Our Favorite Stuttering Metaphors

September 13, 2021
Margaret Miller, M.A., CCC-SLP
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From the tip of the iceberg to the core of the onion, the stuttering community uses metaphors to make sense of a complicated, paradoxical phenomenon. Here we highlight some of our favorites. Check back regularly for new additions - and head over to our Facebook page to share your favorite stuttering metaphors!

stuttering is an iceberg quote

The Stuttering Iceberg

Ah, our old friend the stuttering iceberg. Dr. Joseph Sheehan’s metaphor for stuttering dates back to 1970 and is still one of the most common metaphors associated with stuttering today. The mighty iceberg allows us to look beyond the surface of stuttering to what lurks in the waters beneath.

Stuttering iceberg overview
A stuttering iceberg diagram created by AIS clients

Only a small portion of an iceberg shows above the water. In the stuttering metaphor, this above-the-water portion represents the things that are visible to others: physical movements, the sounds you hear, the way someone behaves while stuttering.

What about the invisible, underwater part? The part that sank the Titanic? That refers to everything you don’t see when someone stutters. It includes all the emotions someone feels about stuttering, whether it’s fear or frustration or embarrassment. It also includes the choices made behind the scenes: choices to change words, to never raise your hand in class, or to avoid looking for a new job in a field that involves a lot of talking.

The stuttering iceberg is different for everyone. One thing is sure, though: stuttering treatment that does not address the under-the-surface aspects of stuttering is missing 90% of the problem.

stuttering is a balance beam quote

The Balance Beam

Imagine walking a straight line on the ground. Easy as pie! Put one foot in front of the other and this task is something most adults can do without a second thought. It’s considered so easy to do while sober that some law enforcement officials use it as a field sobriety test.

Now raise that straight line four feet off the ground. Suddenly the stakes are higher. A mistake means falling. And suddenly that natural, easy walking motion starts to wobble. What was simple to do on the ground is now tense, uncertain - and much more likely to go wrong.

The balance beam metaphor helps us understand why stuttering can vary so much from situation to situation. Complex motor patterns, such as speech or walking, benefit from habit: we know the patterns so well that we can execute them flawlessly. But when they are forced into consciousness, they are no longer automatic, leading to fluency disturbances and other speech errors.

stuttering is a finger trap quote

The Finger Trap

When your fingers are stuck in the finger trap, you can’t get them out by struggling. The harder you pull, the more you tighten the trap! This is the perfect metaphor for the paradox that most people who stutter have experienced: the more you try NOT to stutter, the more you stutter. The more you struggle, the harder you’re caught.

At AIS we’ve found the finger trap to be a powerful tool for explaining the stuttering block to someone who has never experienced it. Sometimes students give classroom presentations about stuttering, and bring these inexpensive toys as a way to help their classmates understand. And all of our therapists have at least one finger trap in their offices!

stuttering is a swan

The Swan

Or a goose. Or a duck. Or any bird that glides calmly across the surface of the water while its feet are paddling frantically beneath.

Not everyone who stutters will identify with this metaphor. It is specific to covert stuttering - trying to “pass” as fluent by going to great lengths to hide disfluencies. People who stutter covertly may change words, avoid situations, or stop talking - all in the interest of maintaining the illusion that they speak fluently. Like the swan, they can appear serene on the surface, and we never see all the work they are doing to make that happen.

Covert stuttering may be less obvious to listeners, but that doesn’t make it less of a struggle for those who experience it.

stuttering is a haunted house

The Haunted House

Before you even set foot inside, you know what’s going to happen. The killer clown. The maniac with the chainsaw.  The ghoul leaping out from the shadows. The irony of the haunted house is that its torments are actually pretty predictable—and yet it is precisely this predictability, the foreknowledge of danger, that cranks up the dread as you turn every corner. That’s the thing about anticipation: Knowing that something terrible is about to happen doesn’t help. It actually just coils the spring tighter, guaranteeing a big physical freak-out when the next jump scare hits. (Or when a leaf harmlessly brushes your elbow.)

 At AIS, we recognize how huge a factor anticipation is in the physical experience of stuttering. When our clients first come to us, they’re often navigating conversations the way they navigate a haunted house: physically tense, primed for threat. Not strolling through with relaxed posture, using their “walking tools,” but clenched and defensive. So when they hit that first stutter, whether it’s a huge block or just a blip…boom, it’s fight-or-flight.

