Unconscious shaming

I’ve been thinking a lot about shame. More specifically, I’ve been contemplating a term I’ve coined recently called ‘unconscious shaming’ (I’m not sure if this is a real term or not, so if I accidentally just took credit for something that’s already existing: I apologize, please don’t sue me. All you’re gonna get is Godzilla action figures and an embarrassing amount of Spice Girls paraphernalia).

The idea of ‘unconscious shaming’ first came to me when I went to go see Finding Dory by myself a couple of days ago. I was all by myself in an empty theater, bawling my eyes out watching this handicapped character constantly apologize throughout the film for her disability (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, climb out from under the rock you’ve been living your whole life and go fucking watch Finding Nemo and then grab tissues to go see Finding Dory before it leaves theaters). She’s always apologizing for her disability; the other characters she encounters make it very clear to her that she’s an inconvenience to them.

SPOILERS (if you haven’t seen the film and are anal about spoilers, do not proceed): In one scene, after Nemo is injured during a squid attack, Marlin snaps at Dory and tells her “Just go over there and forget! That’s what you’re good at!” So she swims off and promptly forgets her friends. Marlin tries to rationalize with his son that he wasn’t insulting Dory, but he ultimately admits that he unconsciously shamed his best friend for her disability.

I sniffled and wiped tears throughout the whole film, feeling worse and worse for Dory as she continued to apologize for something she has no control over. The point in which I broke down in sobs was when we see her finally reunite with her long-lost parents. The first thing Dory does is begin apologizing for forgetting her family and losing them, just as she has apologized throughout the whole film for her short term memory loss. Her mother immediately tells her to stop apologizing and instead tells her how proud she is that Dory was able to find them again. Her parents had nothing but kind and encouraging statements for their handicapped daughter, for they never made her apologize as a child for her handicap but rather surrounded her with love and support. My emotions were all over the damn place, I couldn’t stop sobbing.



Unconscious shame is born from ignorance. Some make comments with the best of intentions, hoping they could impart wisdom that may help someone in need, but instead make the other person feel bad for something out of their control. It can also be born out of frustration, for when a handicap becomes an inconvenience

My best friend, Amy Ferguson, was born with Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia. PCD is an inherited medical disorder of cilia (for more information visit http://www.pcdfoundation.org ). I asked her to tell me about any times she’d been unconsciously shamed for, “Yeah. It’s not something I think about a lot but as someone with a rare disease I have A LOT of experience with if I sit down and thing about it” she replied, “First example I know of happened before I could even remember it, but its a story my parents have repeated several times. I was kicked out of my first daycare because the woman who ran the daycare was convinced I was a carrier of disease and would make all of her other charges sick so I wasn’t allowed back in the daycare despite my parents telling her that I had a medical condition and wasn’t contagious. I was probably 2 at the time.”

The running theme is the assumption that she’s sick and contagious, which couldn’t be further from the truth, “I can’t get them sick because thats not how my illness works. they’re much more likely to make me sick than they are to get something from me, but there’s always this perception that if someone is coughing or blowing their nose a lot they’re sick and somehow dangerous or unclean.”

This is the most frustrating part for Amy, “It’s always really aggravating when someone makes an assumption about how contagious I am or not. I am a responsible person. I’m not going to be in public if I can make others sick. It makes people close off and withdraw and act coldly towards you if they think you’ll make them sick. it makes people act rude. Which is never pleasant in day to day interactions.”

Hearing this I got angry on my friend’s behalf, thinking how on earth people could be so offensive and harsh towards my super kind and peaceful friend. She doesn’t take it too personally though, “It’s not something I choose to dwell on and I realize now that when someone says something that hurts, it’s usually not from a place of malicious intent, but rather just pure ignorance. So few people understand what its like to live with PCD, I can’t expect the general population to automatically know how to respond to me. I try to look at intentions.”

Living with PCD has it’s challenges for Amy, “I remember being in a group activity and we were talking about privilege. Our group had to talk about travel and privilege and I talked about what it takes for me to be go on a trip or leave somewhere. All the extra packing, medication supplies, extra treatments, contacting airlines to make sure I can fly with my meds, sometimes I have to go into the hospital and do a round of IV meds if I’m going to be gone a long time. I basically just can’t pick up and go somewhere. Like, that spontaneity is lost to me. And the kids in my group were just like ‘wow…i’ve literally never even thought of that aspect of our privilege as healthy people'”

In awe of her positivity despite experiencing so much ignorance and frustration, I admired my best friend more than I had previously. Rather than be angry, she chooses to advocate for herself and educate others on PCD. The aggravation is still there and unconscious shaming still occurs, but she chooses to maintain a positive outlook and appreciate the intentions behind comments and advice.

It is, in my humble opinion, a detriment to society that many choose to make a judgement on a person, for conditions out of their control, before taking the opportunity to ask and educate themselves. In an effort to feel important and knowledgable, so many choose to rattle off a bit of advice or make a snap observation about the surface level of a person, rather than take a moment to ask questions and listen.

Privilege can make people blind, ignorant to issues that they’ve never had (nor ever will) experience. Privilege is also the excuse for so many for their habits of unconscious shaming.

I am aware that I am privileged and that I have unconsciously shamed people in the past. I am not proud of it, but I’m making an effort daily to stop that. I never want to make people feel bad, anytime I learn that I unintentionally hurt someone I am devastated and ashamed. I’m making the effort to educate myself before making comments or handing out unsought advice. I’m listening to what people are saying and giving them validation for what they are feeling. I’m learning that kindness and consideration are the two best tools I have in order to make others feel good and important. I can only hope that others discover the same…



2 thoughts on “Unconscious shaming”

  1. Well done, Joy! As Amy’s mom, it is excruciating to see the reaction some people have to Amy’s illness. I have stuffed my indignation at the conscious and unconscious shaming that Amy has had to endure. I admire my daughter greatly. I admire that she maintains her positive outlook on life, strives for excellence always and exhibits great tenacity. It hurts to see her hurt and not know how to fix it. I do a small part in talking to people about Amy’s disease and trying to explain its impact on Amy’s life. My daughter is beautiful and lives her life with bravery. She is my hero.

    Liked by 1 person

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