Stuttering and the resilient sense of self

“Nobody worth your attention gives a damn if you stutter,” writes Cheryl Strayed, replying in her Rumpus Dear Sugar column to a woman who anonymously wrote to her as ‘Ashamed and Afraid’.

Resilience stutterWith her characteristic mix of tenderness and insight, Cheryl tells A & A, “It’s time for you to do the work you need to do to become the person you must be. That means tossing out the ugly and false notions you have about your stutter and taking in the fact that you have the power to redirect the blowtorch of your self-hatred and turn it into love.”

It is a beautiful piece, one that glues your eyes to the page and gives you whiplash from nodding your head so vigorously in agreement.

It is the type of writing that unifies us. Stuttering or not we all need to work on becoming the people we’re here to be. We all need to foster our own resilience, that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and and come back stronger than ever.

Strayed has that quality in spades and in my interviews for Out With It I saw resilience in the most successful stutterers I met. Stuttering might have battered their self-esteem for some part of their childhood, but they were not cowed by it. They described it as ‘toughening them up’, as ‘increasing their empathy’, as ‘instilling a fighting instinct.’ They were formed, rather than undone, by their struggle.

They were not unique, or superhuman, in their ability. We are all capable of astonishing resistance, coping, recovery and success. We just need to work out how we can withstand, rebound and transform the inevitable obstacles of our life into triumphs.

In The Resilience Factor, Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte explain seven elements that anyone can cultivate to boost their own resilience:

1) Emotional regulation. The ability to respond appropriately in any given situation and control our emotions and behaviours so they are productive rather than knee-jerk reactions.

2) Impulse control. The necessity to notice our thoughts and sit with them for a moment, quietly, before we react.

3) Empathy. The capacity to understand and share the feelings of others, so we can keep ourselves from misreading situations.

4) Optimism. Not irrational optimism, rather the ability to believe that things can change for the better, to hope for the future, without denying the reality of our lives. The need to aspire and work towards positive outcomes without assuming that they are a forgone conclusions.

5) Causal analysis. The ability to accurately identify the causes of problems and think flexibility. The so-called father of positive psychology, Dr Martin Seligman, focuses on explanatory styles as the the habitual way we explain the good and the bad things that happen to us. The need to look for specific, limited, short-term explanations for bad events rather than seeing them as permanent, personal and pervasive.

6) Self-efficacy. The sense that we are effective in the world, the belief that we can succeed at solving our problems.

7) Reaching out. The intention to create nurturing relationships and strong social support. We often learn by mimicry and a resilient, trusting and supportive community incubates reserves of optimism and resilience.

All of us will face failure at some point in our lives. Those who have been shielded from difficulty, who have spent their life coddled and protected, are not always the most successful.

Those who grow up battling against some form of adversity need more grit, more social intelligence and more self-control to create the kind of giant, full lives they aspire to. If they can develop the strength to derive knowledge and meaning from their setbacks, they are at a significant character advantage. As the researcher Ann Masten puts it, “resilient children have the benefit of ordinary magic.”

Do you have that ordinary magic? How often are you able to transform the setbacks of life into everyday triumphs?

Stuttering and the Power of Powerless Communication

Often stuttering is seen as a hindrance, perhaps even a disability. When most people are asked to name successful stutterers they tend to mention men like Joe Biden and Jack Welch. They marvel at the confidence and prestige of those stutterers who have somehow overcome their condition, whose voices no longer betray their speech difficulties.

But if we look a little closer, the truth is more complex.

In my research for Out With It I saw that many people who stutter end up being quite successful, gaining respect in everything from the boardroom to the basketball court. There were certainly those who were dissatisfied and unfulfilled, but those who were successful were not always those who had conquered their stuttering. Those people who had both excelled, and continued to stutter, seemed to have certain traits in common. I will explore traits of resilience in my next post but today I’m looking at the idea of embracing powerless communication, how it specifically relates to stutterers and how everyone can harness its power to generate trust and respect.

