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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Ardoin

Disgust! A Core Emotion

Disgust has often been overlooked in conventional psychology, but it is a fascinating core emotion that can help us define who we are with greater clarity!

Image by Tom Staziker from Pixabay

Image Description: Image shows a young child in a carseat wearing a blue jacket and making a face of disgust.

Disgust: A Core Emotion

Psychotherapists are, of course, quite fond of emotions. Many (if not most) psychotherapists focus our work around the emotional experiences of our clients. Though humans have likely had emotional expressions since the beginning of consciousness and communication (as emotions help us organize our experiences at a fundamental level) in 1872 Charles Darwin identified six core emotions in humans: anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness. #science The identification of these six core #emotions is often attributed to 20th century psychologist Paul Ekman, who expanded upon Darwin’s initial conceptions, and who famously collaborated with “Inside Out” filmmakers in their portrayal of a young person’s inner world of feelings. Of course, if you’re a fan of #therapy and #counseling, then you are probably also familiar with the “feelings wheel” which contains many more than 6 emotions, at least thirty I’d say, fanning out from the core ones; this tool appears to be commonly used in many therapy offices across the United States. With all that said, I’ve been particularly captivated by the emotion of disgust lately. To me it seems like an emotion taken for granted, which deserves deeper exploration.

Image Description from the Wikimedia commons website where this photo was obtained:

The feelings wheel is comprised of three concentric circles and six segments. Each segment corresponds to the six primary feelings: mad, sad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful. The outer circles describe secondary feelings that relate to the primary ones, colored in lighter shades than their counterparts.

Is it surprising to you that the wheel does not contain disgust listed as a primary emotion? Where might disgust best be located on this wheel?

Counseling programs often discuss emotions such as sadness, anger, and love at great length, but rarely have I seen disgust discussed in a thorough manner in counseling settings, as reflected in the above feelings wheel. Perhaps disgust has been neglected as we often see it as more of a sensation related to literal, not figurative, hazards, such as moldy food or an unclean restroom. However, in Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion, Susan B. Miller (2004) suggests that disgust is our reaction toward the symbolic perception of “not me” or which would threaten our psychological sense of bodily safety, rather than the mere literal smell or sense perception of a threat. “Inside and outside threaten to blur or change place if disgust does not step in and thrust them apart” (p. 18). Miller suggests that disgust can promote psychological security, reinforce a sense of self-other boundary, and protect the spiritual integrity of individuals and groups (p. 6,7). Therefore, it seems that considering disgust as a psychological emotion rather than a mere physical sensation would allow us a closer look at how one perceives boundaries. #boundaries

“Inside and outside threaten to blur or change place if disgust does not step in and thrust them apart.”

Some past teachers of mine have noted that, specifically in Gestalt therapy, clients sometimes notice feelings of intense disgust and may begin to vomit in session. (Handing someone the tissue box turned into handing someone the trash can!) #therapydrama This is likely because Gestalt therapy approaches cognitive distortions in a different way than #CBT and #DBT do.* Instead of pointing out cognitive distortions in order to “un-distort” them (if you will), Gestalt therapy instead frames a cognition as an “introject,” a thought or belief that one has taken in without fully digesting it. #yum The “introject” is conceptualized as a “contact boundary disturbance” meaning a thing that blocks you from fully experiencing other people or the world around you (it blocks, or disturbs, contact). For instance, “I am ugly” could be an introject related to self-esteem which might limit one’s ability to see their own beauty or fully accept affection from others, thereby limiting full expression of pride, joy, or even sexual desire. Of course, introjects can also be neutral or positive; a belief in God might be an introject if one was raised in a household where it was expected to believe in God, and “good things always happen to me” might be an introject that contributes to a client’s sense of optimism and even resilience. Anyway, instead of simply working through an introject using a worksheet, a Gestalt therapist might encourage a client to notice sensations attached to an introject… which often results in disgust, as the client becomes aware that the introject is like a foreign body, which they are trying to eject! #therapyishard

