My office is a small room. Not much on the wall but a hand-painted sign with the words of Sara Bareilles:
“I wonder what would happen if you
Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave”
My stomach still does that thing. The flutter it does before I’m about to embark on something new, something unknown, something vulnerable. I don’t know why it does that because it’s been so many years. I run a finger through my hair. Look in the mirror to make sure there’s no lipstick on my teeth.
One minute to go. I take a look at who is coming in. My day is lined with consultations with new clients and meetings with regular ones. Ethan, got it.
“Hi…(long pause)...I’m Courtney...,” I say, remembering how tense my throat can get during these moments. I regain my breath after my airflow stopped.
“So, what brings you in today?”
He shares with me a story of struggle. A story of not being able to say what he desperately wants to say, a story created by a brick wall standing in front of him, with no way to get out. It’s a story of vulnerability, of shame, and of hiding. Tears stream down his face. I begin to realize that this is the first time he has really opened up.
He looked at me curiously and asked for my permission to ask me a question.
“So, uh how did you get to where you are?”
How did I get here? I look down at my feet, and around the room, and realize indeed, I’m on the other side of the table. For a second, the grueling journey became a brief moment in time, a view from the top, quickly forgetting what the climb was like.
But after a moment, I remember.
The hike begins with self-disclosure
Before I start, I just wanted to let you know that I stutter, so if you hear any pauses or disfluencies that’s what’s happening.
That’s my script. I say it several times a week as I meet new clients, hold meetings with colleagues, and talk with parents. It’s vulnerable, scary, and uncomfortable, but it’s incredibly freeing. That simple statement gives me permission to be myself. My tension associated with communication dissipates, allowing me to focus on what I’m saying, not how I’m saying it. I no longer get caught up in what others could be thinking—Do they know what’s going on? Do they think I’m incompetent?
I first learned about self-disclosure in my intensive stuttering program. A valuable technique in stuttering treatment, I believe it can also be applied to other communication disorders and differences. Here are some things I’ve heard from clients who don’t stutter:
I avoid words that start with s
I don’t speak up because I might lose my train of thought
I don’t want people to think I’m weird if I say something inappropriate
I avoid making phone calls at all costs
Self-disclosure is acknowledging the elephant in the room. Clarification can lead to empowerment and empowerment can lead to action. Lack of self-disclosure can trigger some interesting and/or traumatizing reactions. I have encountered all of these before, some multiple times.
“Do you have to sneeze?”
“You paused for a long time”
“The look” accompanied by uncomfortable laughter
People hiding their laughing faces in their arms
People hiding their laughing faces in their food
“Did you forget your name?”
“Are you ok?”
“Are you sure?”
“HELLO, HELLO, HELLOOOOOOOO?”
“You seem really nervous”
My favorite reaction is the girl at the party who turned to her friends after I left and said “WHAT WAS THAT?” while hysterically laughing in reaction to a long block I had while leaving. What she didn’t realize was that I could hear her all the way down the apartment hall on my way to the elevator. I stopped, saddled up, and went back in to self-disclose. She felt really bad, apologized several times, and probably will never react like that again to a person who stutters.
When you self-disclose, you’re in control. You determine how you want to be perceived. After I self-disclose, 95% of the time, I get an “okay, that’s fine”, a simple nod, or “sounds good.” I’m comfortable with it, they’re comfortable with it, the way I speak is just another thing about me like having brown hair or being female. Occasionally, I’ll get cool comments like “that’s okay, that makes you human” or “that’s cool, my dad stutters.”
Self-disclosure isn’t for everyone and it’s not perfect. There can absolutely be a stigma, a judgment, that’s tied to being a person who stutters, but there can also be a judgment that’s associated with posing as a fluent person who is nervous, unsure, or not confident.
The journey is fueled by courage
I’ve always hated my name, Courtney. I wished I was named Claire. It was the Cour I didn’t like. My face tensed up, my head shook, my eyes closed, and my body sank. I am a failure. Tyler was right in 8th grade: I’m just the girl who can never say her own name.
I remember it so vividly. We never really forget those moments. I have clients in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s, frequently reflect on something a classmate did or said years ago. From a quiet snicker signifying that you are lesser, laughable, to a class bully who’s relentless in their reminders that there is something wrong with the way you talk.
To be honest, I would’ve hated my name no matter what it was. To be nameless, invisible, mute, would’ve been better than having a name.
The way you feel about your name says a lot about your self-worth. For many years, my name defined me. When I went to introduce myself and stuttered on my name, the first thing people thought was “What’s wrong with this girl?” or “Did she forget her name?” and the first thing I felt was shame and embarrassment. I always wanted to be someone else—the popular kid in school, the character on the TV show, or that beautiful friend of my sisters.
At 30, I love my name. Court: The ball is in your court. Courting: Doing something with this ball, embracing it, welcoming it, and seeing it as a gift. So now, I know who I am and I think my name reflects myself perfectly. I am persistent, strong-minded, and self-willed. I am a rational dreamer—I believe in what I want and I find a way to get there.
The word cor is Latin for heart. Courage comes from Corage, or to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.
My job requires talking—all...day...long. Growing up, I wanted a job that didn’t require any talking (spoiler alert: this doesn’t exist). I would avoid every single thing I possibly could where I would have to talk.
Today, I live in the opposite way. I take opportunities as they come: call instead of text, volunteer to give a presentation, or record a video with stuttering instead of recording it until I don’t stutter. If I don’t talk for a while or if I find myself avoiding, my stuttering intensifies.
Courage ain’t easy, but I promise it’s worth it. I got to where I am by doing that thing I didn’t want to do—over and over and over and over again. There’s a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that I live by:
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.' You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
What’s that thing you cannot do? Have you ever said it out loud before? If you are ready to take the next step on your journey with a speech or language disorder and speak openly with others who understand, check out our social communication therapy or stuttering group. These are both great places to practice self-disclosure!