I first came across the concept in Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Give and Take. Grant is the youngest tenured professor at The Wharton School and a prolific academic in the area of workplace dynamics. His seminal book gives remarkable insights into what actually works in communication.

giveandtake-cover
In his chapter on the power of powerless communication, Grant argues that, when it comes to collaboration, we are more inclined to hire, promote and value people who communicate powerlessly. This includes: talking tentatively; asking people questions (giving them the joy of talking), specifically asking them for advice; and being open about our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, not just our strengths.

The first two are relatively easy to understand and implement, I find the latter the most intriguing. It is worth exploring through the lens of stuttering.

When writing Out With It I discovered how often people are drawn to stutterers, how likeable they seem to be. At first I balked against the discovery, worrying that the attraction was perhaps born of pity. However, the more people I spoke to, the more I realised it was the opposite – they were drawn to the stutterer’s courage and lack of artifice. In a world full of noise and nonsense, stutterers were seen as somehow trustworthy and genuine. Because their speech had nothing to do with their competence, it did not demean them in their audiences’ eyes. Rather it raised them up.

The idea that something that we often perceive as a weakness can actually be an important asset was a personal breakthrough, but Grant proves that the idea is applicable to anyone wishing to improve their communication.

Everyone has a weakness, whether it be their weight, their height, their looks, their clumsiness etc. Often our weaknesses have nothing to do with our competence, but we try to hide them to appear in control or knowledgeable or attractive. In actuality, when we speak in a way that reveals our shortcomings and expresses vulnerability, people can relate to us as a human beings. They are attracted to us.

What do you think? Would you ever share your weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the work place?

Re-imagining the Role of Godparent

A few days ago one of my favourite people asked me to be her son’s godmother.

Our friends are at the age where baby monitors often provide the background noise to dinner parties and apartments are rented with school districts in mind. And yet, somehow, the concept of godparenting had never crossed my mind. It was an enormous honor that I had never expected.

I said yes, quickly and fervently.

And then I spent hours learning about what I had just accepted, about the expectations and guidelines for godparents.

godparent decisionsI’m not an atheist but I’d be hard-pressed to call myself deeply religious. If I was supposed to serve as a spiritual guarantor for the little guy I wasn’t sure what kind of spirituality I was guaranteeing.

And yet the idea of being such a big part of my friend’s family, and playing a role in her son’s life, had enormous appeal. So I started to look for secular inspiration.

From folklore to pop culture, there were Cinderella-style fairy godmothers who saw inherent charms in their charges and gun wielding Godfathers who embodied protection.

From my own life, I was lucky enough to have two godparents and one godfather. My parents enlisted friends from different parts of their lives and divvied up the duties – one godmother taught me how to laugh through struggles, another taught me the importance of loyalty and my godfather taught me to live by my own rules. We have spent Christmases and birthdays and New Year’s Eves together. I’ve seen them dance and cry. I’ve always felt like they were part of my family.

Yet they aren’t parental. That’s not the role that anyone expects of them. Rather they offer a unique, familial friendship.

And that’s something I think I can offer to my friend’s son. I may not always be in the same country as him. I may not be able to give him large gifts of money. I may still be working out all the questions he wants answers to. But I know how to be a good friend. 

So the ground rules I’m setting for myself are to be the type of friend to him that I am to his mum. To make memories with him, to remember things that are important to him, to laugh with him and listen to him, to always watch out for him.

To quote Don Corleone, arguably the most infamous godparent, “Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family.”

To see more of my Psychology Today articles go to: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-it

Whispered words of patience

Have you ever thought about the power of whispering, about all the urgency and intimacy that it contains?

Whispered patience

I had rarely thought about it before I attended a workshop called ‘Whispered Words’ at last month’s FRIENDS conference.

A group of stutterers, parents of children who stuttered and speech therapists were invited to sit in a large circle. Every other person in the circle was told to stand behind their seat. We were asked to think of one thing we wanted to improve in ourselves. Pens and paper were handed out and those standing were told to write, “I give you…” followed by the piece of themselves that they wanted to improve.

