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Overcoming the Fear of Stuttering

Updated: Feb 23

“…the young warrior said, ‘How can I defeat you?’”…“Fear replied, ‘My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face. Then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me. But if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.’ In that way, the student warrior learned how to defeat fear.” – Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart


I am standing on a stage and a bright light is shining directly into my eyes. As I face the camera, exposed and vulnerable, a voice inside me starts to call out in earnest, “You aren’t going to be able to do this.”


The voice terrifies me. I hear the music begin in my ear monitor and know that I have run out of time. And what transpires next is the very thing I was most afraid of—I open my mouth to sing and what comes out is a sound like a warbling bird shot out of the sky. The director jumps up and yells “Stop, stop, stop!”


I am mortified. My secret is out now—they know that I am a phony. An unreliable performing artist.


At least that’s what the voice says.


I leave the venue defeated, get into my car, and bury my head in my hands. I vow that I will never perform on camera again. Anything to avoid the shame I am experiencing now.


Does my inner voice sound like one you have heard before?


When this happened to me in the fall of 2020, I immediately thought of my adult stuttering clients. What would they say to me about how I was ready to give up, run, hide, ANYTHING to escape the discomfort I felt in that audition room?


I think they would say, “I have faced this fear many, many times.”


I am not a person who stutters, but I have found inspiration witnessing the courage of my clients who stutter. What I experienced that day in the audition room was a mere microcosm of what I have seen them face on a daily basis: calling in to a job interview, ordering from a restaurant, asking their crush out on a date, or giving a presentation at work or in class.


They have learned to feel the fear and anticipation of, “What if I stutter?” and forge ahead to overcome that fear, regardless of the outcome that day.


Using the speech strategies they have learned in therapy is one way clients can gain back control of their stuttering when fear has taken over. Another way is by harnessing the power of their inner voice.


Negative internal messages have frightening authority over our ability to effectively communicate. We allow this indomitable inner critic to determine and shape our speech and even our life’s course.


It is possible to dismantle the sway of this inner voice when we stop listening to it. We do not do what it says. And we work to rewire our brains for an alternate response to fear and avoidance by restoring positive internal messages.


How?


Any time you hear that negative voice speak up with a compelling story about your limitations, tell it to stop! Literally. Picture a stop sign in your mind and stop that negative message in its tracks. One of my clients pictures a light switch that he turns off when a negative thought pops up.


Now, replace it with 4 positive messages of your choosing. Write them down to cement them further. This will take practice, so don’t despair if it doesn’t work the first few times. The more you practice this exercise, the more it will work to rewire the brain and restore positive internal messages, canceling negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.

Final note—I did get back in front of that camera, and went on to have some laughably bad auditions and some good ones too! For me, defeating fear meant developing a kinder, braver inner voice every time I faced an audition panel regardless of the final result.

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