Disgust: The Emotional System’s Eject Button

Disgust, One Heart Counseling Center, Emotional Health

The physical sensation of disgust, like many unpleasant emotions, can distract from the feeling’s true message because it is not enjoyable to experience.  It is, by nature, repellant.

The fact is, disgust can be essential to emotional survival and well being, if we are discerning and open to it.

Before we start, let’s quickly set the stage.

This post is #10 in a series of 10: Ten Basic Emotions and their Messages.

The human emotional system is built as a messaging system.

Each emotion has a general message it wants to convey.  Once that message is delivered (meaning you accept it that it is present and that its presence is OK) the wave of that emotion can be processed.

Sometimes there are multiple waves of the emotion. Sometimes it takes a little time for the emotion to process through the body, sometimes it is relieved right away.  It just depends.

It’s important to remember that there are nuances to the system. Each emotion also has a spectrum of how helpful it can be.


The message disgust wants to get across to you is that there is something it wants to remove from your emotional system.

Very much like the physical body’s nausea, disgust is built to remove or drive you away from a threat.

This is the tricky part about disgust is that it has a helpful aspect as well as one that is potentially unhelpful.

Let’s look at the helpful part:

Disgust serves as a signal to avoid a person, place, situation that is not healthy for you.

It is one of the emotions that is most easy to detect physically.  It is often not threatening to report.  People will easily say they are disgusted by someone’s actions or a situation if it is popularly seen as unsavory.  Especially if there is a judgment since judgment it is another form of distancing oneself from something “bad”.

Now, it can be vulnerable if disgust comes up in response to a person or situation you feel you are supposed to love.

This is where it gets interesting to me.

Disgust can actually arise when the emotion you are experiencing is not yours and you are taking it on as your own.  The emotional system wants to purge it because it does not belong to you.

This emotional experience may have been more difficult to detect because it might not have been in your matrix to consider that an emotion you are experiencing may not be yours.

However, if you are someone who tends to take on blame more easily than assigning blame, you may actually have a lot of experience with this subtle form of disgust.  It may have been available to your awareness as anger.  It may have even been self directed anger.  Or it could have been experienced like self loathing or a temptation to self sabotage.

Here’s an example:

You are in a disagreement or unpleasant exchange with someone close to you.  You are being blamed for the problem occurring. This is can often be an unconscious process. Both of you take on the assumption that your “stuff” is the cause of the issue. Of course, there can be more overt blaming where people use direct words as well.

You get a weird rotting feeling in your stomach because it is actually not your stuff causing the problem. In reality, it is actually the other person’s “stuff” or a combination of yours and theirs. The disgust serves to try and push away what is not yours.

Now that disgust is being explained this way, can you remember times when this might have been happening in your emotional system?

Here is the potentially unhelpful part of disgust:

Sometimes you are actually repelled by something that is a part of you.  Usually it is an aspect of yourself that you may have pushed outside of your awareness.  Sometimes it is because someone else in your life displayed this characteristic or behavior and it was hurtful to you. It is being mirrored back to you, tapping on the dislike you may have for that part of yourself.

Let’s look at an example:

I have found myself disgusted when people close to me have not been willing to be straightforward in their communication. There were entire sessions with my own therapist, especially in my 20s, that I spent talking about the fact that I was disgusted by family members’ behavior, specifically around not communicating directly about how they felt. I feel for my therapist having to sit through those sessions!

What was actually true, in hindsight, is that I still had some major growth work to do around communicating my truth to the ones I love. That is a complex skill, but I did not have awareness of that at the time. I just felt wronged. Over time, I was able to see where I, myself, needed to work on this.

That is the tricky part about disgust: there is a time when it is indicating that there is something we are not willing to see or own about ourselves.

So what do you do with it?

ONE: Notice that it is there.

Usually, you will feel it in your stomach, closer to the top of your stomach.  It could also be noticed through a temptation to self sabotage (see above).

TWO: Check in to see if it is helpful or unhelpful disgust.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  •  Is there something potentially threatening going on?

If yes, what do I need to do to protect myself?

  • Am I taking on more blame than is accurate?

If yes, talk with an objective friend or do some writing to sort out what is your responsibility in the situation. And what is not.  You may chose to talk this through with the other person in the interaction, but it is certainly not necessary.

If no to both of the above:

  • Might there be something the other person is doing that I am actually capable of as well? Could there be a blind spot?

If you think the disgust could be an arrow to something you might not have wanted to see about yourself, talk to a trusted friend, a therapist or do some writing to explore this.

Let it be an opportunity for you to develop some compassion or forgiveness for the other person in the situation by realizing you are also capable of such things.

Or, let it be a chance for you to own something about yourself and use it for an opportunity to grow.

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