Speech-Language Pathology/Stuttering/Psychological Issues

Experts have proposed dozens of psychological causes for stuttering. Then they use psychological tests to test their hypotheses. And, every time, the tests prove the "experts" wrong. But this doesn't stop the experts from writing books promoting their theories.

In 1928, a Freudian psychologist advanced a theory that stuttering was an attempt to satisfy unresolved oral-erotic needs.[1] If this were true, there would stuttering phone sex lines. Imagine finding ads in the back of Playboy magazine with scantily-dressed women saying, "Call me! I stutter!"

A 1939 personality test study found that stutterers were more neurotic, more introverted, less dominant, less self-confident, and less sociable than non-stutterers.[2] Examination of the personality test found sixteen speech-related questions, including "If you are dining out do you prefer someone else to order dinner for you?" The psychologists had interpreted stutterers' reluctance to order in restaurants as evidence of neuroses, rather than as difficulty talking.

A 1952 study of hostility and aggression found stutterers more likely to turn hostility inward. A 1953 study found the opposite.[3]

Other psychological studies found no difference between stutterers and non-stutterers for self-concept, levels of aspiration, body images, role perception, handwriting, social maturity, birth order, exaggerated fears, sleep disturbances, hyperactivity, temper tantrums, thumb sucking, and nail biting.[4]

Stutterers are, on average, psychologically normal, except for fears and anxieties around talking. We generally have the same speech-related fears and anxieties as non-stutterers, such as fear of talking to strangers and fear of speaking to an audience, but these fears are greater in stutterers.

Freedom to Speak—Badly

From the book How to Learn Any Language:

Americans, however, hold one high card that too frequently goes unplayed. We're gregarious. We're extroverts. Some say it contemptuously. Some say it admiringly. But those who know us best agree that we Americans are the only people in the world who enjoy speaking another language badly!

Most people in the world are shy, embarrassed, even paralyzed when it comes to letting themselves be heard in languages they speak less than fluently. An American may master a foreign language to the point where he considers himself fluent. A European, however, who speaks a language equally well and no better will often deny he speaks it at all!

Are you an American—happy to talk even when your speech isn't good? Or are you a European—"shy, embarrassed, even paralyzed" when you can't speak fluently?

Or are you Chinese? In China, stutterers are expected to keep their mouths shut because stuttering will embarrass their families. You don't want the neighbors to find out that your brother stutters, so you find him work that doesn't require speech, and he stays at home the rest of the time.

If that doesn't sound fair to you, stick an American flag pin in your lapel. Then go out and speak English—badly, if you have to.

The First Amendment to our Constitution is freedom of speech. Our ancestors believed that talking is the most basic human right. If you don't want to talk, are you throwing away the fundamental freedom that previous generations fought for?

Change Your Lifestyle to Talk More

Ask your supervisor to give you work requiring talking. This could be talking to customers, or calling suppliers, or training other employees.

Or change careers to a job that requires talking. A man bought an anti-stuttering device, quit his job as a back room accountant at a bank, then worked at the Chicago Board of Trade, yelling orders to buy or sell soybean futures.

Or find a volunteer service requiring talking. Hospitals have information booths where volunteers direct visitors to their floors. Public television stations need volunteers to answer the phones during pledge drives.

Political groups need canvassers to collect signatures on petitions. Pick a cause you believe in. Imagine yourself standing on a busy street corner, talking to passerby about an important issue. Can you picture anything more American?

Complimenting People

Here's another way to make the world a better place. Make eye contact, smile, and then compliment a person.

Don't limit this to attractive, single persons of the opposite sex. Make everyone you meet feel good about themselves. Compliment old men, women pushing strollers in the park, the person behind you in the supermarket line, and your in-laws.

Here are a few compliments you can make about anyone:

  • Compliment the person's smile. Then smile. This will make the person smile. Add a little joke such as, "Give my compliments to your orthodontist."
  • Compliment the person's eyes. This reminds you to make eye contact. Look into the person's eyes long enough to mentally note his or her eye color. A friend broke up with her boyfriend when, wearing sunglasses, she asked him what color her eyes were. He didn't know.
  • Compliment the person's name. This helps you remember the person's name. Associate the person's name with an interesting fact, e.g., ask how his or her name is spelled (e.g., Rebecca vs. Rebekah), the ethnic origin, or the meaning of the name. (I got a date with a woman named Alethea because I knew that alethea is Greek for truth). Ask if the person is related to a celebrity with the same last name. Read a history of your area to learn the names of local heroes and historical figures.
  • Compare the person to a celebrity. (A friend writing a personal ad asked if she looked like Natalie Merchant or Neve Campbell. I replied that she reminded me more of a young Tommy Lee Jones.)
  • Listen for extraordinary things people have done, then reflect this back to them. Everyone thinks that their lives are ordinary. E.g., a man who flies jet fighters thinks of himself as an ordinary fighter pilot.

