Stoic advice: I stutter, and I hate myself for it

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

G. wrote: I suffer from chronic stuttering which makes communication with others quite difficult. When I am around friends and family members I have no problem. But when I have to talk to a stranger (especially on the phone), anxiety starts to build itself, and I find myself suffering by the block. I have done six years of speech therapy and the progress I made was remarkable. So the problem is not stuttering, but my anxiety. I can’t afford professional psychological treatment and so I struggle with my problem alone having as my personal therapists Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. I have tried the exposure method by ordering food, but almost every time my stuttering becomes heavy during the call, and I find myself with shortness of breath and increased heart rate. The experience every time is so awful that I ended up in the shelter of avoidance, which of course makes things worse. I understand that the problem is my attachment to the way other people see me and that the right way to interpret a stuttering block is as something indifferent, because I have no control over my stuttering. So I blame myself for not having the courage to pick up the phone and practice, which feels awful. Theoretically I know that there is nothing to fear, but as far as the practice is concerned I am a great coward. And all this self-hatred makes me miserable and takes from me a precious gift as Seneca puts it on The Shortness Of Life, namely time. Last but not least, I would like after my graduation from the university to go and work abroad, but the idea of speaking another language (English for instance) terrifies me, because my stuttering becomes far far worse. So I must do something for this.

Seems to me the thing you need to focus now is your self-hatred. Stoicism is a philosophy of acceptance of imperfection, both in others and in ourselves. Here is Epictetus:

“An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself.” (Enchiridion 5)

Here is how I see the situation, from what you describe. First off, you have actually made progress, so it would be good if you keep reminding yourself of that and take comfort in it.

Second, you would like to make more progress, for which, however, you would probably need therapy that focuses not on the stuttering per se, as you say, but on your anxiety. Unfortunately, at the moment at least, you cannot afford that sort of help. Accept, therefore, that this is where you are in your life, but also remind yourself that it may change. In a few years you may be embarked on a career that is remunerative enough that you will be able to afford further care and resume improving.

Third, you have obviously given a lot of thought to Stoic precepts, reading the sources, trying to follow their advise, and practicing some of the pertinent exercises. This has not worked to your satisfaction. Accept the fact that Stoicism is a philosophy of life that comes with a number of handy mental tricks, but it isn’t a magic wand. Even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one of several evidence-based psychotherapies, has far from a 100% success rate. Remember that a Stoic focuses on the internal goal of doing his best, not on the external one of actually achieving a particular outcome. Of course, the two are correlated, but again that correlation is far from perfect. Recall Cicero on this:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’”(De Finibus, III.22)

So, no, you are not a coward. Far from it. You have had the courage to take on your condition and trying to do something about it. You made valiant efforts, and a lot of progress. But you have not achieved all your goals. That is okay. The next question is how to move forward.

You say that you would like to go abroad, but your stuttering gets worse when you try to speak a foreign language. Can you perhaps try this out for a brief period? For instance by getting a summer job and only spending 2-3 months abroad, see whether you can adapt to the new situation. I remember when I first came to the US, back in 1990 (!!), I was plenty anxious when I had to speak, because my command of the written language was good, but speaking is a whole different matter. I didn’t have the stutter to deal with, but the anxiety was sufficiently problematic in itself. The winning move was to buy a television and watch several hours every night, until my brain flipped a switch: I started dreaming in English, and suddenly my comprehension and speech were much better. Of course, it may have ended up very differently, my adventure might have failed, and I would have had to come back home, admitting defeat with respect to my dreams of an academic career. I did not have the benefit of Stoic philosophy then, but a Stoic would say that I would have been fine nonetheless, since I sincerely made my best effort, which is the only part that is truly up to me.

Or — as I was hinting at above — perhaps you can postpone your move by a few years, get yourself a good job, make some money and get back to therapy, this time focusing on your anxiety. Obviously, I would lean toward CBT, of course, given its roots in Stoic techniques. You may then feel that you have gotten enough of a grip on the problem to embark on your foreign adventure.

Seneca says: “No matter what trouble you mention, it has happened to many.” (CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 5), so have you tried online or local support groups for people that have problems similar to yours? This will both help you put things in perspective (as Seneca points out, you are unlikely to be the only one facing this issue), as well as perhaps provide you with practical pointers from people who have made further progress.

But even if none of the above works, you are not a coward. You are just a human being with a condition that he did not ask for nor cause, and who is trying to do his best to overcome that condition, or at least live the best life he can given the situation. That takes courage.

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3 replies

  1. Great advice for a full range of personal imperfections. Thank you, Massimo.

    “Seems to me the thing you need to focus now is your self-hatred. Stoicism is a philosophy of acceptance of imperfection, both in others and in ourselves. Here is Epictetus:”

    An ignorant person is inclined to blame others for his own misfortune. To blame oneself is proof of progress. But the wise man never has to blame another or himself. (Enchiridion 5)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Massimo,

    Great post, I just have one more piece of wisdom from Epictetus that might be of use to G.

    “Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint.” (Epictetus, Book II.18)

    G should talk more and he will naturally become better at it in time. Also keeping in mind that “Limiting one’s desires actually helps cure one of fear” will surely help him with the anxiety.

    Best of luck to him!

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  3. I second the idea of stepping back and looking for some CBT counseling. It’s clear that there are underlying perceptions and associations at work in this anxiety–you “know” that you will stutter in a situation, and you believe it is awful to do it, so you anticipate it, and thus it appears, and you naturally react to how awful it is. There are books on CBT that might help you uncover the assumptions you are making about the awfulness of making mistakes when talking to strangers. CBT can help you recognize that you are a) fallible and will make mistakes; and b) human, no less so than anyone else, so mistakes are very much okay. Nobody is perfect, and trying to be so is what generates much of the anxiety you feel. Laugh at your mistakes, and move on.

    Also, as the previous commenter notes, practice can help. Consider recording yourself reading a script, as if for a podcast. Practice until you get comfortable with that. Then try reading interspersed with unrehearsed comments about what you are reading, then move on to perhaps commenting on a picture without any script at all. At first, just focus on reading the script. Eventually, start imagining a listener–a friend or family member at first, then a stranger. Work your way up to perhaps asking an acquaintance (not too close) to listen while you read. Etc. If you do want to go to another country, continue this process with your intended new language. Get adept at speaking the language to the microphone, then to a friend, whether they understand or not, then perhaps to a stranger who can respond in the same language. All the while, remember that mistakes are human and you have as much right as anyone to make them without feeling awful. Keep at it. You can do this.

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