms with my body. This is how I was made, and this is how people will have to accept me.’
The consulting psychologist commented that although Susan had treated the cause of her problems by losing weight, she had neglected to change her self-image. She still had an image of herself as ugly, overweight and unattractive to men. When she lost weight, her poor self-image was faced by a new reality with which it was incompatible. The influence of her self-image was so powerful that she had to change reality – the fact of her slender body – to overcome her internal conflicts. Maintaining her old self-image was easier than accepting the reality of change. Susan did not realise that the self-image exists on both a conscious and subconscious level, that the subconscious also determines behaviour and that the conscious desire to change behaviour may not be enough.
‘But this isn’t me!’
In the same way the PWS may find it difficult to really come to terms with his new fluency achieved with the aid of a fluency technique. A typical anecdote was told by a member of my old Johannesburg stuttering self-help group: One day he participated in a business discussion around a conference table. As he started delivering a flawless speech with the aid of his speech technique, a thought suddenly flashed through him: But this isn’t me! He lost his composure, forgot to use the technique and began to stutter. This unpleasant experience was the beginning of a long-lasting relapse.
The solution is obvious: If you REALLY want to be more fluent, you may need to change your self-image in general, and in particular you may need to rethink the old, negative stutterer’s self-image – and rather start working toward a positive self-image of yourself as a slow, but fluent, speaker. It may not be enough for the PWS to attend to his speech. If he really wants to get better, he may also need to address the scared child stutterer hiding deep inside him, terrified of speech and of any change in the status quo. This is a long-term process which may take years.
Self-image CAN change
Fortunately for us, our self-image is not fixed in concrete – it can change. In the short term, self-image undergoes natural changes from one day to the next. We all have days when we feel good or bad about ourselves. Everyday thoughts and experiences influence our self-esteem. People with a good self-image are in fact often those who are able to come to terms with and neutralise those everyday negative experiences and thoughts.
You ARE what you THINK
Long-term improvement of the self-image, however, is also possible. Unfortunately, so is long-term deterioration. If your employer constantly criticises you, your self-image could deteriorate accordingly. A series of successes could achieve the opposite effect. In a similar way your self-image may pay the price if you always refer to yourself as a ‘stutterer’, so over-emphasising this fact, or if you live in constant fear of the telephone. YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK. The PWS has to learn to monitor his thoughts as well as his speech. He should listen to his internal stream of consciousness and manage negative thoughts.
Poor self-image impacts on tension levels
The PWS also needs to become aware of the effect of a poor self-image on his base-level tension. Everyday living teems with threats for the person with a poor self-image – and threats cause stress (see the chapter ‘Stress Management’). Many PWS report that their speech is worse on days when they feel unhappy with themselves. If you can manage to feel better about yourself, it will improve your ability to cope with stress, making it easier to maintain your base-level tension below your stutter threshold.
How to improve your self-image
Every person possesses unique skills, knowledge or qualities with which he can make a unique contribution. Make a list of your good and bad qualities. Emphasise talents and abilities that distinguish you from others. Reflect on your good points. Could it be that you have in the past perhaps neglected these points, and instead emphasised your weaknesses?
Resolve to pay more attention to your good qualities. Emphasise your achievements. Make a point of accepting compliments and praise. If you are praised, gratefully accept this; NEVER dismiss it or react as if you don’t deserve it. Instead say: ‘Thanks, I appreciate it.’
At the same time also examine your shortcomings; accept that they exist, that you plan to do something about them and that nobody is perfect. A good self-image is not the same as being arrogant; it rather reflects a refusal to underestimate yourself and a realistic awareness of your good and bad points.
Values - the uniqueness and equality of human beings
Each human being is a unique and irreplaceable part of the wealth and variety of the universe. As a person and citizen of a country you are moreover equal to all other citizens. In terms of temporal human values, a person can be judged ‘wealthier’, ‘prettier’ or ‘more intelligent’ than others, but in terms of spiritual values these concepts are irrelevant.
A concept such as self-image is closely related to philosophy and religion; these fields of study, too, seek an answer to the question ‘What is man?’ You will find that adherence to a meaningful religious or philosophical system will go a long way towards helping you value yourself.
Be your own best friend
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Learn to treat and even spoil yourself. The biblical exhortation to love others as you love yourself reflects the truth that love of others is impossible without a measure of self-love.
Get rid of destructive habits
Nothing will harm your self-image as much as bad habits that destroy your self-respect. Alcohol or drug abuse, sexual behaviour about which you feel ashamed, etc can devastate your self-image.
Improve your body image
Your image of your body is part of your general self-image. You are doing yourself a disservice if you see yourself as physically ‘ugly’, ‘too fat’, etc. If you can’t or don’t want to lose weight, you could improve your body image in many other ways, eg by being neat and dressing well. It may be well worth your while to spend some money on clothes. (For the ladies: a good excuse to go shopping!)
See yourself as a slow speaker
Though the word ‘stutterer’ is in general use, and also widely used by people who stutter, those who are serious about improving their fluency may need to reconsider using this word to describe themselves.
It could be argued that ‘stutterer’ or ‘stammerer’ has negative and misleading connotations. Linguistically these words reduce the fullness and complexity of a human being merely in terms of a speech disorder. Surely even the most severe PWS is much more than that?
By seeing yourself as a ‘stutterer’, you may be reinforcing your self-image as a stutterer, thereby perpetuating the stutter itself. Depending on whether you use a fluency technique, it may be better to see yourself in more positive terms as an ‘airflow speaker’, ‘fluency technique speaker’ or ‘slow speaker’. If you are a person who stutters in certain circumstances only, you should see yourself as ‘a fluent speaker who occasionally stutters’, rather than as a stutterer who is occasionally fluent.
If you stutter consistently irrespective of the situation, you could still see yourself as a ‘slow speaker’, thereby under-emphasising the stutter. Remember: you are what you think.
Get rid of the idea of yourself as one of life’s helpless victims. Start seeing yourself as a person with a tough personality, someone able to cope with life, a fundamentally strong individual who won’t give up easily. By developing tough-mindedness you will have better protection against the various types of tension affecting your speech.
Emphasise fluent speech
And last but not least: rather emphasise your triumphs of fluent speech than your stuttering.
The following three chapters will take a look at aspects related to the improvement of self-image.
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