Having a stammer can have a significant impact on one's mental and emotional well-being, as well as self-worth. Everyday life can be an obstacle course.
Situations that fluent speakers take for granted can be really tricky for those who stammer. These can include:
- Introducing yourself (eg at school, at work or socially).
- Ordering a coffee.
- Giving your name at a reception desk.
- Navigating a voice-activated helpline menu.
- Talking on the phone.
- Using a smart speaker.
- Using an intercom.
Saying your name
Many people who stammer find saying their name difficult. This might be because one common strategy for coping with stammering is to switch words. People who stammer often think ahead for alternative words they find easier to say. But as there are no alternatives for your name, this coping strategy is lost. This can put a lot of pressure on someone when asked to say their name. Anxiety and worry about feeling embarrassed builds, and all this makes it more likely that they'll stammer. Once it happens a few times, a fear around saying their name starts to develop which further adds to the pressure. Another reason might be that our own name is an important part of our identity and has a strong emotional resonance for us. Extra emotional load can also make stammering more likely.
Research shows that people who stammer develop negative feelings about themselves because of other people’s responses. This includes being teased and bullied at school; excluded from activities; having to listen to the countless thoughtless comments and reactions in daily encounters, whether shopping, buying a train ticket, socialising, or at work; having someone hang up the phone, walk away mid-conversation, giggle and mimic you; or people assuming that you are nervous or slow on the uptake.
Stammering continues to be portrayed in the media as something needing to be 'cured' so that you don’t stammer any more, feeding the assumption that to stammer is wrong. It's a condition — we don't expect blind people to pretend or hide their blindness. Add to this a culture where the portrayal of stammering has been traditionally done for comic effect, and the damaging psychological impact of living with a stammer starts to become clear.
We asked our members how stammering affected their lives:
- Nearly 90% had been teased or bullied because of their stammer.
- Over half said their stammer affected their choice of career.
- Nearly half said they'd stayed in a job because they worried they wouldn't get another job elsewhere.
- 15% reported feeling suicidal because of their stammer.
Imagine what it must be like if every time you open your mouth to say something, you fear being judged negatively and seen as incompetent, weak, mentally slow or untrustworthy.
Growing up with a stammer has caused me a significant amount of anxiety and depression, although no one knows this or has ever asked how it makes me feel.
Stammering as a positive
There are many who stammer who've said that despite the difficulties, stammering has had a positive impact on their lives. Some say it's made them more empathetic and understanding of others. Others have said it's made them into great listeners, increased their vocabulary, made them excellent writers and helped them creatively. Others have said it's made them more determined and resilient by not letting stammering — or anything else — get in the way of their ambition.
I truly believe that my stammer makes me a better leader. It has given me empathy, allowing me to be a supportive leader and collaborator. Plus, the more I challenge myself, the more confident I become at taking on challenges. Stammering has given me the determination to do this.
Our research shows that 75% of those who say they have a stammer try and hide it. People will search ahead in their mind for potentially difficult sounds, substitute feared words for others that are easier to say or simply avoid certain situations altogether.
Some people are able to hide their stammer, and become adept at swapping words and using complex avoidance strategies so that no one knows that they stammer. They'll be so successful at this that they appear fluent and you won't know they stammer. We call this covert or interiorised stammering. Internally this can be extremely exhausting and damaging. It can leave people:
- constantly on edge and stressed by the need to avoid stammering
- constantly worrying that people will 'find them out'
- feeling deeply ashamed of their 'secret' stammer, and as more time passes, unable to share this secret.
Stammering was my guilty secret and had to be hidden at all costs. Pretending to be fluent was stressful and exhausting; it dominated my life and dictated what I did and didn't do.
Don't assume that someone whose stammer appears 'mild, if there at all', doesn't struggle with it. You have no idea what their internal dialogue is or how it impacts them mentally and emotionally. While they may not be seen to stammer, emotionally and internally this may still be an ongoing struggle. The negative thoughts, feelings and constant avoidance to hide the stammer can have a profound psychological toll.
Stammering may be regarded as a disability under the Equality Act 2010. However, the stigma around stammering can mean that many people are reluctant to disclose their stammer or name it as a disability.
If you stammer and can relate to the above, it can be hard for other people to understand how it makes you feel. They might reassure you that they never knew you stammered, so it can't be that bad. This can leave you feeling like you're making an unnecessary fuss.
You may have been so 'successful' in hiding it, that in fact you are not believed for having a stammer at all if you tell people. This can be very frustrating and painful, as it effectively denies you have a problem and you could start to feel like a fraud.
Just because your stammer is hidden it is not less of a problem, it's a different sort of problem.
Thanks to the growing Stammering Pride movement, more and more people feel comfortable stammering openly. If you don't feel like that, that's okay. How you want to deal with your stammer is no one's business but yours. Speech and language therapy, and other forms of support, can be liberating. It can help reduce the impact stammering has on your life. Speech and language therapists know how strong the feelings associated with hiding a stammer can be.
Things you can do
- Become a member for free and join in with our community and events.
- See our Get Support section to find out out the options available to you.
- See our Connect section, where we've got a list of stammering groups you can join.
- Read about other people's experiences in our Your Voice section. Or Share Your Story.
- Listen to our podcast 'Around The Block', where hosts Gemma & Matty chat about life with a stammer.