Stuttering and the self-esteem game


Where can I buy some self-esteem? How expensive is it? Where and how is it manufactured? These questions may sound absurd but this is how most people tend to treat self-esteem: like it is a scarce resource that must be cultivated and protected with the goal in life to get as much self-esteem as possible.

Self-esteem and perceptions

Self-esteem refers to our perceptions of ourselves along with the emotions and judgements that come with it. We create defense mechanisms to protect our precious vault of self-esteem. Why does this matter? Well, if you are like me, it is directly related to how fluidly you speak. My stutter would flare up when my self-esteem was top-of-mind. Even if it wasn’t threatened, my focus would immediately check in on my self-esteem which would make me feel the need to protect whatever I had and my speech would change. It’s the old cliché of what goes up must come down; although I may have high self-esteem at times it also means that it will eventually decrease. That thought alone would start the decline. It is like two sides of a coin, high and low self-esteem comes together. The key is to transcend them both!

To start, we need to remember that self-esteem really is just a perception, it’s made up in our heads. It is a way to create a sense of certainty and security. That same black and white thinking (known as dualism) carries over to how we perceived ourselves. When those ups and downs exist, we become open to the influence of others and their opinions. Good comments and bad comments become indistinguishable; instead of good comments and bad comments, there are now just comments. Speech becomes untangled from self-esteem because, without it’s ups and downs, the whole concept of self-esteem fades away.

The dualistic mentality

So how do we get there? By being aware of our black and white mentality in everyday life. We  recognize those things that are made up and the effects that they can have. For example, we often see people as “good” or “bad” yet can be hard-pressed to find anybody who would call themselves the “bad guy”. We are all the protagonists of our own lives, and our point of view can conflict with others causing conflict and the perception of “good” and “bad”. We are all growing on our own paths. The dualistic mentality likes to label and judge people. We also place this judgement on ourselves. When we judge ourselves it can increase anxiety, and if you are like me, you stutter.

It used to happen all the time; I would get stuck on a word and feel the anxiety increase. Eventually I noticed what came right before the anxiety: judgment. I thought that the judgment was coming from the people around me who witnessed me get stuck on; eventually I came to realize that the judgment was coming from me! I perceived what I did as “bad” and this influenced how I believed others thought of me. The truth is that many people do not even notice a stutter when it first comes up; many people stumble on their words sometimes and don’t think twice about it. The self-judgment would hold me back though and I would judge myself more and more, causing a downward spiral. This spiral would leave me feeling so low that I learned to just not talk.

Getting rid of dualism

Now, what would happen if we got rid of dualism, or in this case, the concept of "good" and "bad"? The self-judgment doesn’t get a chance to even start. Instead it is replaced by curiosity and self-awareness. I may notice tension in my chest, which would allow me to do what I need to in order to relax. I can then consciously let go because there is no sense of self-esteem to protect, at least not attached to my speech. This goes for when I am speaking well too; if I have a dualistic attitude then I notice how I am doing and become afraid of the eventual decline in my speech.

Self-esteem can be treated like other forms of dualism, as we get rid of one side, the other side vanishes too. When we look through that lens, we find that instead of interactions that give or take self-esteem, there are just interactions and self-esteem becomes irrelevant.

All of this judging each other and ourselves is like a big game that most of us don’t ever realize we are playing. Once realized, we have a choice to play or not; always remembering that it is just a game. Have you ever played Monopoly with somebody who took the game way too seriously and lost sight that it is just a game? Image that Monopoly money is self-esteem and the game is called “Judging Others (and Ourselves)”. You don’t have to play if you don’t want to!

Garrett Hollman is the author of a previous article for this site called Letting Go, describing his experience of dealing with a stutter. He is a professional public speaker and lives in Calgary.