Below is a chapter of the book, The Use Of The Self by F. Alexander, the father of the Alexander technique. It was written some 60 years ago. Stefan Bogdanov from Switzerland sent it and feels it is a "pretty good analysis of the subject of stuttering. I myself take lessons on the Alexander.technique and it has been of great help on my way to leave stuttering behind."

F.M. Alexander

The use of the self


The Stutterer

I will take for my second illustration the case of a man with an impediment in his speech who was sent to me for advice and help. He told me that he had taken lessons from specialists who treated speech defects, and had done his best to carry out their instructions and to practise their exercises. He had always had special difficulty with sounds which called for the use of the tongue and lips, particularly with the consonants T and D, but although he had been more or less successful in doing the exercises themselves, his stutter was as bad as ever in ordinary conversation, especially when he was hurried or excited.

As is my custom with a new pupil, I noted specially the way he walked into my room and sat down in a chair, and it was obvious to me that his general use of himself was more than usually harmful. When he spoke, I also noticed a wrong use of his tongue and lips and certain defects in the use of his head and neck, involving undue depression of the larynx and undue tension of the face and neck muscles. I then pointed out to him that his stutter was not an isolated symptom of wrong use confined to the organs of speech, but that it was associated with other symptoms of wrong use and functioning in other parts of his organism.

As he doubted this, I went on to explain that I had been able to demonstrate to every stutterer who had come to me for help that he 'stuttered' with many other different parts of his body besides his tongue and lips. 'Usually,' I said, 'these other defects remain unobserved or ignored until they reach the point where the wrong functioning manifests itself in some form of so-called "physical" or "mental" disorder. In your case, your stutter interferes with your work and hinders intercourse with your fellows, and so you have not been able to ignore it, but this may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise if it is the means of making you aware, before too late, of the other more serious defects which I have pointed out to you, and which will tend, as rime goes on, to become more and more exaggerated.' I assured him that my long years of practical experience in dealing with the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of people who stutter had convinced me that stuttering was one of the most interesting specific symptoms of a general cause, namely, misdirection of the use of the psycho-physical mechanisms, and I did not wish to take him as a pupil, unless he was prepared to work with me on the basis of correcting this misdirection of use generally, as the primary step in remedying his defects in speech. I could promise him, however, that if he decided to come to me and I was successful in making certain changes for the better in his manner of using his mechanisms, a change for the better would also come about in the functioning of his organism, and his stuttering would tend to disappear in the process. He saw the point and decided to take lessons.

Now in my experience stuttering, like the golfer's tendency to take his eyes off the ball, is due to habitual misdirection of the use of the mechanisms, so that the remedying of the defect in both cases presents fundamentally the same problem. Like the golfer, the stutterer needs to have this habitual misdirection of his use changed to a more satisfactory direction, and the new and improved use, associated with this change in direction, has to be built up and sufficiently stabilized in him before he will be able to employ it practically as a means of overcoming his particular difficulties in speaking.

In the case of this pupil, therefore, I began by pointing out to him various outstanding symptoms of his wrong habitual use, one of the most marked of these being the undue amount of muscle tension that he was in the habit of employing throughout his organism whenever he tried to speak. This extreme muscle tension was an impeding factor in the functioning of his mechanisms generally, and rendered impossible a satisfactory use of his tongue and lips, and the more he tried by any special effort of 'will* to speak without stuttering, the more certain he was to increase the already undue muscle tension and so to defeat his own end.

The reason for this, I explained to him, was that he did not start to speak until he had brought about the amount of tension which was associated with his habitual use and which caused him to feel that he could speak; ie, he would decide that the moment had come for him to speak only when his feeling told him that he was using his mechanisms to the best advantage, and this moment, in the last analysis, was when his sensory appreciation (the only guide he had as to the amount of muscle tension necessary) registered to him as 'right* the amount of tension which he habitually employed in speaking and which was therefore familiar to him.

