The Difference Between Pity and Empathy for My Stutter

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Empathy and pity… are these words synonymous, or are they worlds apart? The first definition for pity is “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortune of others.” However, empathy is differentiated from pity by a single, beautiful phrase: to understand and share. Should we feel sorry for others, or should we strive to understand and share in their struggles?

By its very definition, pity suggests that my stutter wasn’t really supposed to happen. It implies that stuttering is a tragic mistake that keeps me from enjoying life. Pity is feeling sorry for the sadness and the suffering that stuttering must bring. In other words, pity dwells in the darkness, instead of stepping into the light. It only sees the negative, when in reality, there is so much more to stuttering. My stutter is not a mistake. My stutter brings me sadness sometimes, but it also brings me incredible joy. It has not kept me from enjoying life; it has made me love it even more. Please, do not pity my stutter.

While pity only sees the condition, empathy goes one step further to see the person. To be honest, I need to work on this in my own life. Feeling empathy for others means that we begin to understand how they feel and what they see. As we seek to truly understand someone’s condition, we slowly begin to share in their feelings, too, although we can never fully understand what someone else feels. The truth is that I do not want people to feel sorry for me. I do not want people to be sad for me, because I am not sad. I am on an amazing journey to embrace all the wonderful gifts stuttering can give me.

Of course, I do desire for people to understand how difficult life can be for someone who stutters. Stuttering can be extremely difficult, but I don’t want people to miss all the blessings I have experienced from stuttering. I want people to share in this journey and grow with me. I believe true empathy acknowledges the struggle and feels the heartache, but then it encourages us to thrive in spite of it all.

My greatest desire is for people to see that being different is not something to be pitied. Rather, it is something to be felt, to be understood, and most of all, to be celebrated.

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'So... What Does Stuttering Feel Like?'

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Although it’s impossible to describe exactly what stuttering feels like, there are a few comparisons that closely resemble the struggle that takes place:

First, try thinking of the mouth as a “gate.” Only once the tension grows strong enough to force open the gate do the words finally tumble out, much to the stutterer’s relief. As you know, every sound requires its own unique formation in the mouth. Each of these sounds comes to the gate and pushes… and pushes… and pushes with all its might until it finally breaks through. This pushing causes a lot of tension in the mouth, neck, and shoulder area for the stutterer. I often feel my neck tighten, my shoulders scrunch together, and my tongue push against my teeth.

From this description, I’m sure you can imagine how exhausting it is to stutter. It is much more than just messing up words sometimes. It is a daily battle to break free and to make one’s voice heard. But it is a worthy battle, a battle that strengthens character, teaches endurance, and reminds me of just how precious this life really is.

Secondly, try thinking of the mind and voice as two conflicting sides in this battle. Although stuttering mainly affects speech, it wages quite a war against the mind. The mind stands on one side, absolutely bursting with things to say. The voice stands on the other side, fearing it will crack under the weight of all those words. As I look at the person standing in front of me waiting for my answer, my mind screams out a beautiful response, but my voice freezes. My voice knows what to say, how to say it, and when to say it, but it just can’t bear the load. Finally, my mind and my voice compromise, and I blurt out the first thing that will come out. Sometimes, this means that I end up with a caramel iced coffee instead of a vanilla iced coffee.

In the past, I really let moments like that get to me and make me feel like less of a person. As soon as I was out of sight, I would cry until I couldn’t cry anymore, staring at an iced coffee I really didn’t want. On the hardest days, my mom was right there to encourage me: “Kenzie, you may not be the average speaker, but why in the world would you want to be ordinary when you can be extraordinary? Of all the people in the world, your voice makes you uniquely unforgettable.” I love you so much, Mom.

I would be lying if I told you I still don’t have moments like this. I am still human, just like you. To be honest, there are days when I just want to scream. Stuttering makes me feel so vulnerable. But I’m slowly learning how to find beauty where I used to see brokenness. 

All of us have struggles, but those struggles can be a gift we give to the world. If we can just learn to harness the stutter’s incredible power and redirect it for good, we can encourage someone else who is struggling. We can remind them that they have every reason to dream big and give them the courage to say what is in their heart. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty beautiful!

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I Did It! My First Commerical as a Stutterer

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As someone who was afraid for people to hear me stutter, I’m still shocked I put myself in front of a camera for the world to hear my speech disorder.

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When I was approached by the YMCA to be a part of their commercial on the behalf of announcing a recently opened gym, I was honored that they thought of me to be a part of their special moment. When I was first asked to do the commercial, a thought popped up in my mind that said, “You cannot do this, for you will humiliate yourself in front of thousands of viewers because you speak funny.” I pushed that thought back, and I responded to it by saying, “This is what I want to do, and I will not allow for stuttering to steal my moment.”

I didn’t allow fear to win because I am one of many who represents those who have a disorder and disability. The more people like me take on roles in the media, the more  people like us will be offered opportunities in film.

I wasn’t thinking only about myself while filming my scenes. I was thinking about how me putting myself out there will help other stutterers as well to not only be granted roles, but to be bold speakers in front of many people. I look forward to doing more work that shows although us stutterers stutter, it is worthwhile to listen to us.

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When a Stranger Thought My Stutter Was a Seizure

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One of the most annoying things I deal with as a stutterer is people making assumptions based on the sound of my voice and how I look. I breathe hard, my eyes rapidly blink, lips tremble as if I’m in the midst of a snowstorm, and my body becomes tense as I try hard to speak. When this happens, please don’t assume that I’m having a seizure!