Those who were left seated were asked to close their eyes and those standing were directed to walk behind the circle of chairs, whispering in each seated person’s ear the words of the sentence they had written.

It started off tentatively, all shuffled feet and awkward scribbles.

Then, slowly, the self-conscious hush gave way to the muffled sound of whispers moving around the room.

The hesitant thrill of the first words in my ear surprised me, a man’s voice whispering, “I give you the courage to chase all your crazy dreams.”

Then a woman’s voice told me, “I give you permission to tell your story”.

At first they were all different, an anonymous litany of private fears and dreams. Gradually repetition crept in and, by the time I had opened my eyes, there was nothing I had been given more often than patience.

Patience seemed to ring in my ear as if the whispered word had somehow come from my own brain. It felt as if I was carrying their secret, as if I had a responsibility, and an ability, to be patient.

So what does it mean to be patient?

In the quiet of the room I tried to untangle its meaning and complexities. To find peace in the moments that seem to automatically bring frustration? To show compassion and empathy for others, and for ourselves? To stop rushing towards some unknown future, and instead appreciate the gradual unfurling of things?

Impatience is part of the habitual reaction I have towards my speech. It is not a part of myself I’m particularly enamored with. I find it far easier to be patient with others, to give them the time I believe we all deserve. It takes far more effort to have patience with the moments of my stuttered speech, to forgive myself for all the ways I’m not perfect and accept that the process of change is not well-suited to my desire for instant gratification.

In my mind patience does not mean apathy. It does not mean taking a step back from the world and waiting for our rewards. It is a far more difficult and active state. It widens our view of a situation, it asks us to question our assumptions and dispute the frustration that rarely serves us well. Patience gives us the capacity to wait until the right moment to act.

It is a word to whisper to ourselves, a powerful amulet against our irrational fallacies.

This article can also be found on my Psychology Today column.

Owning the Voice You Have

I have some very exciting news: this blog has been picked up by Psychology Today so this post can be read here or on my new Out With It page over on their site!

public speakingEarlier this month I spent four days at the World Congress for People Who Stutter. I couldn’t imagine a more thoughtfully run or inclusive conference. The days were a mass of hours spent hanging on people’s words. It was a week when time felt endless and a place where blocks and repetitions were not only accepted, they were normalised.

The conference opened with a keynote from a fluent researcher. The next keynote came from an esteemed author who stuttered once or twice as he candidly explored a condition close to his heart, a carefully crafted speech about the beauty and difficulty of stuttering.
The next couple days followed the same pattern. Multiple workshops and two powerful keynotes a day given by great, honest speakers who spoke passionately about stuttering. All of the keynotes stuttered a little but never enough to break the flow of their speech. Never enough to tie up their dexterous tongues.

As I listened to their speeches I felt my knees start to shake and my mind drift down paths I didn’t want it to take. How could I compete?

I knew that I couldn’t mimic their speech. And yet, despite the fact that I was at a stuttering conference and talking to an audience of stutterers from across the world, a part of me wanted to be as fluent as the other speakers. A long-forged part of my brain told me that I should do my best to wipe out as many stutters as I could.

When I finally stood at the podium to give my keynote, I had spent hours writing and practicing my speech. As I put on my glasses and took in the audience I felt enormously proud to be looking out into the eyes of many of the kindest people I had ever met.

Then I began to speak. It is no exaggeration to say that I stuttered on nearly every word. On the cyclical scale of my speech, my stutter was at its most profound. I pushed through syllables that spanned over long seconds. I felt the pages of my script go limp in my iron grip. I laughed when I got trapped on a ‘me’ that seemed to echo around the large conference hall endlessly.

And yet all eyes in the audience stayed fixed on me as I recounted the journey I had taken to come to terms with my voice. Faces broke into smiles at whatever jokes I told. Fierce applause broke around the room as the speech reached its breathless end.