Unfortunately, the familiar amount of tension that 'felt right' to him was the unnecessary amount associated with the wrong habitual use of his mechanisms of which his stuttering was a symptom, and I therefore urged him to recognize from the beginning that the 'feeling', upon which he was relying to tell him when his use was right for speaking, was untrustworthy as a register of muscle tension, and that he must not depend upon it for guidance in his attempts to speak. How, I asked him, could he expect to judge by his feeling the amount of tension he should employ in speaking, when he was unfamiliar with the sensory experience of speaking with the due amount? Obviously, he could not 'know' a sensation he had never experienced, and as sensory experience cannot be conveyed by the spoken word, no amount of telling on my part could convey to him the unfamiliar sensory experience of speaking with less tension and without stuttering. The only way to convince him that he could speak with a less amount of muscle tension would be to give him this unfamiliar experience.

To this end I adopted a procedure based upon the same principle as the procedure employed to the end of giving the golfer the experience of keeping his eyes on the ball, my aim being to give my pupil, first, the experience of employing a conscious direction of a new and improved use of his mechanisms generally, and, secondly, the experience of continuing to employ this conscious direction whilst using the mechanisms concerned with the act of speaking in the manner best suited for the purpose.

I began by giving him (1) the directions for the inhibition of the wrong habitual use of his mechanisms associated with the excessive muscle tension; (2) the directions for the employment of the primary control leading to a new and improved use which would be associated with a due amount of muscle tension.

I then asked him to project these directions whilst I with my hands gave him the new sensory experiences of use corresponding to these directions, in order that the trustworthiness of his sensory appreciation in relation to the use of his mechanisms might be gradually restored, and that by this means he might in time acquire a register of the due amount of tension required for speaking, as distinct from the undue amount of tension associated with his stuttering.

I continued this procedure, until I had repeated for him the new sensory experiences of use often enough to justify me in allowing him to attempt to employ his new 'means-whereby' for speaking and for saying the words and consonants that caused him special difficulty.

It is impossible in the space at my command to put down all the details of the variations of the teacher's art that were employed to bring my pupil to this point, for a teacher's technique naturally varies in detail according to the particular needs and difficulties of each pupil. Those of my readers, however, who have followed the account of the difficulties I encountered when I first attempted to employ the new 'means-whereby' in my reciting, will be able to realize the kind of difficulty we were faced with all along, when I say that my pupil was a confirmed 'end-gainer'.

At the beginning of this new stage in our work together I reminded him how his progress up to this point had been hampered by his habit of end-gaining and of 'trying to be right', and I warned him that unless he succeeded in sidestepping it, he would have little chance of applying his new 'means-whereby' to his difficulties in speaking, for if, at the critical moment of starting to say a difficult word, he still went directly for his end and tried to say the word in the way that 'felt right' to him, he would be bound to revert to his old habitual use in speaking and so stutter.

Events proved how difficult it was for my pupil to take practical heed of this warning. I would repeatedly urge him, whenever I gave him a sound or word to pronounce, always to inhibit his old habitual response to my request by refusing to attempt to pronounce the sound or word until he had taken time to think out and employ the new directions for the use which he had decided upon as best for his purpose. He would agree to do this, but as soon as I asked him to pronounce some sound or word, he would fail to inhibit his response to the stimulus of my voice, and forgetting all about the new directions he had been asked to employ, he would immediately try to repeat the sound, with the result that he was at once dominated by his old habits of use associated with the extreme muscle tension that felt right to him, and so stuttered as badly as ever. In short, his very desire to be right in gaining his end defeated the end.

In every stutterer of whom I have had experience this habit of reacting too quickly to stimuli is always associated with sensory untrustworthiness, undue muscle tension and misdirection of energy, but in this pupil's case the habit of going directly for his end, and of trying to 'feel right' in doing it, had been positively cultivated in him by the methods employed by his previous teachers in trying to 'cure' his stutter.