Out of all the assumptions I’ve had thrown my way as a stutterer, someone thinking I was having a seizure was by far the worst. The woman was so distressed that I was more concerned for her than for myself. I had to pull myself together so I could explain that I was stuttering, before she called 911.

Now, I carry a card I got from the Stuttering Foundation of America that nicely explains I’m a stutterer. I shouldn’t have to carry a card around, but it’s important that I do for cases like this, and any other misunderstandings.

Instead of being ashamed, I wish I would’ve educated her on stuttering, so she won’t have the same response to another individual who has a speech disorder. Because I cannot go back to the past, I now educate people on stuttering, so they understand it can take other forms besides just repeating words.

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5 Wishes From the Heart of Someone Who Stutters

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So often, many well-meaning people tell those who stutter to just breathe, talk slower or overcome their anxiety. I truly believe most of these people don’t mean to belittle stuttering; it’s just that they don’t quite understand it.

Over the years, I’ve read some truly heartbreaking stories. One courageous lady in particular recounted a time when she was taken into custody and questioned by airport security because she hesitated when the officer asked her where she was going. They assumed she was hiding something. She tried over and over again to explain her condition to them, but they didn’t believe her.

Reading accounts like this has sparked an unquenchable flame in my heart to raise awareness for stuttering. Today, my desire is to share five wishes from the heart of someone who stutters.

1. Stuttering isn’t mental. 

Many people might think that stuttering is all in the mind or that it’s something we can control. Everyone stumbles over their words sometimes, whether they’re tired, excited or nervous. However, stuttering is something entirely different. It’s not caused by an anxious spirit, and it can’t be calmed in the same way someone can calm his nerves. Stuttering is completely medical, just like deafness or blindness.

2. Stuttering doesn’t affect academic performance. 

A few years ago, my mom took me to the public school in our district to receive speech therapy. The therapist tested my sound pronunciation and then gave me an academic assessment test. After reviewing my test scores, she looked at us and said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t help you. Your test scores are way too high to justify needing therapy.” She was right. My stutter doesn’t reflect on my report card, but does that mean it’s not a real problem? People who stutter have to fight their way through oral reports, science fairs and, hardest of all, speech class. I’m choosing my words carefully, so I don’t sound too proud. Please just know that report card reflects incredible perseverance in the face of adversity.

3. Stuttering comes and goes. 

It’s just like how someone who suffers from chronic migraines doesn’t always have a headache. In fact, some people don’t even develop a stutter at all until later in life, as I did. There are days when words tumble out as smooth as silk. There are other days when trying to speak is like trying to swim upstream. The words just don’t come out. But the stutter is just as real on the good days as it is on the bad days. If someone doesn’t stutter in front of you, they might just be having an exceptionally smooth day!

4. Stuttering doesn’t affect our ability to thrive in the world. 

Does stuttering pose a huge challenge to success in life? Absolutely. But only if you allow it to. Here I am — a person who stutters on my own name sometimes — in the middle of a communication-driven world, dreaming big dreams for the future. Impossible, right? Not in a world of possibilities. It’s so hard sometimes, but I just have to keep trusting. I have to keep dreaming, even when I don’t see any reason to dream. Even when we can’t see it, there is always a reason to dream.

5. There’s a real person behind the stutter. 

Behind that trembling voice is a valiant heart — a heart that refuses to give up, a heart that refuses to be defined by adversity and a heart that desperately longs to be understood by the world. Someone who stutters may be quiet, but please, please, please don’t mistake “quiet” for “unfriendly.” Get to know him as a person. Please don’t treat me differently because I stutter. See me, not my stutter.

If we can just keep educating people about stuttering, the beautiful voices of thousands of people will finally be heard again. This is my greatest wish.

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I'm Not Worried About Employers Finding Something Wrong With the Way I Speak

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Speaking over the phone is difficult for me because I stutter 10 times more than I usually do. Having to do phone interviews for jobs isn’t easy, but I do them because I refuse to back down from something I want.

I’m not worried about employers finding something wrong with the way I speak. I just pray they’ll have a compassionate heart and allow me to offer their company what I know I can give them.

The reason I don’t tell employers in advance that I stutter is because I want to be given a fair chance to do the interview. I’d rather the employer find out I stutter once he or she hears me.

Out of all the phone interviews I’ve done, only one employer was truly mean to me. Not understanding what I was saying, the employer laughed at me and told me she would email me because she couldn’t understand what I was saying. Taking this situation with a positive attitude, I agreed to further communicate via email. The employer never emailed me. When I emailed the employer about finishing our conversation, she never responded.

Did I feel bad about what happened? No.

I don’t let people’s negative responses to my stutter get me down anymore. I just feel sad for stutterers who don’t have a thick skin because I know that a lot of us think poorly of ourselves when others are mean to us about the way we talk.

To the employer who laughed at me and ignored me as if I don’t have a heart, I forgive you.

I once told a friend this story, and she suggested I have my sister do my phone interviews. I felt completely disrespected by the comment. That’s not support. I know she didn’t mean any harm, but statements like this are basically asking me to silence my voice.

If you have a friend who stutters, be encouraging. And don’t give advice geared toward them shutting down their voice.

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