The other day I caught a segment on NPR where someone shared his experiences with severe stuttering. We didn’t turn on the radio until partway through however and I didn’t catch his name or the name of the segment. He shared about his childhood experiences in school, where he went through several painful years of being unable to connect with others or express himself to others. Even though his handicap was different, I completely identified with his experience in so many ways.
I think he was in his late teens or early 20s (I’m not sure) when he tried a new intensive treatment approach that worked. His stuttering went away, even though he has to always focus especially hard while speaking. He believed everything would change after this. He could be who he wanted to be, be the way he had always wanted to be with others.
I wish I could quote directly what he said at this point but I don’t remember it verbatim. He said that it was not what he expected. Essentially he had been so shaped by his early experiences that he still felt like the outsider, the boy with the stutter, regardless of his new ability to speak. This hit me as a fundamentally true insight and suddenly I was made conscious of an underlying belief I’ve always had. If there was a miracle operation or new technology that could actually restore hearing (or if I became fluent in ASL and joined others who use ASL), I believed I would automatically have the ability and comfort level to freely join in conversations and express myself, not to mention feel an overall new level of confidence and contentment.
I had never considered that, even if I could easily hear and overhear others or communicate in general without extra effort, something would still get in the way. For better or worse, I am profoundly shaped by growing up with hearing loss that resulted in experiences where I frequently felt left out and inadequate as a person.
This makes me think of how powerful those childhood and adolescent experiences really are. In fact, so many of us spend our adulthood trying to recover or compensate. We create the appearances we want, we strive for the degrees and career successes that we want to define us. We do this to the point where how we appear to others is very different from how we still feel on the inside. A great example is the woman with a perfect body who still feels like the overweight girl she was in junior high and so she obsessively diets, exercises, etc and no one can understand why she’s so preoccupied with it.
Inside, many of us still feel like the lost child, the outsider, the child made deeply insecure by critical parents or traumatized by a dysfunctional family or a host of other potential factors that defined our experience when we were growing up. Even if there is no one experience we could identify as the culprit, many of us have an internal critic that undermines us.
Essentially what this man on NPR proved is that at a certain point even fixing the original problem or source isn’t going to change one’s internal experience. Instead we have to change those ingrained beliefs and thought processes that developed during the most formative years of our lives. No matter how much we focus on outside appearances and props, we may fool others or be temporarily gratified but we would continue to go through life feeling all too easily threatened by certain triggers, overly focused on appearance and/or awfully anxious in general. Internal work must be done for us to truly feel at peace.
I suppose it is important to not only change our thoughts and beliefs but also recognize that WE are not our thoughts. Or our job or our hairdo or our kids. Our thoughts and beliefs are ingrained internal chatter that we can step back from and observe and transcend. The more we practice, the better we will get. Each moment- right now this very second!- is an opportunity to do it.
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