It would appear that the 'end-gaining' principle underlies every one of the exercises given by teachers who, whether by orthodox or unorthodox methods, deal with stuttering as a specific defect, and 1 will take as an example the exercises that had been given to my pupil to meet his special difficulty in pronouncing words beginning with T or D.

His former teachers had recognized that the use of his tongue and lips was unsatisfactory for the purpose of pronouncing these consonants, and in order to overcome the difficulty had instructed him to practice certain exercises involving the use of these specific parts in saying T or D.

Now this procedure could only aggravate the difficulty, for the idea of trying to say T or D acted as an incentive to the pupil to employ the habitual use of himself associated with the wrong use of his tongue and lips. As long as this wrong habitual use remained unchanged, this association persisted and he had little chance of getting rid of this incentive, so that to ask him under these conditions to practice saying T and D as a remedy for his stuttering was tantamount to giving him an added incentive to stutter.

This was borne out by what I observed when he showed me how he had been practicing these exercises. I watched him closely and saw that as soon as he started to do them, he at once made an undue amount of tension generally, continued to increase the tension of the muscles of the lips, cheeks and tongue, and tried to say T and D before his tongue had taken up the best position for the purpose. This attempt was as bound to result in failure as would be the attempt of a motorist to change gears before the clutch has done its work in getting the cogs into the position in which they will mesh. It was evident that he had been trying in all his practice in the past to gain his end without being in command of the means whereby this end could be successfully gained, and the fact that the majority of these attempts had been unsuccessful had brought him to a state of lack of confidence in himself, which added considerably to the difficulty of breaking his 'end-gaining' habit.

As far as I am aware, all methods of 'curing' stuttering, however they may differ in detail, are based on the same 'end-gaining' principle. The adviser will select some symptom or symptoms as the cause of his pupil's stuttering and will give him specific instructions or exercises to help him.

I am well aware that it has proved possible by such methods to stop people from stuttering, but I would question the common assumption that because this is so, a genuine 'cure' has been effected, for in cases where it is claimed that a stutter has been 'cured', there is usually something peculiar or hesitating about the manner of speaking, and those concerned do not seem in the least perturbed that the harmful conditions of undue muscle tension, misdirection of energy and untrustworthiness of sensory appreciation, present in the case when the 'cure' was begun, are still in evidence now that what is considered a successful 'cure' has been brought about.

No method of 'cure' can be accepted as effective or scientific, if, in the process of removing certain selected symptoms, other symptoms have been left untouched and if new, unwished-for symptoms have appeared If this test is applied to a stutterer after he has been 'cured' by such methods, it will be found too often that the original defects of undue muscular tension, misdirection of energy and untrustworthiness of sensory appreciation have been increased in the process of the 'cure'.

I admit that these defects may not bring about a recurrence

It is important to remember that there is a working balance in the use of all the parts of the organism, and that for this reason the use of the specific part (or parts) in any activity can influence the use of the other parts, and vice versa. Under instinctive direction this working balance becomes habitual and 'feels right', and the point at which the influence of the use of any part will make itself felt will vary and the influence of the particular use be strong or weak according to the nature of the stimulus of the end activity desired. If a defect is recognized in the use of a part, and an attempt is made to correct this defect by changing the use of the part without bringing about at the same time a corresponding change in the use of the other parts, the habitual working balance in the use of the whole will be disturbed. Unless, therefore, the person attempting to make a change in the use of a specific part has an understanding of what is required to bring about at the same time a corresponding change in the use of the other parts which will make for a satisfactory working balance and therefore be complementary to the new use that he is trying to bring about at one point, one of two things is bound to happen: either, (1) the stimulus of the desire to gain his end, by means of the old use associated with the habitual working balance which 'feels right', will be so strong that it will dominate the stimulus to cultivate a new and improved use of a certain part associated with an unfamiliar working balance which 'feels wrong'; or, (2) if the change in the use of a part is made in the face of impeding factors m the use of the other parts (as happens in any specific method of treatment employed to correct a defect in a part), the working balance between the use of that part and the use of all the other parts will be so thrown out of gear that the use of the other parts will be adversely affected in their turn, and new defects in the use of these parts developed.

