Disgust: A Natural Emotional Response to Abuse

How tuning into the core emotion of disgust heals traumatic wounds.

Posted Oct 14, 2019

Disgust is an emotion to which I never gave much thought. It was just something that happened to me if I was "grossed out" by something. But after practicing psychotherapy for several years, disgust emerged as an important emotion for healing trauma from physical, verbal, and sexual abuse.

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, uncaring woman who consistently lied, manipulated, and scared him. His insight into how his mother’s behavior affected him was impressive, one of the positive results stemming from years of psychoanalysis. However, he had never thought of himself as a survivor of attachment trauma. Despite the fact that others thought he came from a “fine family,” I thought of Kyle as a victim of an emotionally abusive relationship. And I let him know he could heal.

 Hilary Jacobs Hendel
Hard experiences/traumas move us up the Change Triangle. Reacquainting ourselves with our core emotions moves us back down to calmer states.
Source: Hilary Jacobs Hendel

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. I showed him, using the Change Triangle, how chronic anxiety and depression are eased, and even healed, 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 the 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 (verbally abusing) 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 highly trained to recognize nonverbal communications like facial expressions and body postures. It’s very hard for the body to hide the way it truly feels. Seeing the look of disgust on his face, I asked what emotion he was aware of experiencing. Emotional health strengthens by noticing and striving to name the emotions we are currently experiencing.

“Kyle, can we slow down to a snail’s pace and notice the emotions coming up now? 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.” To help him find the right word, I pointed to the Change Triangle poster that sits in my office.

“I think it is disgust. She does disgust me,” he said with contempt on his face.

“What are the sensations in your body that tell you that you are disgusted?” Core emotions have physical sensations to cue us and prepare our bodies for actions that are designed by nature to be adaptive. Core emotions also have impulses, like attacking or crying. We benefit greatly by being able to tolerate the physical sensations and impulses that emotions naturally evoke.

“It’s like I want to throw up.”

“Stay with it. What does the feeling of disgust tell you?”

“It’s like a thick black goo. And, I see her. My mother!” he said. “Get away from me!” He shouted caught up in the past memory.

Disgust is a core survival emotion that makes us want to expel something toxic to us. Kyle’s brain had deemed his mother poisonous and associated that feeling both with an image of black goo and the emotion of disgust.

“Stay with the feeling of disgust. Don’t move away from it or fear it. It’s just a feeling 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 five 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 was happy for Kyle and felt pride on his behalf.

“But now I kind of feel sad.”

“Can you stay with the sadness to learn 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 together in agreement.

Following that session, we processed other core emotions stemming from his childhood including anger, fear, and sadness. Kyle’s depression continued to lift and his anxiety was replaced with more confidence and compassion both towards himself, his wife and his children. 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:

  1. It’s a core emotion meaning it tells us something important about how our environment is or was 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.
  2. It’s one of the first emotions to have evolved, probably to facilitate survival by immediately expelling something that could make us sick, like a poisonous berry or rotting meat.
  3. Disgust often comes up in response to poisonous or toxic people, where deep trust and love has been betrayed.
  4. We naturally feel disgusted in response to someone who has abused us.
  5. Validating disgust can decrease anxiety and shame from trauma.
  6. We can sense disgust physically as revulsion, nausea, or as an impulse to get something out of you, like an abuser who has been internalized.
  7. Disgust has impulses that can be brought into awareness.
  8. When disgust is processed, the nervous system will reset to calmer and more regulated states of being.

Want to experiment with disgust?

Imagine smelling something disgusting to you. Notice the feeling of disgust in your body, however subtle it may be. Try to describe three physical sensations of disgust you notice as subtle as they may be. If you want, choose from the list below that most closely describes the sensations of disgust you sense.

1. _____________________

2. _____________________

3. _____________________

  • Queasy
  • Pit in stomach
  • Gagging
  • Acidy throat
  • Tense
  • Tight
  • Nauseated
  • Dizzy
  • A hole inside
  • Off-center
  • Acid stomach
  • Raw
  • Jittery
  • Numb
  • Stomach ache
  • Jelly belly

Finally, so you’re not left with that yucky feeling of disgust, imagine smelling something wonderful like fresh-baked cookies or your favorite flower. Notice what changes inside your body.

Congratulations! You have just worked with your emotions. A+ just for trying!

References

Fosha, D. (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect. New York: Basic Books.

Hendel, H. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression. Random House: New York

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.