Disgust may be a key component in a client’s individuation* process, as it declares what is “not me” in its rejection. In The Emergent Self by Peter Philippson (2009), Philippson outlines how when disgust is turned inward it becomes shame. He characterizes disgust as a “powerful reflex” which can be inhibited when children experience it as too dangerous to express. He posits that when a person is not able to express a natural disgust response, the disgust response is turned inward, and the person’s sense of self is split into the part that identifies as the “force-feeder” and the part that originally felt the disgust (which I would guess is closer to the actual self) which now feels the shame. In a therapeutic context, this might look like a polarity of aggressor/child, parent/child, or topdog/underdog within the client. Philippson argues that when a client is able to express their disgust openly toward the therapist without the therapist rejecting the client (“withdrawing or punishing”), then the client is able to “reown” a sense of power and choicefulness, now seeing that they can reject their environment rather than experiencing the environment as being rejecting of themself (p.103). This theory of disgust fits with my own experiences of processing trauma, as the more I have dared to express myself after being brought up to not to express myself in certain ways, the more I have felt powerful in my environment and also more whole and present (rather than split into a self-shaming state, and therefore less present). #selfexpression #overcomingtrauma #selfgrowth #mindfulness

After becoming more interested in the emotion of disgust, I tried to notice it more and more in my daily life. Occasionally, I would ask myself what I felt disgusted by, or I would try to trigger the feeling of disgust intentionally just to see what would happen! I also noticed similar feelings of anger and hatred, and paid attention to the differences and commonalities between them. Miller (2004) suggests that distaste is a preliminary form of disgust (p. 10) so I started to pay attention to my sense of distaste as well. As someone with a very agreeable personality, it’s not terribly remarkable to notice how little disgust I was feeling on a regular basis. It was fascinating and disconcerting to notice how little interpersonal disgust I feel (such as disgust toward people and their interpersonal choices), despite how much disgust I experience towards more literal disgust-provoking events (such as food- and hygiene- related disgust triggers). Exploring the emotion of disgust led to some unpleasant feelings of nausea, but I have no regrets! The more I learn about disgust, especially through direct experience and not just reading, the more I understand myself and my own boundaries. #learning

You CAN try these activities at home:

  1. Make a list of all the things that disgust you! Read the list. What do you notice? How do you feel reading the things on this list?

  2. How do you handle nausea? Reflect on this, as Philippson suggests that having a phobia of nausea suggests that you may have experienced that “force feeder” experience delineated earlier. (I am definitely quite phobic of nausea myself, so no shame in this whatsoever, except for the actual shame beneath the nausea, which simply means I still have some work to do.)

  3. As an experiment, notice what happens if you replace the feeling of anger with disgust. You may need to think of something that makes you angry, or already be in an angering situation. Anger brings up our heart rate while disgust lowers it; notice how this feels in your body, or if other sensations are attached to this.

  4. When you notice yourself feeling disgusted, try to identify a belief attached to the disgust. Notice, is it a belief that feels in line with your sense of self or does it surprise you?

  5. Share your disgust with a friend! Have a lively conversation about the things that disgust you. Hopefully this turns into mutually shouting “Ew!! Gross!!”


*I specifically name CBT and DBT because #psychotherapy clients are often most familiar with these forms of therapy, as they have been thoroughly researched and therefore have gained the sought-after label “evidence-based”! Gestalt therapy is fundamentally a psychodynamic, #existential, and often neurobiologically-oriented form of therapy, as opposed to a behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapies are “problem-oriented” therapies which assume “mental illness” or pathology exists in the client, often opposing an assumption of the basic goodness and internal wisdom of the client. Unlike behavioral therapies, Gestalt therapy does not assume a problem or illness with the client. Though a client may be coming in looking for help with a specific problem, and though a client may fulfill criteria for a specific diagnosis, a gestaltist holds the assumption that the client has everything they need in order to heal themselves, and that change and #healing will come from awareness (ie. shifts in perception related to relationship), rather than from the therapist prescribing specific actions that the client must do. While Gestalt “experiments” can look behavioral sometimes, or may incorporate activities from CBT or DBT, these are offered in service to the awareness of the client, or an exploration of different ways of being, rather than as a way of “fixing” the client’s distortions or emotions.

* Individuation, in short, would be the process of fully becoming one’s self! #individuation #carljung #jungianpsychology #psychoanalysis #analyticalpsychology

Further Reading:

On Emotions -

On defining CBT -

The Emergent Self (although I recommend buying used, and not on Amazon, I am linking Amazon so that you can see the description and reviews of the book) -

Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion by Susan Miller

Thanks for checking out my blog! If you have feedback, questions, or comments related to this blog post, please reach out to me by email. I am open to continued conversation.

If you are interested in the prospect of exploring your emotions further, you may consider reaching out to me by email to schedule a time for more therapeutic support.

With gratitude for your readership,

Samantha Ardoin

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