 So what would you do to reduce your startle response?

 Maybe you’d go on a “scared-y cat tour,” have a guide walk you through all the rooms with the lights on. Maybe you could meet the actors, see them without their make-up and costumes. Or maybe you’d just go through the same haunted house every day for a week, exposing yourself to the scares until they became normal, boring.

At AIS we do something similar, employing systematic and compassionate desensitization to make those stuttering moments less reactive.

stuttering is whitewater rafting

Whitewater Rafting

If you’ve ever been whitewater rafting, you may have heard your guide tell you not to fight the current if you fall out. You won’t win against the current! Instead, float along with it until you reach a calmer stretch of water. (Please go here for actual whitewater safety tips, do not rely on this speech pathology blog.)

Riding the raft downriver is like talking, and stuttering is that moment where you fall out of the raft. If you struggle against the current, you get bumped around even more, and end up exhausted. But if you go with the current - allowing the stutter to bump naturally through the turbulence - you will save energy, get where you’re going, and soon find yourself in smooth waters again.

Thanks to Atlanta NSA Chapter leader Derek Mitchell for bringing this great metaphor to our attention!

stuttering is an elephant quote

The Elephant

This is kind of a sad one y’all. The elephant we’re imagining is an old circus elephant. When she was a baby, she was chained to a stake in the ground. Every time she tried to take a little elephant walk, she got yanked back by the chain. Soon the elephant got big enough that she could break free from the stake if she wanted to, but she doesn’t know that because she learned early not to bother trying. Even if we took the stake away, she wouldn’t realize she could leave.

This metaphor applies to so many aspects of stuttering I’m not even going to try to explain it. Instead, I’m going to ask our wonderful Facebook and Instagram communities to comment. How does this metaphor relate to your stuttering? What imaginary stake have you been tied to? How did you finally realize you don’t have to let your stuttering hold you down? And what are you doing now that you’re free to roam?

stuttering is an onion quote

The Onion

This one’s a classic. It’s about layers. It’s about peeling layers. And it’s about the possibility that what we view as the bulk of an issue might actually just be a husk, containing several deeper truths nestled inside.

There are so many directions we can take this. Maybe the layers are the habits of avoidance and struggle that have grown around the stutter. Maybe the core is whatever experience planted the belief in the first place that stuttering is bad and must be avoided at all costs. Maybe it’s simply realizing that what’s so unbearable about stuttering isn’t the actual stutter at all but rather all of the weight and consequences that surround it.

Regardless, the onion reminds us that getting to the center isn’t about the destination, really. It’s about the process. It’s about looking inward, unearthing the truth one layer at a time. Even if it stings our eyes a little bit along the way.

stuttering is a hub or spoke quote

The Wheel

It’s the first Metaphor Monday of the new year! This week, stuttering is: the hub, or the spoke, of a wheel. Our founder Catherine Montgomery was especially fond of this metaphor, which came from Dr. Paul Cooke of Michigan State University.

For many people who stutter, especially prior to seeking therapy, it can feel like stuttering is at the center of everything. If life is a wheel, stuttering is the hub - the axis around which all other parts of life turn.

It’s unlikely that stuttering will ever leave the wheel completely. But does it need to be so central? As desensitization proceeds, stuttering might become something you think about sometimes, but not every day. Other interests and activities can take their turns in the spotlight. As Catherine would say, stuttering becomes merely a spoke “on the most magnificent wheel.” It might be connected to other parts, but it’s not the central force driving ev​erything.

As you roll into this new year, is stuttering still the hub of your wheel? What steps will you take to move from hub to spoke?

stuttering is skiing on ice quote

Skiing on Ice

Every now and then on a ski slope, you encounter a patch of ice. Suddenly you’ve lost control of your movement; you’re holding on and hoping to remain upright. How you react is everything. Your limbs could lock up in panic; you could fall on purpose; or you could lean into the slide and wait to come out the other side.

