Shame: Self-Directed Disgust

Disgust, and self-directed disgust

This week for Emotions and Psychopathology class, we will be covering the basic emotion, disgust. I found reading about disgust very refreshing, because it shed light onto an under-emphasised aspect of psychopathology, and in particular, mood disorders. When we talk about mood disorders (e.g. anxiety disorder, depression), we often focus on their obvious derivative emotions such as sadness and fear, but tend to neglect the role of disgust. What is disgust? According to Power & Dalgleish (2016), disgust is the emotion that arises when one appraises a person, object, or idea as repulsive to the self, and to valued roles and goals. The complex emotion that arises out of disgust and which also predicts psychopathology is shame. Do not confuse guilt and shame. Aptly captured by Brene Brown in her Ted Talk (2010), the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”, and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Indeed, shame can be defined as disgust directed towards the self.

What is the problem with disgust directed toward the self?

When we eat something gross, we experience disgust. Naturally, what we seek to do next is to expel the food and distance ourselves from the source. Disgust is an uncomfortable emotion, and it drives us to remove the eliciting stimuli in order to reduce the level of disgust. Think about what happens, however, if this disgust is directed to the self or aspects of the self. What can you do to remove that experience of disgust? Attempting to bring down disgust levels when disgust is directed toward the self becomes a whole lot more complicated than disgust directed toward an external source, just because we cannot simply expel our selfs out of ourselves. You are stuck in your own skin. There are different ways that people still seek to cope with it, however, and they can be classified as prevention, escape, and aggression (Schoenleber & Howard Berenbaum, 2012). Here, I give some pathological forms in which these occur. People prevent self-disgust via mechanisms such as perfectionism and dependence (seeking assurance from others), almost as if to compensate for repulsive parts of their selfs. People escape from self directed disgust by withdrawing from social situations that might cause them. Finally, given that shame is frequently contained within the individual and cannot be easily escaped, people also cope with their self-directed disgust through aggressive tendencies, such as self-harm or harming others.

What hope is there for the self-disgusted?

I see lots of harmful manifestations of these coping mechanisms happening around me, and it grieves me, because there is a certain bleakness that surrounds self-disgust. It looks like people running away from themselves, yet never being able to succeed (because obviously, one cannot run away from oneself). To a large degree, it is a futile endeavour. What hope is there for the self-disgusted? I was discussing my learnings with someone recently, and what she said really struck me. “Yea, it all began with Adam and Eve.” Oh wow, I never thought of that. Isn’t it so fascinating that the first emotion that was depicted after Adam and Eve sinned and ate of the fruit of the of knowledge of good and evil, was that of shame? What happened next in the story of Adam and Eve was what I found truly comforting. Like any of us, Adam and Eve sought to hide their shame by sewing fig leaves for themselves. Like any of our coping mechanisms, it was inadequate. But guess what? God sought to clothe them in garments of skins. It hit me then that the antidote for self-disgust could never be found inside of us, nor could we manufacture the antidote for it. All our coping mechanisms are like that of fig-leaves. In fact, given that shame is a type of self-conscious emotion (Lewis, as cited in Power & Dalgleish, 2016), it seems only logical that more self-consciousness is not going to solve the problem. Instead, God sees and knows our nakedness. He knows our shame, he knows the self that has failed to live up to standards. The fact of the matter is, we have failed to live up to the absolute standards that God demands and there is no denying of that. But in love, God has sought to clothe us in righteousness, in perfection, through the blood of Jesus Christ, through whom He sees and accepts us. There is no running away from our selfs, but there is rest to be found in the perfect righteousness, in Christ, with whom God offers to clothe us in.



(1) Power, M., & Dalgleish, T. (2015). Cognition and emotion: From order to disorder. Psychology press.

(2) Schoenleber, M., & Berenbaum, H. (2012). Shame regulation in personality pathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 433.