4 minute read

Stuttering: An internal conflict

As you may or may not know, I’m currently studying for my master’s degree in psychology at the university of Groningen. I’m writing my thesis about stuttering and how it’s linked to self-esteem. During my extensive search for literature, I found multiple interesting articles and theories that contain a lot of value for people who are looking to overcome their stutter.

In this article I will share a psychological theory about stuttering, that describes stuttering as “the conflict between drives to speak and to avoid speaking.”

An internal conflict

To be more precise, Sheehan (1970) described stuttering as the following: “In his psychological theory of stuttering, Sheehan described people who stutter as experiencing a role conflict related to communication. He indicated that the person who stutters is caught in a conflict between drives to speak and to avoid speaking. Stuttering occurs when this conflict between speaking and not speaking occurs.”

In simpler terms, stuttering happens because on one side you want to speak, but there’s also a part of you that doesn’t want you to speak. The result is that the part that wants you to speak makes you speak, but the part that doesn’t want you to speak will try to stop you, which leads to blocks and repetitions, also known as stuttering.

Beyond the superficial

This theory of stuttering is a source of a lot of value on overcoming stuttering, depending on the way you look at it. It goes past the superficial issues of speech techniques, breathing and muscle movements. It tackles the deep concepts that need to be targeted in order to achieve lasting fluency.

The way we, at Broca Brothers, interpret this theory is that to overcome your stutter, you have to get rid of the part that doesn’t want you to speak. What will remain is the part that does want you to speak, and fluency will prevail.

Understanding the naysayers

To get rid of the part that doesn’t want us to speak, we have to understand where it’s coming from. We have to understand its motives. Why is there a part of us that doesn’t want us to express ourselves?

Because of the negative feedback we received when we did express ourselves. When we did decide to speak up. When we did decide to come up with an idea, ask a question or crack a joke.

From the moment we start to stutter, we can either react positively or negatively to our stutter. Since many people who stutter start to stutter when they’re a child, the way we react to our stutter is largely dependent on how our surroundings react to our stutter. How your parents, teachers and other close ones react to your stutter will determine its severity later in life.

If the environment you live in reacts positively to your stutter and doesn’t make a big deal out of it, you’re likely to outgrow your stutter. But when the people around you respond negatively, you’re likely to develop a chronic stutter.

You’re sent to speech therapy and you might get bullied because of the way you speak. Some people are trying to fix you, while other people are laughing at you.

Whatever way it happens, you get the feeling that there’s something wrong with you. You develop the core belief that stuttering is not OK, that stuttering is not “normal” and that it should be avoided. Because hey, stuttering leads to people calling you names, giving you weird faces and laughing at you. Negative emotions galore. Who wants that, right?

How to avoid those negative emotions? Avoid stuttering. How to avoid stuttering? Avoid speaking. This creates a downward spiral of negative beliefs, negative emotions and avoidance behavior that reinforce your negative beliefs. The longer the cycle goes on, the bigger and stronger the pattern becomes. And that’s when there’s a whole part of you that doesn’t want you to speak. A mechanism consisting of negative thoughts, emotions and behavior that will do everything in its power to stop you from speaking.

Crushing the naysayers

The part that doesn’t want us to speak is thus the result of the negative core beliefs we developed during the years we started to stutter. And to change and get rid of negative beliefs is to prove them wrong. Show yourself that you have been believing in false truths all along.

The negative belief of stuttering not being OK is simply targeted by stuttering. This belief often leads to covert stuttering, which is countered by being open about your stutter and stuttering whenever you feel a stutter coming up. They might be scary things to do, but soon you will realize that most people do not care about your stutter as much as you think they do. Everyone is busy with themselves.

Next to destroying the old beliefs we have, we have to install new beliefs. “I’m able to speak fluent.” and “It’s OK if I stutter.” are among the most important ones. But just thinking about them once or twice is not enough to make you really believe them.

Just as proving negative beliefs to be false, you have to prove positive beliefs to be true. Prove to yourself that there is a fluent speaker inside of you. Talk to yourself. Talk to your pets. Read out loud. Envision yourself being fluent. Get up each morning and say to yourself that you are able to speak fluent, looking back at the moments from the day before that you were fluent. Enter the conversation with a smile, knowing that it will be fine either way, fluent or not. Stop pressuring yourself into being fluent, instead focus on becoming fluent.

If you want to learn more about becoming a fluent speaker, you might want to start with our free 10 step program to Kick Start Your Fluency here.

Till next time,


3 thoughts on “Stuttering: An internal conflict

  1. Hi,
    I do not agree to 100% to your thoughts. But maybe 90% 🙂
    I am a person who stutters and I was growing up in a very “comfortable” environment. I do not remember anyone who was bothering me or making jokes about my stutter. But my parents where very “aware” of my stutter, since there are other family members who stutter. They send me soon to a speech language pathologist and further therapies. In my childish mind, I must have been thought, there is something wrong with me, that needs to be fixed. Therefore, my struggle to keep the words in my mouth…
    By the way, an interesting point for research would be: are there really genetic factors or is the stuttering problem only psychological and neurological? Maybe the risk of stuttering in adulthood is higher in families with more cases of stuttering because the family is aware of the problem and tries everything to stop it. That may be the reason for the child, to see a problem itself.

  2. This is a wonderful article that truly brings a keen awareness of some deep psychological conflicts of stuttering. Thank you for sharing.

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