Stammering and the Iceberg Beast

By Specialist Speech and Language Therapist Frankie Paterson

I was interested to learn about a proposed new way of thinking about aspects of stammering as a ‘beast’ that can be strengthened or weakened. Dr Rick Arenas thinks of a stammer as an ‘Iceberg Beast’ that can be slain. Rick, associate professor at the University of New Mexico, researches developmental stammering and is himself a person who stammers.

The idea of the Iceberg Beast originates from the iceberg analogy that’s been used to describe stammers since 1970 (J Sheenan).


The top of the iceberg, that’s visible above the water’s surface, represents stammering behaviours such as repetitions of sounds, words or syllables. This is the part of a stammer that is visible for others to see. The part of the iceberg that is submerged under the water is vastly bigger than top part. This underwater part represents the underlying aspects of a person’s stammer that tend to be invisible to others. These include anxiety about speaking, avoidance of speaking or of situations, emotions about speaking and stammering and beliefs about yourself and your place in the world as a result of the stammer.

Although Dr Arenas thinks this iceberg analogy is effective in portraying what being a person who stammers is really like, he has built on this iceberg idea using his own experiences as someone with a stammer and experiences that other people with stammers have shared with him. Dr Arenas has observed that for a person who stammers, the unseen part of the iceberg can be like a living entity that has the power to hold them back from living their life as they’d like to, and that it can grow, shrink and change over time. He has come to identify these undelying parts of his stammer as the Iceberg Beast, that can feed on certain types of things that give it fuel to grow and get stronger. At the same time, there are things that he can do that he knows will weaken and shrink his Iceberg Beast.

Rick explains “the beast is a cohesive collection of beliefs about stuttering that we allow to negatively impact how we live our lives”. Rick believes that as a person who stammers there are specific choices you can make that will make your iceberg beast either grow or get smaller. These choices are not ones you are stuck with and are destined to make forever. You can decide to make different choices.

What types of things allow the beast to grow?

· Not talking about your stammer with others or being open about it.

· Avoidance. Of words, situations, thoughts or truths about yourself and your stammer.

· Not accepting that you have a stammer.

· Being in denial about the stammer as being something that affects you or how much it affects you.

Rick believes that negative thoughts and feelings about stammering that are harboured for a long time and not talked about openly can ultimately transform into core negative beliefs about yourself and your stammer that your iceberg beast loves to feed upon, helping it to grow. For example, believing that you will always be too slow to get your words out, that people will always get impatient and bored when you try to talk or that you are weak or faulty because of your stammer.

Weapons Against the Beast

Rick lists ‘weapons’ that people who stammer can use to weaken and shrink the iceberg beast and so reduce the control that the stammer has over them:

· Daring to be open and vulnerable about your stammer.

· Allowing yourself to stammer openly and freely.

· Being honest with yourself about the impact the stammer has had on the way you’ve chosen to live your life.

· Self-Acceptance. Accepting all parts of your identity, including that you are a person who stammers.

· Authenticity with yourself and others.

· Talking openly with others about your stammer and thoughts, feelings and beliefs surrounding it.

Dr Rick suggests that useful questions to ask yourself are:

· What would you ideally be doing in your life that you currently are not doing because of the stammer?

· What do you avoid because of the stammer?

· In what ways is this actually impacting on how you live your life?

Dr Arenas believes that real lasting change comes from an exploration of your attitudes and beliefs about the stammer as opposed to focusing on the stammering behaviours themselves. He emphasises the fact that it is your beliefs and reactions to your stutter rather than the stuttering behaviours themselves that negatively affect your life. This echoes an idea from the stoic philosopher Epictetus that I have personally found invaluable in my own quest to change negative thoughts and the beliefs that underlie them. Epictetus stated that “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” To bring this back to stammering, it could be said that the act of repeating words is not the cause of your pain as a person who stammers, the root cause of pain are the negative beliefs you hold , e.g. that stammering somehow makes you a lesser person or that other people seeing you stammer will make them dislike you or think you are weak.

Being brave enough to be vulnerable

The qualitative research professor Bréne Brown pioneered the idea of vulnerability being a powerful act that can be immensely healing and galvanising in her viral TED TALK . So what’s vulnerability all about for people who stammer?

· Daring to be truthful with yourself and others about your stammer.

· Being brave enough to show things to others you’d really rather hide from them because you are ashamed, namely openly stammering.

· Daring to really look inward at yourself and to share those observations with others.

Unicorn or Beast?

I think this idea of imagining the internalised part of a stammer as a fluid entity that can increase or decrease in power depending on choices within your control could be incredibly liberating for many people who stammer. Giving limiting core beliefs an identity, so that you can put them under the microscope can be an empowering and healing exercise.

This is very much in the spirit of an exploratory assessment I often use where the client is asked to draw their stammer. The results are of course unique to each person and can be hugely valuable in understanding a client’s relationship with their stammer.

I think it’s important to recognise that each person’s core beliefs about their own stammering will be unique to them and so the identity they give them will be unique as well. For one person their internal stammer might well be visualised as a beast to be slain. But someone else might see theirs quite differently, for example as a majestic but troubled and misunderstood unicorn, to be tamed and calmed! Warlike imagery of using weapons to destroy a beast could be negative and unhelpful for some people who stammer. I wonder if for some people, attaching a more neutral image to their stammer could be somehow helpful in reducing the negative hold it might have over their lives.

If you want to hear more from Dr Arenas he is interviewed about his Iceberg Beast theory on the excellent podcast Stutter Talk.