The protective and life-serving force of disgust

Jun 14, 2023Constellations, Power, Privilege + Oppression

Disgust is a VITAL emotion that serves as a protective and helpful force for our personal transformation. Disgust can transform our views and beliefs, affect our digestive tract, cause shame when turned toward the self, and often blocks us from working with past trauma. Learning to work with our disgust is absolutely crucial for healing.

What is disgust, and how does it help our healing process?

We often have the sense that the experience of disgust is a bad thing – unpleasant to feel, shameful to experience and talk about.

Disgust is such a powerful emotion that when it lands in our nervous systems, it actually raises the temperature of our torso by one to two degrees, and can cause a cascade of discomfort in our digestive systems.  But being able to recognize and speak about disgust is of huge importance to our own internal boundaries and capacities, as well as our ability to remain engaged with events in the world.

Disgust is so central to our emotional and motivational circuitry, and yet we live in a world whose norms and systems have often clouded our ability to feel and recognize its value.

What is the relationship between disgust and shame?

Like anger, disgust can be protective, functional, and even good for us. It’s designed to move us away from physical contamination that could make us ill (in the form of dirt, rotten food, or disease) and from situations that make us feel queasy, like being pushed to do something we don’t want to do, or when we feel horror at something that threatens our sense of mattering and of having choice.

Throughout our lives, but especially when we are children, disgust can also protect against sexuality coming too early, or from an inappropriate source. Disgust lets us know, through the visceral response of our bodies, that we are not ready for certain experiences!

Sometimes, and very sadly, when we grow up in environments or live through experiences which ignore our boundaries, or teach us that our “no” is not welcome or respected, we can become disconnected from our disgust altogether. When we don’t have the support to feel and honor these experiences of disgust and horror, our disgust can turn in toward ourselves, leaving us lonelier, ashamed, more anxious and more depressed. Disgust turned inward is self-disgust, which is also known as shame.

How is disgust related to systemic oppression?

In larger systems, the shadow realm of disgust is in play when people wield it to create categories of social contagion that allow formal policing of bodies through legislation, and informal policing of acceptability (both kinds of policing cover attributes like body type, skin hue, age, sexual orientation, physical capacity, level of education, and so on).

Groups in power (or groups who want more power) can mobilize disgust to create agreement on who is included or excluded; who has access to resources (including housing, food, medical care, or even kindness), and, at worst, who deserves to live. So many conflicts on our planet are justified by the invocation of disgust: aggressors build support for their agenda by portraying “others” as subhuman, animalistic, or dangerously populous, like vermin.

How can we tell when disgust is healthy? 

Where is our disgust welcome, reasonable, and helpful; and where is it dangerous – both to ourselves, and to the planet?

Our natural, physiological boundaries are present for good reason – to protect us from being harmed or violated; to reassert that we matter and have a say. Boundaries support our wellbeing and healthy disgust is in turn supportive of boundaries. For continued personal balance and resilient social engagement, it’s important that we learn to welcome our disgust and find ways to balance our emotional responses in the face of so much that is dismaying or disgusting!

As we begin to recognize disgust for its protective capacities and shift our relationship to it, it can become a huge asset on our healing journeys.

What kinds of processes can support us and bring us more of a sense of belonging more to our families, and to the planet?

Family constellation work can take place in any system: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Family, Intergenerational, Ancestral, Societal, Global. This demonstration video explores some of the processes I teach about how we might use neuroscience and resonant constellations to create movement in our most challenging places.


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About Sarah

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton

Sarah Peyton, international speaker and facilitator, has a passion for weaving together neuroscience knowledge and experiences of healing that unify people with their brains and bodies.

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