At the end I felt euphoric and exposed. It is one thing to write a book about stuttering, quite another to stand up and go through the physicality of telling that story.

Stuttering is not an easy thing to do. It takes away the control that we want to have over our language and our appearance. And yet, in the wake of that speech, I realised it is also an incredibly powerful thing. It has its own dynamism that we do not need to bleach out. It can connect us to people, rather than alienate them.

There are times when I have found myself listening more intently to stutterers than fluent speakers, waiting eagerly for their words and deeply appreciating the window that their speech cracks into their humanity.

Unfortnuately we rarely see stuttering public speakers. I hope that will change.

It is well and good having role models who seemed to have curbed their stutter and eased into a more fluent way of speaking, celebrities and politicians who readily attach their names to stuttering but rarely, if ever, stumble on their words. But we need to really hear stuttering if we are going to change the conversation. We need to watch outspoken, unapologetic stutterers talking eloquently if we are ever going to rewrite the ‘fix’ narrative of our lives.

All of us can own whatever speaking skills we have, however paradoxical they may be. We do not need to fit into an aggressive, motivational speaker mold – rather we can speak up with whatever voice we have. We can be proud of the unique qualities of our soft-spoken words, our quirky sense of humor or our stutters.

We can believe that our voice, and our story, is worth hearing.

Who is the most memorable and unique speaker you’ve ever seen?

Talking

I spend most of my days thinking and writing about talking. Today more than most perhaps. Today is the last day of National Stuttering Awareness Week.

stuttering awareness week

On the subway, I watch a father tell quiet stories to his daughter, her fingers twisting around his, her legs kicking her brother next to her as he leans towards them to catch every word.

As I wait for a friend to arrive for coffee I watch two women snorting with laughter, their arms gesticulating, their knees leaning in to one another, their glasses raised and lowered as they listen for the start of some new joke in a language I can’t decipher.

I see a couple sitting next to each other, reading the paper. Swapping sections, pointing at a story, passing a cup of coffee, all without a word.

In my own conversations, I feel myself relax into a laughter-filled Skype call with an old friend. I feel the way our cadence begins to morph and mirror each other, the way we slide into old jokes that take me back to house-parties and lazy dinners.

I feel the pinpricks of nerves in my fingertips as I sit on a high stool and look into the kind, open-eyes of an interviewer, the heat of the lights and the dark presence of camera lens crowding us. I feel sweat break out in miniature beads on my forehead and feel my voice break into the silence between us. In my head, I hear my friend Michelle encouraging me to make believe that the cameras aren’t there, that I’m just having a chat with this lovely woman, as you do, on a high chair, in a bookstore, with everyone watching.

I look down at my champagne flute and take my last sip as I look out at an audience I can barely see. I tell myself, for the hundredth time that I should wear glasses for my book signings, so I can see the people beyond the first row. I shift my weight and feel my hands begin their familiar propulsion as I tell everyone the end of my story. I look at Jeremy, at the grin on his face, as I tell the eager mass of an audience some of our love story. I lean into the warmth of their generous laughter, I feel it release something in me. I carry on speaking, and stuttering, and gratefully answering their questions. I lean against the bar and try to burn the moment on to my memory.

At home I write about stuttering, about the visceral experience of talking. I enjoy the quiet, the calming sound of the controlled voice in my head, the ability to escape into the realm of my own mind for a while. Then I feel the silence of the room weigh on me and pick up the phone, I walk outside and talk about the weather with a neighbour. I get home and I read this story. I laugh at all the familiar fears and all the familiar reactions. I feel proud to be connected to this man, if only tenuously through our speech.

We speak to others to tell them that we love them, to make ourselves heard, to learn from each other or to meet another’s mind. Each of us has a distinct voice, a unique way of reaching out and connecting with the world. Today is as good a time as any to remember how beautiful that is.

What to hope for?

As I type this my twitter feed is ticking in front of me, telling me that the boat is surrounded, that the man thought to be one of the Boston marathon bombers, is about to be caught. They have him. He’s alive. The suspect is in custody.

