Growing a beautiful new shell for all to see

Ian Tyndall, author of the article

Ian Tyndall talks about how studying for a PhD in psychology helped him on his journey of self-acceptance, and explains how Acceptance & Commitment Therapy can make a difference. 

Your body keeps the score. The painful humiliating memories remain of walking past a group of kids sitting on a wall, all making mocking stammering sounds and sniggering away. Or the mental torture of sitting on a school bus when the back seat gang look for someone new to pick on and the ‘comic’ leader decides it’s time to do an impression of your stammer.

What seems to be the easiest thing in the world to everyone else can seem like that elusive crock of gold at the end of the rainbow to you. It was like you were in a game but didn’t know the rules and no one would give you a kickstart or let you in to the secret. That simple, straightforward fluid utterance or sentence will just not emerge. Perception of time can be warped when all your attention is focused on the stammering and its accompanying emotions of embarrassment and shame, and feelings of incompetence.

My relationship to those memories and thoughts have changed much for the better.

Those feelings of ineptitude and humiliation endure. I sometimes wince when remembering them, but my relationship to those memories and thoughts have changed much for the better. I accept them now, as remembering is an action — it is something you do — rather than memories as something you have. As a child it was inconceivable that I would end up working as a university lecturer who does public speaking for a living

What helped with self-acceptance

I’ve had a determination and a focus to not let stammering define me as a person. Self-acceptance is crucial to this. A change in my confidence level with respect to my speech and attitude towards myself (and ultimately my self-acceptance) occurred when I was doing my PhD in psychology. My supervisor at the time was a clinical psychologist professor who had conducted a lot of research with people who stammer in Australia. He asked me to give a talk to represent the Psychology Department at a public facing event. I was surprised and said, "I don’t think I’d be the kind of person that the university would want representing them," given that I was naively under the impression that universities were supposed to be full of eloquent speakers. He responded with, "I think you are exactly the kind of person we want representing us and people naturally warm to you." My speech difficulties were still there but my perception of it and who I was had changed.

I also found the lyrics of the song River of Deceit by the band Mad Season quite inspiring: "My pain is self-chosen, at least I believe it to be, I could either drown, or pull off my skin and swim to shore, now I can grow a beautiful shell for all to see." I wanted to swim to shore and show people that their impression of me was not who I really was and that I had much more to give, and importantly, so much more to say. 

I wanted to show people that their impression of me was not who I really was and that I had much more to give, and importantly, so much more to say.

As a psychologist I accessed scientific journal articles which suggested that brain scans of people who stammer showed that the right hemisphere of their brain is more active when speaking, as compared to more 'fluent' speakers, in whom speech is generally controlled by the left hemisphere. That helped bolster the idea that my stammer was not my 'fault' or the fault of anyone who stutters; that there's nothing 'wrong' with us, our brains are just arranged a little differently.

Acceptance Commitment Therapy

Conducting research into the Psychological Flexibility Model that forms the basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has helped me too. This model helps alter your relationship to your thoughts and emotions while persisting with or changing your behaviour towards living in accordance with valued goals.

In simple terms, acceptance is the opposite of experiential avoidance. In relation to stammering, experiential avoidance could include avoiding your inner thoughts, feelings and emotions. For example, some of us could deliberately try to mentally suppress those painful memories of humiliation while trying to speak in public. That isn’t easy to do, as the memories often bounce back, sometimes with even greater intensity or vividness. Experiential avoidance can also involve behaviours such as eating too much chocolate cake or drinking too much alcohol to try and suppress those negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves and our stammer. 

Cognitive defusion is an attempt to try and unhook or 'de-fuse' you from your own thoughts and to just see your thought for what it is, just a thought. When we are ‘cognitively fused’, we tend to believe our thoughts to be literally true of ourselves (eg 'I am an embarrassment', 'I am incompetent', 'I cannot speak', or 'I will make a fool of myself'). With defusion, the aim is not to deliberately change thoughts or try and replace a negative thought with a more positive one, but rather to create some psychological distance between you and that thought. Thus, your thoughts about yourself as a stammerer are no longer branded on your forehead like a sheep with a hot iron.

ACT might potentially help some who stammer get to a place closer to self-acceptance.

Being present is being mindful, i.e., being aware of the present moment; practicing noticing your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and not judging them or judging yourself. 

Values clarification helps you identify qualities by which you would like to live by (eg 'being the best friend I can be'). This can help you to achieve goals that you might ordinarily not target because of your stammer. For example, your best friend wants you to give a best man speech at their wedding but you are fearful of speaking in public. But you want to be the best friend you can be to this person who has been there for you all your life, so your values help you to commit to doing the speech. 

Committed action is committing yourself to taking steps that will help you get where you want to be, such as deliberate practice, breathing exercises, or putting yourself in situations you have long avoided. In short, being 'psychologically flexible' allows you to move forward and engage in committed action guided by your values while not being controlled by your unwanted feelings, thoughts or emotions, regardless of the context.

Conclusion

ACT is relatively new in this area of stammering and certainly needs more evidence to support it. However, much research does show that the psychological effects of stammering can be very debilitating. What we pay attention to, and how we direct our attention, seems key with stammering. Therefore, ACT might potentially help some who stammer get to a place closer to self-acceptance. 

Dr. Ian Tyndall is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology (Cognitive & Behavioural Psychology) at the University of Chichester. He recently featured in the People Soup podcast, talking about stammering and public speaking.

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