I take it for granted.
I have no shame anymore. I can walk into every situation and disclose that I stutter without regard for the response.
I’m not arrogant. I’m honoring the journey that it took to get here. Self-disclosure is not unique to stuttering but an invaluable skill that we must learn to attain social competency. But, when learned early in life, like in the case of having to disclose stuttering, it can be the key that unlocks a superhuman ability to connect with others.
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel of neurodiverse employees seeking to improve the hiring process at work. The aim was to inform the hiring staff of important aspects of the process that maybe challenging for neurodiverse applicants. However, it quickly became apparent that it was more so about how to self-disclose your difference when your livelihood is at stake.
I didn’t like the tone of the conversation. The three other panelists were new to their differences in which they had very little experience with disclosure. No disrespect intended here, but living over thirty years with stuttering is much different.
The story I told, which I wrote about last year here, recounted an unfortunate interview in which self-disclosure did not work, despite repeatedly disclosing and receiving a reasonable accommodation. I shared how I was forced to learn how to self-disclose at a young age because of experiences like that very situation—to avoid discrimination.
I ended with a plea for change, “If someone is choosing to reveal something very personal about themselves, then listen and lead them through it with compassion. Just be a human.”
When I step out of the stuttering world and into other difference communities or the general public, I’ve found that those of us who stutter are better equipped to self-disclose. This reality punched me in the gut afterwards, reminding me that disclosure is far from intuitive and is something most people just don’t like to do. So, it got me thinking why that is the case.
What is self-disclosure?
To disclose is to make known something once hidden. We are choosing to reveal a part of ourselves that carries shame, triggers a part of our identity we want to conceal, or causes us pain, whether cognitive, emotional, or physical.
Understanding self-disclosure is critical because hiding our stutter is what perpetuates its debilitating and inescapable nature. Learning to disclose your stutter or difference is a fundamental skill that propels you into self-acceptance.
In stuttering, disclosure is taught as almost a cliché part of fluency shaping speech therapy, and can have the opposite effect, further traumatizing those of us who stutter. That happened to me. I wasn’t ready to be told how and when to disclose my stutter to others. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was already starting to learn despite stubbornly refusing to do so in therapy.
Here is how I learned to disclose and the impact it has had on changing how I stutter.
I learned to disclose my stutter by standing alongside my mom as a young boy, listening and watching attentively to her requests to my teachers to excuse me from class participation. Since I started stuttering as I entered school, she did it with each new teacher to protect me from anything bad happening. While she may have been teaching me to avoid and opt out of my social development, she was laying the groundwork for getting me to eventually do it on my own.
What budding teenage boy wants their mom in their middle school classroom? And so, 11 year-old-me went at it alone. The wait for each class to end was horrifying, because I had multiple class periods in middle school. The walk of shame to the teacher’s desk. The long block on my name. And, on many occasions, the blackouts until I could escape the moments to the safety of the bustling hallways in between classes.
These were trauma-inducing experiences that I had to do many times to avoid class participation, which I did until I graduated college. For ten years, the trauma of self-disclosing was what I had to endure to avoid stuttering in public. Ten years of practicing how to induce trauma upon myself. And I didn’t even know then that what I was doing was making my stuttering worse.
But, it wasn’t for nothing. I was greasing the skids, as they say, for when I was ready to disclose to my advantage.
I wasn’t ready to disclose until twenty-six years old. It was hard. Self-disclosing to not opt out of stuttering was awkward, and usually without knowing what I would say. I’d say to myself, “okay, I’m going to tell this person I stutter” and then hop on for the ride to see what happens. And I just kept disclosing whenever the opportunities presented themselves.
Some of the opportunities I unintentionally created for myself. Online dating turned into the gift that to this day keeps on giving. The swipe right-left culture of the modern dating scene launched me into a series of first dates in which I had to learn how to carry on small talk with a stranger. I learned almost immediately that I needed a story that described me and my life. My journey through stuttering became my secret weapon.
Storytelling is the purest form of self-disclosure—raw, vulnerable, and character-enhancing. With each online date, I wore away the hesitance of telling the honest story of how stuttering had influenced who I had become. While I never got or pursued a second date, I had an authentic and engaging story that revealed all of me.
This story and the time I spent learning to tell it would become what prepared me for the chance meeting and whirlwind courtship of my soul mate—and now wife—not long after learning how to use self-disclosure to connect with others.
We must ask ourselves two important questions: why are we self-disclosing? and who is the disclosure for? As I mentioned, I had been disclosing my stutter to opt out of social interactions in which I might receive negative feedback. Self-disclosure was self-defense. In time, it transitioned to a skill I used to connect with others, a social proof to opt into communication. Thus, our intention behind each moment of disclosure is vital.
Why are we doing it? Because we want to connect with our audience, instead of hiding from them. “Sorry, I just stutter…” Disclosure is also not an apology. There is no reason to apologize despite how the side effects of stuttering can make us feel.
Connection is the desired outcome.
I didn’t learn about the intent behind self-disclosure until I started Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering even though mine had already started transitioning. But, once I did, I couldn’t stop noticing it each time I went to disclose. It changed my perspective, when I was willing to disclose, and the actual words I used.