After my pupil had shewn me the exercises he had been told to do, I explained to him that in practising them he had been indulging in his old wrong habits of general use of himself, and thereby actually cultivating the wrong habits of use of his tongue and lips which had made him stutter. I impressed upon him once more that if he wished ever to be confident of saying T and D and words in which these consonants occur without stuttering, he must refuse to respond to any stimulus either from within or without to say T or D; in other words, whenever the idea of saying T or D came to him, he must inhibit his desire to try and say it correctly, until he had learned what use of his tongue and lips was required in his case for saying T or D without stuttering, and until he could put into practice the necessary directions for this new use of his tongue and lips whilst continuing to give the directions for the primary control of the new and improved use of himself generally.

He understood the reason for this, but his attempts at cooperating with me proved more or less unsuccessful for some time. Over and over again I got him to the point where the use of his tongue and lips in association with his general use was such that I knew he could pronounce T and D without the undue muscle tension that made him stutter, but when at this point I asked him to repeat one of the sounds, he would either (1) forget to inhibit his old response, change back to his old conditions of use and increase the tension to the point when he felt that he could say T or D, try to say it in this way and stutter, or (2) on the occasions when he remembered to inhibit his old response and to employ the new 'means-whereby* for saying T and D without stuttering, he would make no attempt to repeat the sound.

In both these cases he was actuated by the same motive. He associated the act of speaking, especially the pronunciation of consonants that were difficult for him, with a given amount of muscle tension, and as I have already shewn, he had come to believe that it was impossible for him to speak until he felt this undue amount of tension. This explains why he made no attempt to speak until he had deliberately brought about the familiar but excessive tension which caused him to stutter. In this way he simply reinforced the old sensory experiences of undue muscle tension already associated with his habitual use, and with his habit of trying to feel right in gaining his end.

To deal with this difficulty I made a point of giving my pupil day after day the experience of receiving a stimulus to gain a certain end and of remembering to refuse to gain that end, since this refusal meant that at one fell swoop he inhibited all the wrong habits of use associated with his habitual way of gaining that end.* In proportion as he was successful in inhibiting his immediate response to any stimulus, he became able to defeat his desire to gain his ends in the way that felt right to him, and as long as he continued this inhibition, I on my side was able to repeat for him, until they became familiar, the new sensory experiences associated with an improved general use of his mechanisms, including the right use of his tongue and lips. By continuing to cooperate with me on these lines, he gradually acquired sufficient experience in the direction of this new use to be able to employ it successfully as the 'means-whereby' of pronouncing the consonants which had caused him special difficulty.

But, more important than this, my pupil in the course of this procedure had learned that if he inhibited his immediate instinctive reaction to any stimulus to 'do', he could prevent the misdirection of his use and the associated undue muscle tension which had been the marked feature of all his reactions to stimuli, and which had hampered him not only in his speaking but in all his activities, both 'physical' and 'mental', and if he chose to apply this principle to his activities in other spheres, he would have at his command a means of controlling the nature of his reaction to stimuli, that is, of acquiring a control of what is called 'conscious behaviour'.

Change the manner of use and you change the conditions throughout the organism, the old reaction associated with the old manner of use and the old conditions cannot therefore take place, for the means are no longer there. In other words, the old habitual reflex activity has been changed and will not recur. If loss of control can be manifested only by means of the use of ourselves, it follows that a conscious direction of an improving use will bring us for the first time within striking distance of a conscious control of human reaction or behaviour.