My feed has gone quiet now. What next? What now do we hope will unfold?

In the rush of silence I think of all the horror and heroism of the past week. Of all the ways that people felt fragile and vulnerable and frightened. All of the ways people mentioned how grateful they felt for their loved ones, how tightly they held on to one another.

It has been a long week, we’re all looking for a silver lining.

It seems like a strange time to be celebrating, and yet, on Tuesday night I had a chance to do just that. I was lucky enough to get to be around a lot of people I love. I got to laugh with them, and hug them and thank them for all the ways they changed my life. On Tuesday, April 16th, I had the book launch for Out With It.

bookcourt

It was a night of hours that skidded by too fast. It was gilded, better than I could have ever imagined. There was a billboard in Times Square and a sold out bookstore. It was a night made memorable for all the right reasons.

FB - Crowd at BookCourt

Now, in the aftermath of everything, I think about all the outcomes that we look towards. In the face of disappointments and disasters, what kind of recovery do we hope for?

In the wake of celebration, what then do we hope will happen?

A small part of me gets to hope for big dreams, for Out With It to change the conversation around perfection and normalcy. A much bigger part of me just hopes that a few people read it. I wonder what people will think of it, what they will think of me.

In the aftermath of everything I feel immensely vulnerable. I feel fragile knowing that my book, this thing I looked at in the privacy of my home for almost 5 years, is now out in the world waiting to be judged.

I hope that people like it. I hope I don’t look like a fool. I hope that it does some good to as many people as possible. I hope that the joy I felt on Tuesday will carry me through whatever challenging times, and wonderful times, lie ahead. Looking around an apartment full of cards, and flowers and notes from people I love, I hope that I will always feel as grateful as I do tonight.

Gratitude

Where language leads

When I was little Easter was my favourite time of year.

It was a time of hot cross buns, enough chocolate to send me into a sugar coma and puddles large enough to jump into with my wellies. It was the moment when winter seemed to be disappearing and I could celebrate my birthday with the knowledge that the long summer holiday wasn’t too far away.

For the first 8 years of my life, it was also a time for easter egg hunts at my grandma’s house. Amid the blooming bluebells and daffodils of her garden, my grandma would hide riddle after riddle. As soon as we arrived, my parents and I would be handed the first clue and we’d rush out to the garden to find the next. As we uncovered each new riddle from the dirt we’d read them loud enough for my grandma to hear as she watched us, smiling from the chair of her sitting room.

I wish that I’d stashed these small, handwritten notes in my pocket. At the time they seemed like a ticket into a very adult world of hidden meanings. They were my first introduction to the beauty and malleability of language.

I remember my mum laughing, my dad running across the garden and their gentle hints as they guided me towards the final chocolate egg. I remember scarfing down the creamy chocolate sitting on her kitchen counter as my grandma carefully laid the crust over her apple pie.

I haven’t been to an easter egg hunt in years, I can’t remember any since my grandma died. But the memory of the excitement I felt holding my her handwriting, my awareness of the hours she put into creating each riddle, hasn’t left me.

These days my traditions have changed. I still get the puddles and the hot cross buns, but I have new things like Passover and my fiancé’s birthday. Still I feel like I am carrying on some family tradition, I feel like all those riddles, all that love of language, has lead me somewhere that I could have only dreamed of a child.

This year I get to celebrate the release of my book. Coincidentally the pub date is my birthday so we will be kicking off spring with a big party. Sadly there won’t be any riddles or chocolate eggs, but I’d love you to come and celebrate with me nevertheless.

Book Launch: Putting down the pen and picking up the mic

With my book launch mere weeks away (I’d love to see any and all of your lovely faces there) I’ve been finding myself at more literary events than normal around the city. I’ve ventured out of my pajamas to go to readings, book release parties and meetups.

All-in-all it has been both fascinating and terrifying. Mostly because it makes me fully aware of how brilliant other writers can be, how eloquent and funny and intelligently they can string together their thoughts in front of a room of eager faces.

