Imagine something so vile it makes your face scrunch up, causes you to feel like throwing up, and drives you to take a long shower? That emotion you’re feeling is disgust.
Disgust is one of the six primary emotions (the others are sadness, happiness, surprise, anger and fear/anxiety). You might not think of disgust immediately when you think about our main emotions, but it’s pretty important, and can often be the emotion that elicits the strongest response in us. A couple years ago, for example, I went to a really horrible restaurant, where they serves us avant-garde creations with a lot of raw fish and weird combinations of flavors. I had been invited to the lunch, so in an effort to be polite I tried to eat everything that was put in front of me, no matter how strange it looked or how bad it smelled. To this day, whenever I think about the restaurant I visibly cringe in disgust, and my inner voice goes “ew, ew, ew!” until the appalling memory passes. I feel the disgust very viscerally, despite the meal having happened years ago, and am taken back to the smells, tastes and textures I experienced.
We feel disgust when we observe, hear or touch something that is toxic, gross or offensive. Evolutionarily speaking, disgust is protective in that it keeps us away from things that could potentially harm or contaminate us, like a decaying substance filled with disease causing bacteria. That’s why in clinical circles, it’s referred to as a disease-avoidance emotion.
However, we feel disgust in social situations too, such as when we observe or experience bullying, cruelty, cheating, betrayal, racism, sexism, discrimination, or abuse of any kind. We often say something sickens us or turns our stomach when confronted with something that ‘feels wrong’. In fact, we often feel something is wrong or unacceptable before we even realize which values or social mores have been violated.
Disgust informs our morality, but it is also informed by our values and past experiences. Our divergent reactions to public displays of affection (PDA) is a good example of how this works. If someone has been taught to value things like privacy, intimacy or public opinion, then it is more likely that they respond to PDA with hints of disgust. Someone who values love, affection, and breaking social norms strongly, on the other hand, will likely not have disgust in their reaction to some PDA. It can happen with political views too, maybe. If your political values and knowledge are in one direction, then you might even feel disgust if someone posts something too far in the opposite direction. Someone that grew up on the other side of the political spectrum, however, might not feel that same disgust even if they do not agree with the post.
Sometimes disgust, like all emotions, can get a little bit out of hand. For example, it’s normal to be a little disgusted by spiders, but some people are really really disgusted by spiders. So much so that it leads to a fear of spiders, arachnophobia. Disgust is an emotion tightly linked to fear (phobias like claustrophobia or agoraphobia) and other exaggerated or nonadaptive responses (i.e. eating disorders, sexual dysfunctions, hate speech, etc).
Disgust can many times be self-directed. When it’s self-directed it can sometimes easily get out of control because we might not have an external person or force checking it and regulating it. For example, disgust towards ourselves can lead to excessive disapproval of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Disgust plays a role in other more complex emotions such as guilt and shame. Guilt results from thinking about real or imagined transgressions you might have done for which you expect punishment. Shame, on the other hand, is about fear of rejection. To learn more about guilt and shame, check out Guilt and Shame 101.
The action associated with disgust is rejection. Indeed, we ought to reject toxic substances and toxic behaviors. However, sometimes we should do the opposite of rejecting, such as agreeing to sample the local cuisine as we are getting to know a new culture (we are probably better off trying it before asking what’s in it), or allowing a spider to walk around freely without asking your mom to kill it for you.
And for trauma survivors whose traumatic experiences have led them to feel unlovable; instead of self-loathing and self-rejection, they deserve to learn self-acceptance and self-compassion. (Check out our section on weathering storms). Metta meditation is a great place to start.
Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training manual (Second edition.). New York: The Guilford Press.
Davey, G. C. (2011). Disgust: the disease-avoidance emotion and its dysfunctions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1583), 3453-3465.