That patch of ice can represent a moment of stuttering. For people who stutter, every ski slope has them! And that’s the key to the metaphor, which we often use to explain why we practice acceptance-based approaches to stuttering therapy. You don’t want a ski instructor whose whole method is based on teaching you that you must always avoid all patches of ice. It’s not realistic, it requires constant vigilance, and it doesn’t provide the help that you need when you do, inevitably, hit that slippery stretch.

A good ski instructor will teach you how to respond to a patch of ice. You’ll learn not to panic and how to remain present and move forward when things start to feel out of control. You might even come to enjoy the variety the occasional icy patch brings to the ski slope! Most importantly, you’ll be able to enjoy skiing without fear, because you know that when the ice comes, you can handle it.

stuttering is a snake in your path quote

A Snake in Your Path

Sticking with our recent animal theme, this week stuttering is: a snake in your path.

Imagine you’re riding a horse, guiding it calmly down a prairie trail. You’ve done this before. In fact, you’re a seasoned cowboy, so familiar with your horse you don’t even think about the subtle movements your hands make on the reigns. It’s all…automatic.

But suddenly, you see a snake in the path, just a few short feet in front of your horse. Do you jerk on the reigns? Startle the horse? Nope. You know that if you panic then your horse will buck. So you calmly nudge your horse into a short hop over the snake and resume the gentle trot. Again, you’re a seasoned cowboy. This isn’t the first snake you’ve seen.

In this metaphor, the horse is your speech-motor system. The snake is a stutter. At AIS we coach clients to calmly notice their stuttering moments—to get used to seeing the snakes in their path—without jerking the reigns. The more you encounter these snakes, the more you can keep your cool, guiding your speech forward instead of throwing it into a lurch.

stuttering is a jack in the box quote

A Jack-in-the-Box

We all know how a jack-in-the-box works: You stuff the clown inside, lock the lid, and then turn the crank…and turn it…and turn it…and….Boom! The clown bursts free, startling everyone in the room. Could there be a more terrifying toy? Historically, the original jack-in-the-boxes were more horrible than humorous, containing not a happy clown but a devil intended to scare children. In fact, the contemporary French name of the toy is still “devil in a box.”

For many of our clients, a streak of fluency can feel like turning that crank. It may feel gratifying to keep the music going, uninterrupted. But the longer the song continues, the more the anxiety builds, because you know you’re inching closer to the inevitable moment when the clown springs forth to wreak havoc. So if, by happenstance, you didn’t stutter when you first introduced yourself—or during the first few lines of your presentation—you may sense a building pressure to keep that “perfect” streak going. Ironically, *not* stuttering may cause someone to think about their stuttering *more.* And then: pop goes the weasel.

As therapists, we might encourage a client to, early in their speech, throw in a few voluntary stutters—controlled, intentional repetitions, say—just to remove that pressure of perfectionism.

Thanks to our client Abraham, for this great metaphor!

stuttering is a rainstorm quote

The Rainstorm

This week, stuttering is a rainstorm. Negative beliefs and emotions about stuttering are a leaky roof. And “quick fixes” for stuttering are a coat of paint. Many in the stuttering community have used this metaphor, and there’s a wonderful StutterTalk episode featuring Vivian Sisskin.

Imagine your roof leaks every time it rains. It leaks because it has a hole in it. And when it leaks, it creates a big ugly water stain all over your nice clean ceiling. When the rain stops, what should you do? If you choose to repaint the ceiling, you will have a nice clean ceiling again! But the next time it rains, you’ll have the same problem all over again – and the hole may even get bigger with time. If, instead, you put in the work to get out your ladder, climb up on the roof, and patch the hole, your ceiling will stay dry every time it rains.

In this metaphor, painting over the water stain represents trying to stop stuttering by avoiding words or situations, or relying solely on fluency shaping techniques. They might have a great temporary effect, but if the cognitive and emotional aspects of stuttering aren’t addressed, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all wet again. The harder work of addressing the cognitive and emotional aspects of stuttering is like fixing the hole in the roof. Now, even on frequent stuttering days, we have a solid set of coping skills and positive beliefs to use.

There will always be days it rains. But we can stay warm and dry from the storms of stuttering by taking the time to address what’s underneath the surface.

The Beach Ball

Beach balls are designed to float. If you try to hold them underwater, you’ll quickly notice that they want to make a break for the surface. The deeper you push them, the more forcefully they pop up, erupting from the surface of the water with a splash.

