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How avoiding avoidance transformed my stammer

Alan Badmington | 01.12.2013

By Alan Badmington

Having commenced stammering in early childhood, I developed a wide range of strategies to protect myself from shame and embarrassment. I began avoiding words that appeared to cause me difficulty. Almost unconsciously, I substituted them with others that I felt more confident in using.

I became a 'walking thesaurus’, developing the expertise to provide an extensive array of synonyms whenever a 'difficult' word loomed large on the horizon. This, generally, concealed the true impact of my struggles.

In 2000, someone made me aware of the immense implications of such a practice. I had previously been oblivious to the fact that whenever I changed a word I fuelled my fear of saying that word. Each time we avoid something, we strengthen its influence over us. Although I had been using avoidance strategies for many years, it was only when I closely scrutinised my behaviours that I realised just how widespread they had become. It was enlightening (and in some ways frightening) to discover the extent to which avoidance had crept insidiously into my life.

Reversing the adverse dialogue

I immediately adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards all kinds of avoidance. I vowed that I would never again substitute a word, nor shirk the challenge of any speaking situation.

In common with many other persons who stammer, I found my name to be particularly challenging and would only use it when absolutely necessary. I addressed this issue by routinely introducing my name into everyday conversations, even when it may have appeared inappropriate. I would simply slip it into exchanges when there was little pressure, particularly in the company of friends and family. Having also decided to be more open about my stammer, I would sometimes take the opportunity to explain my actions.

“We don’t change anything by retaining the status quo.”

After a while, I found that my name presented fewer problems. Each time I uttered it, a heartening message was transmitted to my subconscious announcing, ‘You’ve just said Alan Badmington.’ Throughout my life, the same little voice had constantly reminded me of the dire consequences of identifying myself. By reversing the adverse dialogue that I had been having with my inner critic, I eventually convinced myself that I could say that extremely personal combination of words.

The thoughts that occupy our minds prior to engaging in a speaking situation are hugely significant. What we believe about ourselves, as well as the manner in which we perceive the environment/listener will, undoubtedly, influence our approach and expectations. It will almost certainly have a considerable impact upon the outcome. If we anticipate a negative scenario, we prepare ourselves for that eventuality. But when we believe that things are possible, they are more likely to occur.

In addition, I began answering the ‘dreaded’ telephone with my name. When it rang, I would pick it up and immediately say "Alan Badmington", intentionally avoiding the easier option of including a preamble. I wanted to confront my fears head-on.

While attending my first BSA Conference in 2001, I raised a few eyebrows when I removed the typed insert from the official lapel badge and replaced it with the following handwritten message: ‘Please ask me my name, I enjoy a challenge’.

Today, having consistently demonstrated that I can say my name in any situation, I have no fear whatsoever about introducing myself. However, had I persevered with avoidance, my long-established disempowering beliefs and limited self-image would have continued to impose their restrictions.

Tackling ‘stammering on the inside’

I also adopted a similarly proactive approach in respect of other letters and sounds that held an emotional charge. Each day, I would call toll-free numbers, creating fictitious enquiries in which I would purposely use words starting with ‘challenging’ letters.

I rang hotels and restaurants, reserving tables and rooms in the name of Alan Badmington. I would call back later to cancel the booking. I also approached total strangers in the street and requested directions to locations that I perceived would be difficult to say.

Not surprisingly, I felt apprehensive when I initially embarked upon my more expansive lifestyle. But, as my past behaviours were not serving me well, I knew that I had to do something different. We don’t change anything by retaining the status quo. I viewed my word substitutions as ‘stammering on the inside’ and felt that I needed to bring the matter out into the open in order to resolve the issue.

Within a relatively short period of time, the discomfort was replaced by a feeling of excitement. There are no longer any words, letters or sounds of which I am fearful.

I fully appreciate (and respect) that not everyone who stammers would wish to emulate my actions. Each of us is responsible for the paths that we choose to tread. The decisions we make are personal and, invariably, relevant to our own unique circumstances. My stance against avoidance seemed appropriate for me at that particular time in my life. However, the concept that we may need to experience pain in order to achieve gain can be difficult for some to accept. Those who have a desire to address their avoidance issues but view a zero-tolerance approach as too daunting might wish to consider exploring a less challenging route.

It is important that we do not reproach ourselves should we resort to avoidance. It is NOT a crime. I leaned heavily upon such strategies for more than half a century – it was the only way in which I knew how to cope. Many people avoid doing things that generate fear or discomfort – such behaviours are NOT exclusive to those who stammer.

Liberation

I’ve heard it said that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’.  Well, I have certainly found that to be true. A lifetime of word substitution has equipped me with an extensive and varied vocabulary. Yet, for so many years, I only enlisted its full services when I had occasion to write.

Transferring my thoughts to paper was, generally, the only effective way in which I could meaningfully express myself. The written option allowed me to communicate exactly what I wanted to say. I could select the most suitable words without experiencing the usual emotions associated with stammering.

In complete contrast, past oral exchanges were frequently littered with words that I considered to be inferior. My mind was constantly in turmoil as it frantically searched for synonyms to replace those words that I feared. I purposely succumbed to mediocrity (and accepted second best) simply because of my desire not to be seen or heard stammering.

Today, having eliminated avoidances, I no longer differentiate between written and spoken occasions. I now pluck whatever words I wish from the extremities of my vocabulary and say them without anticipatory fear. It is truly liberating!

Having discovered (rather late in life) that the human voice is such a wondrous thing, I now look forward to using it at every possible opportunity. After years of frustration and under-achievement, I am finally participating widely on life’s stage.

Alan Badmington is a retired police officer and highly successful public speaker, winning numerous trophies and appearing as a finalist in the Association of Speakers Clubs public speaking championship.

From Speaking Out Winter 2013 p14-15.