Disgust: A Natural Emotional Response to Abuse
Disgust is an emotion about which I never gave much thought. It was just something that happened to me if I caught a stomach virus or ate something disagreeable. But after practicing psychotherapy for several years, disgust emerged as an important emotion for trauma healing.
For example, Kyle, a man in his forties, wanted help with his depressed mood and chronic anxiety. He told me in no uncertain terms that his mother was a cold and uncaring woman. Behind closed doors, she routinely lied, manipulated, and scared her son. His insight into how his mother’s behavior affected him was impressive, one of the positive results stemming from psychoanalytic psychotherapy. However, I thought of Kyle as a survivor of emotional abuse despite the fact that others thought he came from a “fine family.” And, I let him know he could heal.
During our first session, I taught Kyle about the relationship between core emotions and trauma symptoms, like anxiety and depression. Through no fault of his own, he had coped with his childhood emotions the best way he could, by burying them, which happens unconsciously to manage overwhelming distress. I showed him, using the Change Triangle as the map, how chronic anxiety and depression are eased by getting in touch with previously buried emotions stemming from past abuse.
As a precursor to our work, I taught him how to ground and breathe. Grounding and breathing lower anxiety, allowing deeper emotions to safely surface and move through the body to their natural endpoint.
During one memorable session, Kyle was sharing the way his mother would humiliate him if he didn’t get an A in school. “Are you a big dummy?” she would say taunting him until he cried. I asked him, “Kyle, as you sit here with me now sharing this memory, what emotions do you notice below the neck?”
“She was just so vicious,” he said. “Sick! I would never even think to talk to my son that way,” he said with an undeniable look of disgust on his face.
AEDP therapists are trained to recognize non-verbal communications, like facial expressions and body posture. It’s very hard for the body to hide the way it truly feels.
Seeing what I thought was a look of disgust on his face, I asked what emotion he was aware of experiencing as he shared. Emotional health means being able to notice and name the emotions we are experiencing as we are having them.
“Kyle, can we slow down to a snail’s pace and notice the emotions coming up? What are you aware of?”
He looked at me quizzically, which was my cue to help.
“Scan your body from head to toe and see what emotions you are able to recognize.” I pointed to the list of core emotions in my office to help him.
“I think it is disgust.” He said. “She does disgust me.” He said with contempt on his face.
“That’s such great noticing,” I affirmed. “What are the sensations in your body that tell you that you are disgusted?” Core emotions are really a bunch of physical sensations that prepare our body for survival actions, which we feel as impulses like fleeing. Emotional health also entails being able to tolerate the physical sensations emotions naturally evoke.
“It’s like I want to throw up... on her!”
“Stay with it. What does the feeling of disgust tell you that it wants to throw up and get out of you?”
“It’s like a thick black goo. And, I see her. My mother!” he said. “Get away from me!” He shouted flicking his hands as if to get something away from him. He seemed caught up in a past memory.
Disgust is a core survival emotion that makes us want to expel something toxic to us. Kyle’s brain had rightly deemed his mother poisonous and associated it both with an image of black goo and the emotion disgust. These images and feelings are not logical or linear, they are how our right brain processes and stores experience, especially traumatic ones.
Disgust is a natural emotional response to abuse and maltreatment.
“Stay with the feeling of disgust. Don’t move away from it or fear it. It’s just a feeling from long ago that you can now handle. Let’s make space for it.”
Kyle focused inward breathing deeply, as we had practiced together. His breathing was audible and his inward focus intense. After about 5 breaths, his face softened signifying that the wave of disgust was coming to an end.
“What are you experiencing now?” I asked.
“It’s better. I feel calmer. I think I’ve been needing to release that.”
“Wow! You did great,” I said beaming with pride on Kyle’s behalf.
“But now I kind of feel sad.”
“Can we stay with the sadness to listen to what it’s telling you?”
A tear ran down Kyle’s cheek. “It’s very sad that I was born to such a damaged mother.”
We nodded in unison in agreement.
Following that session, we processed other emotions stemming from his childhood including anger, fear, and sadness. Kyle’s depression and anxiety continued to ease. His confidence grew. Perhaps most importantly for healing, he could now access more compassion towards himself for the abuse he suffered.
Processing the disgust was pivotal in helping him more clearly define himself as a good person who was treated badly through no fault of his own.
Here are a few general things to know about disgust:
It’s a core emotion meaning it tells us something important about how our environment is affecting us. We benefit greatly when we learn to listen to core emotions, as opposed to avoiding them as we are taught to do in our society.
One of the first emotions to have evolved, disgust facilitates survival by triggering our body to immediately expel something toxic, like a poisonous berry or rotting meat.
Disgust often comes up in response to poisonous or toxic people, where deep trust and love has been betrayed.
We naturally feel disgusted in response to someone who has abused us.
Validating disgust can decrease anxiety and shame from trauma.
We can sense disgust physically as revulsion, nausea, the impulse to get something out of you, like an abuser who has been internalized.
Disgust has impulses that can be brought into awareness.
When disgust is processed, the nervous system will reset to a calmer more regulated state.
Want to experiment with disgust?
First, to set the stage for noticing, we have to slow down, feel our feet on the ground, and take a few deep breaths. Click here for a video to practice grounding and breathing with me. When you are ready, imagine smelling rotted meat or sour milk or a dirty diaper, whatever is most evocative for you. Next, scan your body from head to toe to notice the feeling of disgust that arises in your body. Describe the sensations of disgust or choose from the list below that most closely describe the sensations of disgust you feel.
Pit in stomach
A hole inside
Lastly, so you’re not left with the feeling of disgust, imagine smelling something beautiful, like your favorite flower or perfume, or delicious, like fresh baked cookies. Take 5 or 6 more deep belly breaths.
Congratulations! You have just worked with your emotions.
A+ just for trying!
Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.
Hendel, H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect to Your Authentic Self. New York: Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House
Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. W.W. Norton: New York