BSA leaflets for adults

Interiorised stammering (BSA leaflet)

Features of 'Interiorised Stammering' (also known as 'Covert Stammering')

Someone with an 'interiorised' stammer will usually have...

  • high levels of fluency
  • high levels of avoidance - this can include avoidance of words, speaking or situations
  • strong negative feelings about stammering.

Someone with an 'interiorised' stammer will often...

  • conceal the fact that they stammer
  • live with anxiety that people will find out they stammer
  • have very few people in their life that know they stammer
  • have feelings of secrecy and shame about their stammer
  • often search ahead in their mind for potentially difficult sounds
  • often substitute feared words for others that are easier to say
  • sometimes internally rehearse speech over and over.

If you can identify with a number of these characteristics then please read on.

Some people's stammering is more on the inside (covert) than on the outside (overt).

Examples of interiorised stammering

  • You may habitually hesitate before you say your name.
  • You may hold back from ordering drinks at the bar, or decide to suddenly change your mind at the last minute to order something you can say more easily.

"Interiorising the stammer, developing extensive strategies for maintaining the overt fluency, meant that I'm pretty sure that even my family were largely unaware of the problem that I knew I had. Living with this secret was a nightmare. The constant hiding and fear of being found out caused many problems."

"It has always been predominantly an internal struggle, a struggle of will, of developing an ever changing array of tactics, 'tricks' by which overt stammering could be avoided."

Stammering is like an iceberg...

Joseph Sheehan, an eminent speech and language therapist from the USA, who stammered himself, has described some people's stammering to be like an iceberg:

"The part above the surface, the part that people see and hear, is really the smaller part. By far the larger part is the part underneath, the shame, the fear, the guilt, all those other feelings that we have when we try and speak a simple sentence and can't. Like me you have probably tried to keep as much of that iceberg under the surface as possible...."  

In interiorised stammering the part of the iceberg above the waterline is often very small so that others may not be aware you stammer at all. The majority of the stammering is below the surface and is made up of negative thoughts, feelings and avoidances, such as the ones listed in the image below.

Overt stammering (what people can see, above the surface)

  • Obvious blocks, repetitions and prolongations.

Covert aspects of stammering (under the surface) 

May include hidden negative feelings, such as:

  • fear
  • shame
  • humiliation
  • embarrassment
  • anxiety
  • frustration.

These can lead to changes in behaviour in an attempt to hide stammering, such as:

  • avoidance of talking
  • avoidance of certain situations, such as making phone calls or attending meetings
  • substituting words or changing words at the last minute.

Some people's stammering is more underneath the surface so that others may not be aware you stammer at all.

What you can do

Because interiorised stammering is more or less successfully hidden from others it can be hard for others to know or understand how you are feeling on the inside. When you tell people about your stammer they may say e.g., "Oh don't worry about it, I would never have known!" This may imply to you that you don't really have a problem at all and may make you feel you are just making a fuss. In extreme cases you may have been so 'successful' in your hiding that in fact you are not believed for having a stammer at all. This can feel hurtful and frustrating. Of course, an important part of you is not being seen.

Because your stammer is more hidden it is not less of a problem but a different sort of problem.

There is help available for you. There are people who understand exactly what you are feeling.

"Pretending you don't have a stammer stands in the way of personal development; you cannot get help for something you don't outwardly admit to. I am 37 years-old and have only now decided that I need to stop this charade and get help for my stammer. By not being honest and getting help earlier, what opportunities have been lost by interiorising?"

Speech and language therapists are well aware how strong the feelings associated with interiorised stammering can be and how these can affect the choices you make in your life. It is possible to make real changes by facing these fearful feelings and therapy can be liberating.

"Before therapy, there were considerable costs of hiding my stammering. I wasted huge amounts of energy and mental resources concentrating on 'how I said' things, rather than 'what I said'. This impacted on the quality of my communication. My emotional communication was also compromised. While I kept my smile going, habitually suppressing all my negative feelings (internally the world was collapsing around me), my emotional health and sense of well-being was badly affected."

"Therapy helped me see that the habit of hiding the stammer, not the stammer itself, has been the biggest problem in my life. It's such a freedom to feel it no longer matters to the same extent whether I happen to stammer from time to time. It no longer feels like the end of the world!"

Contact your local speech and language therapist for an appointment.

Further details from British Stammering Association.
Information and Support Service

September 2018