Tell Stuttering Jokes

A stutterer goes away to a two-week intensive speech therapy course on the East Coast. When he returns, his friends ask how it went.

The stutterer pauses, takes a deep breath, and slowly says, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers."

His friends are amazed. "You said that completely fluently!" they say.

The stutterer says, "Y-y-yeah b-b-but it's, it's h-h-hard t-t-to w-w-work th-that in-t-to a, a c-c-conversation."

Add more stuttering jokes!

Inward Anger vs. Outward Anger

Stuttering, like any frustrating experience, causes anger. Some individuals direct these feelings inward (i.e., they hate themselves). This leads to a vicious cycle or "self-fulfilling prophecy" of failure.

But other stutterers direct these feelings outward. These individuals feel anger at other people. Their relationships at work or socially go poorly, again creating a vicious cycle of failure.

How do you feel when people disrespect you when you stutter? Do you feel anger at yourself for stuttering? Or do you feel anger at the person who treated you poorly?

When you're angry, do you do nothing, but get angrier inside? That's inner-directed self-hatred.

Or do you take action to "send a message" nonverbally—which the other person is certain to misunderstand? I once "sent a message" to my housemates that it was their turn to buy toilet paper. Don't ask me what I did! They didn't get the message. They just got angry back at me. That didn't lead to domestic bliss.

If you're doing fluency shaping therapy use slow, stretched syllables when telemarketers call. Do you look forward to annoying telemarketers? If so, your anger is directed outward. But if you refuse to annoy telemarketers, your anger is directed inward.

Outer-directed anger is easier to outgrow than inner-directed anger. E.g., you can't wait for telemarketers to call. You have your DAF device plugged into your telephone. You sit down to dinner, and the phone rings. It's the Munificent Police Protective Association. You happily draw out a forty-five minute conversation. Your dinner gets cold but your speech gets better. Then a friend calls, and you speak fluently at a slow-normal rate. You feel good about yourself and your anger drops away.

In contrast, if your anger is inner-directed and a telemarketer calls, you decide not to practice your speech therapy, you stutter a "No, thank you" to the telemarketer and hang up. Your speech doesn't improve and your self-hatred continues.

If practicing speech therapy with a telemarketer scares you, have your speech-language pathologist pretend to call you. She'll try to sell you slow pitch bats, slow blow fuses, stainless steel slow cookers, and slow jam CDs. If you can't think of anything to say, ask, "How slow are the slow pitch bats?"

Then call her, reversing roles. Convince her that your slow blow fuses are the slowest, and that no one makes a slower slow cooker. Practice this until you're willing to practice therapy skills with a telemarketer.

Denial Is a Bigger Problem Than What You're Denying

I had a neighbor with schizophrenia. He went to a dentist for a root canal, and the CIA put a radio into his tooth. The government was broadcasting messages to his brain.

Like 40% of schizophrenics, he denied that he had the disorder. He'd lost his job as a chemical engineer, and now worked as a minimum-wage security guard. He had no friends other than me.

My neighbor enjoyed reading French and Italian newspapers at a university library. He'd take the newspapers to the basement where no one would hear him repeating obscenities to annoy the CIA agents listening to his thoughts. One day security guards asked him to leave. To get away from them he ran into traffic in a busy street. He wasn't allowed to use the library after that.

Consider what would have happened if he'd told a librarian that he had a mental illness that made him talk to himself, and asked if there was somewhere he could read the newspapers without disturbing anyone. The librarian would have unlocked a conference room for him to use.

Denying that he had schizophrenia took a lot of effort. His life would have been simpler if he admitted that he had the disorder. If you put more effort into denying that you have a disorder than the treatment would demand, then you have a denial problem.

He'd ask me whether I thought he was crazy. I'd say, "You're crazy if you deny that you have a mental illness. If you admit it, then you're not crazy."

Avoidance is Denial

Denial can look like avoidance. Many stutterers will spend two hours driving to a store to see if the store has an item, instead of spending two minutes calling the store (and experiencing the embarrassment of stuttering).

Many stutterers substitute words. E.g., saying "the great American pastime" instead of "baseball." That's eight syllables instead of two, and some listeners won't know what you're talking about.

When avoiding stuttering takes more effort than stuttering, you're denying how much effort avoiding stuttering takes.