Certain features of this pupil's case occur with practically every pupil. During the earlier stages of a pupil's lessons when the use of his mechanisms is still unsatisfactory, I have constantly found that he fails to inhibit the old instinctive direction of his use, with the result that his directions for the new use do not become operative. Before I can get a chance to help him, he proceeds to gain his end in accordance with his habitual wrong use, and it is practically impossible under these circumstances to stop him from gaining his end in this way.

On the other hand, when he has learned at a later stage in his lessons to inhibit the instinctive direction of his use and the directions for the new use have become operative, so that I am enabled to give him the corresponding sensory experiences, I have found that although he now has at his command the best conditions possible for gaining his end, he will not make any attempt to gain it. He cannot believe that the end can be gained with these improved conditions present; they 'feel so wrong', as he puts it, that he instinctively refuses to employ them.

When this difficulty arises, it is necessary for me to give him the actual experience of gaining his end by what he feels is a wrong use of his mechanisms, and when I have succeeded in doing this, he invariably remarks how much easier the new way is than the old way, and how much less effort it requires. Yet in spite of this admission, the actual experience of gaining his end in this new way has to be repeated for him again and again before the improved use 'feels right' to him, and before he gains the necessary confidence in employing it.

The lesson to be learned from all this is that since our particular way of reacting to stimuli is in accordance with our familiar habits of use, the incentive to try to gain any given end is inextricably bound up with this familiar use. This explains why, if a pupil's familiar use is changed to one that is unfamiliar and therefore unassociated with his habitual way of reacting to stimuli, he has little or no incentive to gain that given end. As long as the conditions of use and the associated feeling are wrong in a person, the incentive to gain a given end by the familiar wrong use appears to be almost irresistible, but when these conditions have been changed to conditions which are best for the purpose of gaining the end, there seems to be practically no incentive to gain it.

This is not surprising, for when a person's sensory appreciation of his use is wrong and his belief as to what he can or cannot do is based on what he feels, gaining an end by a use that is unfamiliar means for him taking a plunge in the dark. Even when I have explained to a pupil why this difficulty has arisen in his case, and he understands the reason for it 'intellectually', he will need, more often than not, considerable encouragement and practical assistance in order to be enabled to make the experience of gaining a given end by means of a use that is new and unfamiliar to him. Once this has been done for him, however, he becomes conscious of a new experience that he is desirous to repeat, and repetition of this experience in time convinces him that his previous beliefs and judgments in this connexion were wrong. As a result there gradually develops in him an incentive to employ the new use, and this becomes at last far stronger than the incentive to employ the old use, for its development is the outcome of a reasoned procedure which he finds he can consciously direct and control with a confidence he has never before experienced.

One of the most remarkable of man's characteristics is his capacity for becoming used to conditions of almost any kind, whether good or bad, both in the self and in the environment, and once he has become used to such conditions they seem to him both right and natural. This capacity is a boon when it enables him to adapt himself to conditions which are desirable, but it may prove a great danger when the conditions are undesirable. When his sensory appreciation is untrustworthy, it is possible for him to become so familiar with seriously harmful conditions of misuse of himself that these malconditions will feel right and comfortable.

My teaching experience has shewn me that the worse these conditions are in a pupil and the longer they have been in existence, the more familiar and right they feel to him and the harder it is to teach him how to overcome them, no matter how much he may wish to do so. In other words, his ability to learn a new and more satisfactory use of himself is, as a rule, in inverse ratio to the degree of misuse present in his organism and the duration of these harmful conditions.

This point must be understood and taken into practical consideration by anyone forming a plan of procedure for improving the use and functioning of the mechanisms throughout the organism as a means of eradicating defects, peculiarities and bad habits.

Towards the end of his lessons my pupil asked me why it should be so much more difficult to overcome the habit of stuttering than the habit of over-smoking. He then went on to tell me that at one time he had been an inveterate smoker, but realizing that the habit was getting too much of a hold on him, he had decided he must give it up. He had first tried the plan of reducing the number of cigarettes he smoked per day, but as he found that he could not keep within the prescribed limit, he had decided that the only way for him to succeed in breaking his habit was to give up smoking altogether. He put this decision into practice and had become a non-smoker. He now wanted to know why his efforts to overcome his stuttering had not been equally successful.

