During my junior year of college I took a journalism law course. The class was a mixture of ethics, high-profile cases and oral presentations. At the start of the semester, the professor— well aware of my speech impediment— offered me an opportunity to opt out of presenting. However, I figured that if the other some 20 students in the class had to present, then I should-- and could-- too.
So, I did. I stuttered through several presentations that semester. Often times I’d leave the class a little embarrassed and pretty exhausted (talking takes a lot out of a stutterer), but I felt empowered because I had done it— no matter how long it took. However, one particular day toward the end of the semester, I had a different experience. My stutter wasn't being very kind to me that day. It threw tantrums, it refused to cooperate, and none of my techniques were working. It was exhausting. So, naturally, it was oral presentation day in journalism law class
I stood in front of my peers, paper in hand, and attempted to speak. Before I knew it, a century had passed and I hadn’t even gotten out my first and last name. I began sweating, my heart rate quickened and I felt a burning sensation behind my eyes. I was defeated. Before I knew it, my feet were moving: out the door and into the hallway. I was a 21 year old woman, running out of a classroom in tears like a fool.
My professor came to console me, I admit, I was very ashamed and couldn't even lift my head to look him in the eyes. He was kind, and patient with me though. He told me I didn’t have to continue presenting if I didn’t want to. But I was resilient. I told him I would and we walked back into the classroom. I couldn’t look at my classmates at first, I hid behind my paper and walked to the front of the room.
When I mustered up the courage to look up finally, I saw that a majority of my classmates held handwritten signs in the air. In pen or pencil, on lined notebook paper, the signs read “Char is Awesome” and “You can do it.” I smiled and began to speak.
For years, I never turned down an opportunity to speak in public. Whether it was a class presentation or speaking on a panel, I’d resolved never to say “no.” Whether my stutter was being kind to me that day or throwing a tantrum, I pushed myself to overcome any public speaking challenge thrown my way. The practice began as a way for me to push myself, to prove myself— to myself. But over time, it simply became a thing I did. I equated turning down these opportunities with being ashamed of or not accepting my stutter. I now realize that in believing that, I was being totally unfair to myself.
At work the other day, my boss asked me if I’d like to speak to a group of college students who were coming in to hear from “real, live journalists” at People Magazine. He thought my first few months at People Mag, filled with hustle and my making it “through guts and grit” would be good for the college students. But even he knew my stutter would be an issue.
“I mean, real talk: I debated whether to ask you. If it wasn’t for your stutter, I would never have thought twice about asking you, because your story is perfect for them. I never want to treat you differently, ever,” he said, adding that I could take some time to think about it.
I automatically felt as if I had no choice. I mean, I’d resolved never to turn down any public speaking opportunity, right? I was ready to say yes. But I couldn’t ignore the slight pang of doubt in my chest. To be honest, the whole thing sounded exhausting. Speaking every day at work in general is tiring, and the opportunity just didn’t sound appealing. I mean, I love giving advice and talking to people, don’t get me wrong, but I felt like I’d be pushing myself a bit too hard, and for no good reason. After all, my boss said if it would cause my any stress or pressure, I was free to turn him down.
I had a dilemma. What to do, what to do? So, naturally I turned to my good friend and stutter buddy Roisin for advice. I explained the situation to her and, as usual, she displayed her wisdom and awesomeness.
“It’s hard, that kinda stuff," she said. Some things are just harder for us than for your average Joe and not every day is the day to push yourself.
“Then we put pressure on ourselves to take every challenge or we are ‘avoiding.’ “
She added: “You’ve come far enough that you don’t have to kill yourself to prove yourself.”
I had never thought of it that way before. In that moment I realized that my decision to never turn down a public speaking challenge had shrunk from an empowering resolution to a stressful rule. A commandment. A thinly-veiled attempt to prove myself to other people rather than to myself.
You see, pushing yourself is healthy, but pushing yourself over the edge is not. Whether you stutter or not, it’s okay to have limits, it’s okay to go easy on yourself. There’s nothing wrong with loving yourself enough to cut yourself a break.
So, I learned I have nothing to prove anymore. I told my boss “no.” And he was okay with it. But, most importantly, so was I.