Here's an extreme example of avoidance. A woman called me, inquiring about stuttering treatments. Her husband was a computer software engineer. He'd stopped talking. He'd requested a demotion at work to a position in which he never spoke to anyone. He sat in his cubicle, communicating by e-mail. At home he no longer spoke to his wife or children. He stopped participating in social activities or friendships. His wife was considering divorce. But first she was learning everything she could about stuttering, in hopes of finding something that would enable him to speak.

Did this man have a stuttering problem? Or did he have a denial problem? He thought he could make his life easier by not talking. But the effort required to not talk (e.g., an unhappy marriage) outweighed the effort of talking (e.g., to his wife, who already knew and accepted that he stuttered).

"I Can Do It Without Help" Is Denial

A friend lives in a state that provides anti-stuttering telephones free (see State Special Telephone Equipment Programs). He stutters moderately to severely. I suggested that he fill out the application to get an anti-stuttering device. He said no, he'd been to a good speech therapy program, and he knew what he had to do. He was determined to improve his speech without electronic devices, medications, or other help.

It's been five years since he went to that speech therapy program. He still stutters. He's denying that the speech therapy program wasn't helpful. He's denying that he doesn't know what to do to improve his speech. He's denying that he needs help.

In contrast, a stutterer not in denial will use whatever's avail-able to improve his speech. If your state wants to give you a telephone that helps you talk fluently, why not take it?

"But I’ve Tried Speech Therapy" Is Denial

Consider why crazy weight loss diets attract customers. People try the "pizza and ice cream" diet, it doesn't work, and then they can say that they tried to lose weight but the diet didn't work. Therefore no diet, exercise plan, or anything else will ever work. Therefore they have an excuse to be overweight. These people chose the "pizza and ice cream" diet instead of the salads and running ten miles a day diet. They chose a fad diet because they knew it wouldn't work.

Similarly, some stutterers go to one speech therapy program, it doesn't help, and then write articles saying that "achieving fluency…is nearly impossible" and "stuttering is a physical impediment for which little can be done."[5] That's also denial. The person avoids effective treatments, by denying that effective treatments exist.

Denying the Most Important Thing in Your Life

I was unaware how severely I stuttered (see My Life in Stuttering). I thought that I had a minor speech problem. I tried to do everything that everyone else does. When I consistently failed at things most people seemed to effortlessly achieve (e.g., finding a job, finding a girlfriend) I didn't realize it was because talking to me was an excruciating experience for listeners. No one told me that. They just avoided me.

Did I have a denial problem? Yes—but let me tell you about an accountant I had dinner with. He worked for the local government. He kept pen and paper next to his bed because he'd wake up with ideas of how to solve accounting problems at work.

My first thought was, this guy needs a life! He dreams about accounting!

Then I thought, he thinks about accounting 24/7. He must be a good accountant. When I need an accountant I'll hire him.

My speech improved after I was 30, when I made stuttering the center of my life. I thought about stuttering 24/7. I'd wake up with ideas for how to solve speech problems. Speech therapy changed from something I did two hours a week in speech clinics, to what I did all the time.

My denial problem wasn't that I didn't admit that I stuttered. My denial problem was that I didn't admit that stuttering was the most important thing I did. I'd pushed it to the side and focused on other things.

Whatever you focus on, you can achieve. It may take years of persistence but you will succeed. But you can only think about one thing 24/7. You don't want to spend your life climbing a mountain, get to the top, then see that you climbed the wrong mountain.

Miracles Happen

Miracles happen when you focus on the most important thing in your life, and then everything else falls into place, effortlessly. E.g., you improve your speech, then your boss gives you a promotion. Then the pretty blonde at the photo store wants to be your girlfriend. It happened to me, and it'll happen to you. To read about more miracles, see the appendix Famous People Who Stutter.

But before your miracles can happen, think about my question. Is stuttering the most important thing you do? If you're a severe stutterer, as I was, the answer may be yes. Miracles aren't going to happen in your life until you think about stuttering 24/7. If your child stutters, you may have to focus on your child's treatment, rather than leaving it to the school's speech-language pathologist.

But if you're a mild stutterer, stuttering might be the wrong mountain for you to climb. You might be focusing your energy on avoiding stuttering, when listeners don't care whether you stutter. They might even like hearing you stutter occasionally. Maybe you should put your energy somewhere else.


  1. ^ Bloodstein, Oliver (1995) A Handbook On Stuttering, 5th edition, San Diego: Singular Press.
  2. ^ Yeoman, Barry. Wrestling with Words, Psychology Today, November/December, 1998.