Public speaking is one thing but spontaneously answering questions in a witty and thoughtful way, a way that reflects both your personality and your writing, is a talent I’m not entirely sure I can emulate.

A couple weeks ago I went to McNally Jackson bookstore for their Conversations on Practice interview with David Shields. I’ve been intrigued by the series for a while but I went specifically because of David. I interviewed him for my book years ago and have been deeply influenced by both his words and his mindset ever since.

It is hard to describe David’s writing accurately. In his words, “literal collage has become the form that releases my best intelligence”. Having heard him speak, it is clear why. David thinks in associations, even as he answers questions about his work he draws on quotes from authors, scenes from films and references to art exhibitions. His aim is to eliminate any façade and in his speaking, much like his writing, he has no qualms mentioning everything from his stutter to his cheat sheet. He casually brushes off the over-polished veneer that it is all too tempting to hide behind.

In a different vein, I attended Leigh Newman’s book launch for her just-released memoir Still Points North. Over an evening of champagne and Alaskan salmon (Newman’s book recalls her childhood growing up in the wilds of Alaska) Leigh read a section from the first half of her book and answered question after question from the packed audience.

Leigh Newman book launch

In both her writing and her speech, Leigh has a warmth, a playfulness and a self-deprecation that makes her impossible to dislike. With captivating ease she told stories that made the room belly-laugh and lean towards her before they furiously typed on their smartphones and tweeted her glorious quotes (everything from her encouragement of radical change to her description of memoir writing as ‘soul-slapping’).

Both writers are brilliant on the page and in person, I can’t rate them highly enough.

While I’m on my literary excursions – which writers do you love to hear speak?

Vulnerability and Public Speaking

I’m not sure who would constitute my most intimidating audience, but speaking to a roomful of over 100 Brooklyn hipsters ranks pretty highly.

Public Speaking - PPN

Image courtesy: Andy Gillette and PPN

It is hard to be as fascinating as the guy who speaks for 15 minutes about Peruvian Ayahuasca and ends his sincere talk with an impromptu song inspired by the plant he spent a month talking to. Or the scantily-clad Meta-Physical Jesus, or the man who recounts a story about a possessed Raggedy Anne doll.

It is hard to stand up without any persona, or any shield.

By the time I walked up to take the stage at Bushwick’s monthly speaking series, Presentation Party Night, beer cans were spilling out of the rubbish bins, the room was debating the meaning of virtuous womanhood and I was fully aware of the involuntary shaking that had taken over my left leg.

I was nervous in a way that I haven’t been for a while. Perhaps it was because I was speaking to people who had no idea about stuttering, perhaps it was because I’d left my glasses at home and I could barely see the audience, perhaps I was worried about being vulnerable in front of a bunch of strangers.

Either way I held up the mic to my lips and began to speak into the wide expanse of the room.

Public Speaking at PPNI talked about perfection, about my childhood, about the science of stuttering and the humanity of it. I talked about setting off on a adventure to find a cure and instead falling in love and embracing my ‘weakness’ as my greatest strength.

The hum of the heating-system ebbed and flowed, one guy’s phone rang loudly and the crowd laughed once or twice but largely the place was silent. My voice rumbled and broke into the mic. I slipped into repetitions and fell out of them, I smiled and paused and my leg continued to shake to the beat of its own manic rhythm.

By the end I was spent, I’d given all I could to the speech. It hadn’t been easy but it hadn’t been terrible. It had been honest.

And afterwards, after the cheers and the questions, I have never had so many people come up to me. Each person related my story back to themselves, back to their struggles and their triumphs. They told me about their lives and they asked me more about stuttering. My gratitude to them, to all their joy and compassion, is boundless.

If anyone reading this in NY has a subject that they feel able to speak about for 10 minutes, I can’t recommend PPN enough. Speaking up, making people laugh or cry, encouraging them see the world a little differently – what would you rather be doing on a Sunday night?

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