Can self-compassion and psychological flexibility help people who stammer counteract self-criticism? How my personal experience inspired a research study

Up until my early twenties I strongly believed that stammering was a deficiency that I had to hide at all costs. Whenever a situation arose where I could not avoid stammering, I would internally berate myself and feel a distressing sense of shame. Thoughts like “why couldn’t I have just stayed calmer and spoken more fluently?” would rush into my mind.

When I started full time work in financial services, the frequency of difficult situations hit a critical threshold. If I wasn’t enduring what I then perceived as an embarrassing speaking situation, I was worrying about when the next one would arise. I went looking for help.

I was fortunate enough to come across a weeklong intensive speech therapy course at City Lit and I enrolled. It was at this point that I learnt that my methods of coping, through avoidance and resistance, were in fact fuelling my feelings of shame and anxiety, rather than helping me evade them. I set out with a fresh vision of how I could make my future brighter. Avoidance was now the enemy, and it had to be stopped. However, I quickly established that making a rapid change to behaviours that were deeply embedded was very difficult. I would instruct myself “do not avoid in this meeting with your boss” but, when the pressure was on, avoidance reasserted itself.

Self-critical thoughts returned with a vengeance. This time not focussed on hiding my stammer, but on me being a ‘wimp’ each time I used avoidance. Although the contents of these thoughts were novel, they were still leaving me with feelings of failure and shame. It felt as if I was constantly testing myself and coming up short. I was falling back into the same trap I was in before.

When I initially heard about formal practices to cultivate self-compassion, I was highly sceptical. I had been drilled to be highly competitive and critical of my flaws, in line with a large proportion of my peers. However, as I started to practice mindfulness and meditations involving a focus on self-compassion, I noticed a gradual shift as I began to treat myself more kindly.

At this point, I also became interested in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) after attending another course at City Lit. ACT is an empirically based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies along with commitment and behavior-change strategies to increase psychological flexibility.  ACT helped me increase my own psychological flexibility and allowed me to connect with my values, whilst accepting difficult feelings that may come in their pursuit.

After clarifying my values, I used the tools that I had learnt from ACT and self-compassion exercises to take a leap of faith and leave my secure financial services role for the uncertainty of a career in psychology. I continue working to accept the fears that I have around stammering in the field of psychology. I am willing to experience these in pursuit of my long-term goal of helping people who stammer to live in the ways they choose and to embrace stammering as a valuable difference.

I strongly believe that the combination of these two approaches has helped me escape the trap of self-criticism and allowed me to follow a path that aligns to my values, no matter how difficult it may be.

This personal experience has fuelled my research interest in psychological flexibility and self-compassion. I am currently doing a research project aiming to assess how these two factors are related with quality of life in adults who stammer. This research has the potential to provide empirical support for approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion focussed therapy for people who stammer. I think this research into self-compassion in people who stammer is particularly important because of the high levels of self-criticism that studies have shown that we endure. This does not surprise me given my personal experience. Therefore, I hope that this study could help to inform future interventions and help people who stammer live a fulfilling life where they live closely to their values and treat themselves kindly.

I would be incredibly grateful to anyone who would like to support my study. The survey is online and takes 15-20 minutes. No personally identifying information is taken so anonymity is retained at all stages. If you have any questions before completing the survey, please do not hesitate to ask me.

Ben Farmer
Mobile: 07801836395