I pointed out to him that the two habits presented very different problems.

The smoker can abstain from smoking without interrupting the necessary activities of his daily life, and as the temptation to smoke to excess results, as every chain-smoker knows, from the fact that each pipe, cigar or cigarette smoked acts as a stimulus to the smoking of another, every time he abstains from smoking he is breaking a link in the chain.

The stutterer, on the other hand, cannot abstain from speaking because his daily intercourse with his fellows depends on it. Every time he speaks, therefore, he is thrown into the way of temptation to indulge in his familiar wrong habits of use of his vocal organs, tongue and lips, and so to stutter. The stimulus to speak is one that he cannot evade in the way a smoker can evade the stimulus to smoke if he so wills it, so that the habit of stuttering calls for a much more fundamental form of control.

Satisfactory control of the act of speaking demands a satisfactory standard of the general use of the mechanisms, since the satisfactory use of the tongue and lips and the required standard of control of the respiratory and vocal organs depend upon this satisfactory general use. This being so, the unsatisfactory general use of the mechanisms which, as we have seen, is present in every stutterer, constitutes a formidable obstacle in the way of mastering his habit.

The situation is very different for the smoker, for the act of smoking does not demand any such high standard of use of the mechanisms, and although unsatisfactory conditions of use are frequendy present in his case, the influence which they exercise in preventing him from overcoming his particular habit is small in comparison.

Still another element enters into the case. The habit which the smoker is trying to overcome is one which he has himself developed in the process of satisfying a desire. The stutterer, on the other hand, is dealing with a habit which has not been developed in the process of satisfying a desire, but which has gradually grown to become part of the use of the mechanisms which he habitually employs for all the activities of his daily life. This explains why the smoking habit is relatively superficial and in this degree easier to overcome, and why my pupil had been able by himself to solve the problem of his oversmoking, but had not been able to deal with his habit of stuttering without the help of a teacher who understood how to give him the means whereby he could himself command that satisfactory use of his mechanisms generally which includes the correct use of the tongue, lips and vocal organs for the act of speaking.

I would emphasize here that the process of eradicating any such defect as stuttering by these means makes the greatest demands on the time, patience and skill of both teacher and pupil, since as we have seen, it calls for (1) the inhibition of the instinctive direction of energy associated with familiar sensory experiences of wrong habitual use, and (2) the building up in its place of a conscious direction of energy through the repetition of unfamiliar sensory experiences associated with new and satisfactory use. This process of directing energy out of familiar into new and unfamiliar paths, as a means of changing the manner of reacting to stimuli, implies of necessity an ever-increasing ability on the part of both teacher and pupil to 'pass from the known to the unknown';* it is therefore a process which is true to the principle involved in all human growth and development.

Since this chapter was written, I have received a letter from this pupil, and with his permission I am quoting the following extracts from it, as they are of interest in relation to the development of sensory awareness of an improvement in use:

I hope that you have not construed my prolonged silence to mean that I have lost interest in you or in your work. Quite the contrary is the case. I am interested in little else ... I feel quite sanguine about the possibility of making considerable progress again if I can come this year. I am optimistic enough to believe that I am almost ripe for some real new experiences ... I have now come to the point that when I feel my back working I also feel my jaws relax. I really believe that I have been using my jaw muscles to keep myself erect! I am really beginning to appreciate how little I have used my tongue and lips in my speech, in fact, I have scarcely used them at all. It is this great improvement in my sensory appreciation that gives me such hope for the future.

'The late Mr Joseph Rowntree after one of his lessons described my work as 'reasoning from the known to the unknown, the known being the wrong and the unknown being the right'.