When I was making these proactive choices to disclose, I was disclosing for me. It gave me permission to stutter, allowing me to shed the ruminating thoughts about what my audience might be thinking about the way I talk. These spiraling thoughts and our reactions to them inhibit the connections we need to have healthy social interactions. By this I mean, I am exchanging the “hurry up and get out of this conversation before they notice my stuttering…” for “well, here is a great opportunity to face my fear and disclose that I stutter. I’d really enjoy connecting with them.” This clearing of the noise is what allows you to connect, and with that connection pulls the audience into a mutual desire to be present in the moment.
My outward display of vulnerability is what develops the connection. In the beginning of disclosing for connection, I had to make myself comfortable in the situations in which my livelihood was on the line, such as job interviews, presentations at work, or on first dates. I tried different phrasing. I made some situations more awkward than if I didn’t disclose at all. And, I began to see and hear others’ reactions as they heard me disclose without blocking them out.
Most people don’t say anything at all because they are caught off guard by the abrupt revelation. “Yeah, yeah, no problem…take your time.” But, those who accept your invitation to connect after such a vulnerable moment show you why it’s worth the risk. Here is a sampling of some the memorable responses:
- “So, when you stutter…is it like your thoughts are all mixed up in your head and you’re just having trouble saying them?” Ignorant, yet innocent. This moment turned into one of the deepest conversations about stuttering I have ever had, in an interview for a job I got.
- “You’re up there stuttering without a care in the world. The least I could do was come up to you afterwards and ask you what it’s like.” I spoke with this gentleman at work for thirty minutes about how stuttering was the reason for most of my professional success.
- “My Father Stuttered” You can read this story of how I made a grown man cry through my willingness to disclose in a public speaking class.
- “My daughter is autistic and we’re trying to teach her to advocate for herself just like you did here today. Glad to see stuttering isn’t stopping you.” I ended up going to dinner with this man after chatting a bit, and shared much of what I’m writing about here on my journey through self-disclosure.
Okay, so maybe I lied. On the surface, we disclose for others but what we’re really doing is clearing our path so we can stutter without hesitation.
Types of Self-Disclosure
Most are familiar with the direct approach, “I stutter, it’s how I talk…I made need a little more time.” This requires many repetitions in a variety of situations to grow comfortable disclosing that which you would rather not. There is no shortcut. It is a learned behavior and skill to master.
The indirect approach is openly stuttering with confidence. This is the passive form of self-disclosure that I use most often. You empower the audience to be okay with stuttering with your presence. If I’m fine with it, then you should be too.
However, at the outset of learning to disclose, a direct approach is needed to alleviate the fear and hesitation that accompanies it. After years and years of practice, you get to choose. And even then, it becomes a personal feel for when you should disclose, unless your livelihood is on the line.
Not until you are well into self-acceptance can you recognize the holistic impact your ability to disclose your stuttering has had on your journey. After you’re looking back on your social development can you see that’s what each disclosure was doing for you. Developing your social skills that stuttering denied you during your formative years.
This is what learning how to self-disclose does for you:
- Hard Conversations: Think about what you’re doing when you disclose. You’re telling someone that you stutter. Nothing else compares to the amount of fear faced and courage—yes, it takes courage—expended to willingly disclose, aside from maybe using the old-fashioned way of trying to get a date by meeting someone in real life.
- Healing Trauma: Self-disclosure induces a traumatic reaction within us, changing our physiology forever. Repeatedly choosing to disclose lessens the traumatic impact and, in time, allows us to recover faster and go about our business sooner after we disclose.
- Difference: Without disclosing, stuttering is open for interpretation, or stigma. With a well-oiled disclosure, stuttering becomes just another part of who we are. This profound realization causes you to see how everyone is hiding their own difference. Another reality that you can’t not see or hear once you do.
- Self-Confidence: It can feel like a superpower when “I just stutter” rolls off of your tongue without batting an eye. If that becomes the case, then everything that is humanly possible in within reach. I’m still very much an introvert, but being able to nonchalantly disclose without a defensive reaction has changed my entire social presence.
- Allies: I’ve said this before: you don’t have to go at it alone. When you’re learning, bring a parent, sibling, friend, spouse, co-worker, teacher, or anyone who is willing to endure the whatever may happen. You cannot spell ally without the al from alongside. And secretly, the asking for them to come along is a disclosure in what is typically a safe, low-feared interaction, giving you added confidence.
Did you notice as you were reading that you could easily replace the theme of disclosing stuttering with any other difference? I didn’t until now, but I had started writing with that intention and forgot.
One of the other panelists admitted that the disclosure of his anxiety disorder was the first time he was doing so at work. I heard and saw how hard it was for him to tell his story as he fumbled with a few index cards. I am not making fun of him. I am reinforcing the reality that self-disclosure is not a natural act, nor is it intuitive. I was smiling as he said it was his first time because I know what it will do for him. It will be life-changing.
Starting to disclose as a means to opt into your life and generate connections is one of the most powerful catalysts of change anyone can choose to do.
See self-disclosure for what it can be—an invitation to connect on a deep and vulnerable level.
“Hi, I’m Chris and I stutter.”