Friday, January 20, 2006

Unlearning Bad Stuttering Habits

Tom Weidig of The Stuttering Brain blog recently made an entry that caught my attention and sparked my imagination. His gives an illustration using his own experiencing of unlearning a bad behavior that enabled him to swim crawl (not sure what this is) without choking while trying to breathe. He said it took some time to learn this behavior and gives a list of steps it took to overcome it. Now, he says, he no longer chokes while trying to breathe and can’t even choke if he tried. He has successfully unlearned the bad behavior…and replaced it with the good.

Tom Weidig has a very good blog and I enjoy reading it (though I wish the recent poem he published was in English, too). He gives a more cerebral look at stuttering and cites a lot of academic references. When you find that Tom is a highly-educated individual (Master's from Imperial College London and PhD in theoretical physics at Durham)'s not suprising that he comes from a researcher's perspective. Have a look at his blog if you get the opportunity.

The only flaw I see in the analogy he’s attempting with the “choking” experience is that the choking experience did not result in anything good. It didn’t reward him with success. It didn’t teach him that “choking” got him through whatever it is he was attempting. Let me give my own example and show why it’s relevant to stuttering:

Bob has trouble convincing his wife to do things on the weekend that he likes. Bob’s wife has no idea that he wants to do things other than what they are…so she is oblivious to his needs. One day, Bob gets so frustrated over wanting to do what he wants to do instead of what his wife wants…instead of simply speaking to her…he picks up a plate from the table and smashes it on the floor and says, “Damn it! I want to do what I want to do this weekend.” Naturally, Bob’s wife is completely taken by surprise…but, she sees that it’s important to him and she acquiesces to his wishes.

Two weeks later, in an unrelated event, Bob is unable to tell his wife that there is another things that is important to him. He gets so frustrated with his wife, that he smashes a cup on the kitchen floor. Bob’s wife sees how important it is to him…so she gives in to what he wants. Suddenly, without realizing it, Bob has learned a bad behavior. But one that results in something good for him. If Bob smashes things…he gets his way.

In this same way, when I, as a persistent stutterer, use certain tricks and habits to get by and to feign fluency…tricks that are used as a direct result of and in reaction to stress and fear of speaking…I am teaching myself that using these bad habits will result in something I want: fluency (though only pseudo-fluency). It’s a chain reaction.

1. I am faced with a speaking situation
2. I become stressed and fearful
3. My brain automatically looks for a “trick” to help me to speak
4. I am able to speak relatively fluently

After 30+ years of such a chain of events…30 years of doing a thing one way, based not just on a normal habit…but a habit that has developed as a direct result of fear and stress…this habit will be one that is extremely difficult to break. Ignoring everything else, I am going to have to somehow learn to disassociate fear and stress…with certain speaking situations. That would be like trying to disassociate fear with seeing a shark or a snake or a large bee that’s flying right at you. How does one accomplish this?

The habits that we, as stutterers, have to break are not just simply bad habits like forgetting to turn off a light or popping our knuckles. The habits we have to break have an emotional and psychological basis…a basis that caused the habit to appear in the first place…habits that, when employed, result in something we see as good. Breaking that sort of habit is not going to be easy.

It’s not just a matter of breaking the habit of what I’m doing…using the trick. It’s somehow finding a way to stop believing I need the trick. How does one accomplish ths?


Tom Weidig said...
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Tom Weidig said...


thx for your description of my blog

Crawl is a swimming style. I checked it on wikipedia, where they call it "front crawl".

Concerning my analogy, we need to distinguish between automatic and cognitive habits. An automatic habit is choking, looking down when you stutter, getting all tense, repeating words. Once in the situation, you comes automatically. A cognitive habit are avoiding a situation beforehand, getting someone to call for you, I cannot get this job due to my stuttering, and so on. They are done without any pressure from a situation. My analogy referred to automatic habits.

Law Student said...

Hi Tom,

Now I understand better, thanks. So, maybe the issue I am raising is a separate and unique one that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with yours.

I understand what you are saying now about the difference between automatic and cognitive habits. Makes perfect sense. Thank you.

Click Retina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Click Retina said...

i was looking for something like the need of unlearning and i found your article ! This is the best thing a one can do with bad habits.. in case if they wanna develop themselves for real ;)

Unknown said...

This is a fascinating article. I, too, am a stutterer. Have been ever since I was a young boy. I once believed that my stutter was due to genetics or a chemical unbalance (that's what I was always told/taught). However, I now believe, it is a learned behavior (as your article suggests). My automatic habits are normally fillers- at the beginning of a sentence or the middle and eye contact avoidance. My fluency comes and goes. Good days and bad days. For a long time, I allowed my disfluency to dictate my life. In my early years, I worked jobs that required little to no speaking and dropped out of college in fear of public speaking. Sadly, my story is all to common among the stuttering community. I have come a long way since, graduating college and enrolled in an MBA program and working a sales position. Although I still stutter, I always try to find ways to improve my fluency. Your article(s) are wonderful and I hope others read an understand the challenges a stutterer faces day in and day out. I once read about a gentleman that was blind and a stutterer. He was asked which disability was worse. He replied, "stuttering because it is often misunderstand." Keep up the great work!