Hi there. Nice to see you again.
Over the past few months, I had the honor of interviewing four speech-language pathologists (SLPs) who shared their personal and professional journeys with me. In this Bridging the Gap series, we discussed topics like how to shift mindsets around stuttering, how to empower PWS to figure out what works for them, the value of a one-size-fits-none approach, and what it means to communicate effectively and connect with your authentic voice. I left each interview inspired and motivated more than ever to continue sharing stories. Here are some key themes from this incredible journey…
Stuttering can be a core part of personal identity, and it can impact all areas of life. Every PWS has a unique relationship with their stutter that continually evolves. As I like to say, sometimes my stutter is kind of stubborn, and sometimes it needs some love. Sometimes I react to it, and sometimes I laugh with it.
Embracing your stutter can empower you to connect with your authentic self, and it can be a powerful way to practice self-kindness. At the same time, a common goal of stuttering therapy and support is to see your stutter as simply one part of you are as a whole being. After all, we aren’t our stutters, just like we aren’t our triumphs, our losses, our healed parts, and our scars. These are all pieces of who we are as beautifully complicated humans.
There’s more to stuttering than meets the eye, and we never really know what’s going on below the surface. Physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial aspects all impact each other in a myriad of ways. Plus, every stutter, like every person and every voice, is unique – and it changes! It changes over time, and it changes moment to moment.
Staying dynamic and versatile are essential aspects of effective support. There’s plenty of room for creativity, exploration, and play. As Uri Schneider put it: “It’s about picking up on the subtlety and being curious and unassuming – collecting the dots before connecting the dots.” In short, the best approach is a one-size-fits-none approach – figuring out what works best for this person in this circumstance.
First, there’s the language we use when we talk about stuttering. Words like “good” and “bad” place judgment: shifting to more neutral words shifts mindsets. In short, language matters. The stories we tell others – and the stories we tell ourselves – matter. If those stories keep us stuck, they might benefit from some rewriting.
There’s also the act of communicating itself. Some people who stutter communicate well, some people who stutter don’t communicate well, and some people who do not stutter don’t communicate well. We can probably all agree on this! “Effective communication” doesn’t always mean greater fluency. In fact, it’s often a balance between using fluency strategies and stuttering openly in order to share what you want to share in the way you want to share it.
After all, isn’t the ultimate communication goal to enjoy it? Communication is about connecting with and learning how to use your authentic voice, and it’s about courageously trying on different approaches for fit. As Sara MacIntyre shared, “Most people come to therapy wanting to be fluent, but I think they ultimately want to live a full life where stuttering isn’t the priority. They want to feel confident about how they communicate, enjoy communicating, and feel less worried about what others think.”
This is essentially the heart of therapy and support: empowering PWS to do what they want to do and be who they want to be. Empowerment can mean advocating for yourself in ways large and small. It can also mean desensitizing yourself by stuttering openly rather than avoiding what you fear. Finally, it can mean taking responsibility by sharing your story and teaching others.
There are many ways to think about empowerment, but the bottom line is that empowering ourselves opens the door to learning and growth. It allows us to figure out what works for us.
As anyone who stutters knows, there are many misconceptions about stuttering. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to say, “I’m not anxious, I just can’t get the word out!” or, “I have a strong vocabulary, I just have to use an easier word!” or, my personal favorite, “I know my address, and I’m not being shady! I just really struggle with the word ‘West’!”
One theme that emerged in these interviews was self-disclosure: telling people you stutter. Self-disclosing can decrease uncertainty and anxiety for both listener and speaker. It can also be an effective way to reduce stigma around stuttering. It’s not always the preferred approach, especially if you prefer to go mostly incognito, but I have to say that I’m glad I share more openly now. It makes things easier, not harder. And you know what? No one cares. It’s not a big deal! It just reminds listeners to give me a little more space to speak when I need it, which I appreciate.
To quote Michael Boyle: “You want to present yourself in a way that goes against stereotypes by being confident and assertive, and it’s more helpful if you stutter! That’s one of the biggest things you can do to change people’s perspectives.”
Every stutter is a teacher. It teaches us things like self-kindness, patience, flexibility, and empathy. We’re all works in progress, and there are many ups and downs in our journeys, but stutters have so much to offer us along the way.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about stuttering. As a PWS, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it frustrates me. I want to understand why! I mostly want to understand why I my stuttering is so erratic. Why are some days mostly smooth-sailing, while some moments are more of a hot mess? Why does the same word fly out easily in one sentence and get stuck like glue in the next one? Why are certain letters my kryptonite, time and time again…but not all the time?
Still, I’m continuing to work on appreciating my stutter for what it offers me and for how it has helped shape me as a person.
Bridging the Gap
Bridging the gap means recognizing that therapy and support can go hand in hand. It also means honoring that, while it’s important to maintain a bridge, it’s important to create space for PWS to build on their own. Ultimately, bridging the gap is about the power of community. As Caryn Herring explained: “Having a spot to vent and hearing that someone else is going through similar things normalizes stuttering. There’s some real peace in not struggling alone – seeing that even people who seem to have it all together have some hard times and knowing that that’s fine!”
So, there you go: a humble attempt to wrap up four astoundingly eloquent and inspiring interviews in a (somewhat) bite-sized bow. What are the biggest takeaways?
- Stuttering is not black and white. It’s an intricate mosaic of color and sound and texture. It ebbs and flows, and it has peaks and valleys. It’s nuanced. It can be particular and downright sneaky, but it can also be liberating and magnanimous.
- Stuttering reminds us to practice self-kindness, and it reminds us to challenge ourselves in ways that help us learn and grow.
Speaking of learning and growing…I have exciting news! We have another series starting soon! This series will focus on families – parents, siblings…We’re still ironing out the details, so stay tuned. As a PWS who has a family, I know that stuttering isn’t just about the individual, and I greatly look forward to this next NSA chapter.
With that, thanks for stopping by, and thanks for following this inspiring Bridging the Gap series. It has truly been an honor. And keep sharing your stories, because someone wants to hear them.
Jamie Wolff (aka James) is a New York creative arts therapist – turned personal trainer – turned health coach and curriculum developer. As a writer Jamie believes that stories matter; the stories we share and the stories we tell ourselves – they matter. Jamie serves as the NSA Spotlight Writer.