That can happen when you try to suppress stuttering, too. It’s a common experience that the harder you try not to stutter, the harder stuttering pushes back. The tension and struggle that arise from restraining the stutter can be bigger and more difficult than the stutter itself, just like the extra-big splash of the beach ball that’s been held underwater.

This summer, try letting your stuttering beach ball hang out on the surface. Maybe even give it a few playful bounces! ​​

Being Tripped Repeatedly

Stuttering can be like walking down a street and when a random person trips you. If it happens once, it’s not a big deal. But it’s not just once - it’s repeatedly. Sometimes someone trips you every ten yards, and sometimes no one trips you for days, but you are getting tripped almost every time you go for a walk.

Eventually, as you get used to this happening, you stop enjoying the scenery of the road you're walking on, noticing the weather, or seeing other people around you, and you just start being on the lookout for the person who is going to trip you. You don't always know where he is, but you know he is going to come out at any moment. You stop focusing on walking, and eventually put all of your attention on not tripping. Some days you might not want to walk at all.

We love this metaphor for explaining the lived experience of fear that can come with stuttering to those who may not understand. Feel free to share with friends and family! And tell us in the comments about your relationship with the “person who trips you” in your life.

The Outfielder

It’s Metaphor Monday! We sometimes use the metaphor of a baseball outfielder to describe the experience of someone who has arrived at a point where stuttering is no longer a central concern in their lives.

When you first start to work on stuttering, it can feel like you’re an amateur playing infield in the World Series. Stuttering (the baseball) is everywhere, and you’re always on your toes trying to make quick plays.

When you have properly done the work of learning to accept and manage stuttering, you get to the cool place of being an outfielder. You are skilled and ready! When the stuttering ball is hit to your part of the outfield, you know your job: to catch it and move it along. You may not have a ball come your way for an entire game, or you may have to field many balls in a row. It won't always be graceful, and you might even miss a few, but that is part of the game.

So once you have dropped your mental gymnastics and stuttering avoidance behaviors, you can "field" the moment of stuttering without struggle or negative reactivity. And you keep on playing!

Quicksand!

Today, stuttering is that darling of 1960s adventure movies: quicksand!

We sometimes use quicksand to describe the sense of panic that some people experience when they have a very tense episode of stuttering, and no amount of physical struggle or “tricks” seem to help. It might feel like falling into quicksand and desperately grabbing for a branch to pull you out, only to find it snap off in your hand as you sink a bit more. In greater panic, you continue to grab at frail branches above you, your thrashing sinking you further into the sand.

And how do we get out of quicksand? It takes presence of mind: the ability to resist panicking and react with rational action. Flailing sends you deeper, but leaning back in a supine position can help you float.

In the middle of a moment of tense stuttering, you might similarly “lean into” the stutter by playing with changing it. You might try exaggerating the transition into the next sound, or stuttering on purpose into the next sound. Most importantly, remind yourself that it is ok to stutter. You are safe and can give yourself permission to stutter, even when you really would prefer you didn’t.

The Monster in Your Closet

Imagine you’re a kid who thinks there’s a monster in the closet. You can talk about the monster. You can have people tell you the monster isn’t real, or isn’t that scary. You can even have your parents check for you. All these things might help, a little. But you will never really be free of your fear until you get out of bed, walk over to the closet, open the door, and have a look for yourself.

We use this metaphor to talk about why the behavioral component of therapy is so crucial for healing. Like all metaphors, it has its flaws (stuttering is real! monsters aren’t! we think…) But it really expresses the power of experience in changing beliefs. If your therapist tells you it’s OK to tell people you stutter, you might want to believe them, but how deep is that belief? Your brain might know you can survive letting your stutter last a little longer, but until you challenge yourself to tolerate that discomfort, you won’t really know.

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The American Institute for Stuttering is a leading non-profit organization whose primary mission is to provide universally affordable, state-of-the-art speech therapy to people of all ages who stutter, guidance to their families, and much-needed clinical training to speech professionals wishing to gain expertise in stuttering. Offices are located in New York, NY, Atlanta, GA, and Minneapolis, MN, and services are also available online. Our mission extends to advancing public and scholarly understanding of this often misunderstood disorder.


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