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Disgusted by People During COVID-19? It’s a Common Feeling!

November 2nd, 2020 · disgusted by people

If we’re going to honestly look at all the “Emotions of the Pandemic“, one emotion that many experience is being disgusted by people!

Being disgusted by people is a more frequent emotion during this unusual 2020 period than most of us would care to admit. Given the amount of pressure people in general are under, and the abnormal circumstances, it is actually fairly easy for the emotion of disgust to get triggered, sometimes when we’re not expecting it at all.

As I write this, I’m thinking of numerous experiences that friends, relatives and clients have related that involve the element of disgust. One person I know was sitting in a coffee shop, where masks and social distancing were supposedly being practiced, when a group of 10-15 unmasked people came in and sat right next to her, talking and laughing. Another person is a student from a family that takes social distancing very seriously, who finds that no one in his school classes views COVID-19 precautions as important. On the other hand, I’m aware of people who are disgusted because various professionals will not offer badly needed face-to-face services, due to the need to maintain COVID protocols.

In bringing up these various examples, I’m not trying to suggest who, if anyone, is in the wrong, or in the right. I’m seeking merely to point out how common this kind of reaction is under our current conditions. I know very few people who are happy to be feeling these kinds of things, and yet a great many of us are dealing with such reactions.

How Do We Get Disgusted by People?

There are a couple of different ways in which we can end up disgusted by people. Both of these major variants are affecting us here in the midst of our current situation.

First, as Prof. Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and colleagues have shown, the emotion of disgust is a device evolution has developed to help us avoid contact with potential disease and maintain hygiene. In primitive times our reactions of disgust served the evolutionary purpose of keeping us from consuming food and water and being near other sources of disease and parasites. They maintain that function today.

The second source of disgust probably grew out of the first in our development as a species and that is moral disgust. University of Texas Prof. Art Markman has summarized research that shows a strong linkage between feelings of disgust and moral outrage. If we find something particularly morally wrong, we will often find that we also have a sense of disgust, that is not all that different in character from the disease-avoiding type of disgust. We will often hear people use language that connects the two, e.g., “You make me sick!” or, “What a scumbag!”

So, these are two powerful sources of the emotion of being disgusted by people. I would suggest that they are both powerfully at play in our current situation. In a time when we are deeply concerned with disease, and with ensuring that everyone “does their bit to keep us all safe”, it’s easy to see how our sense of disgust can easily be activated towards others.

Hiding Our Reactions

We don’t always find it easy to acknowledge that we are disgusted by the behaviour of others. Lots of times, we may find it easier and less disturbing to hide our reactions of disgust, even from ourselves. We may start to feel moral revulsion, or the feeling that others are doing things that are unclean or unsanitary, and to suppress those feelings. Yet, if we don’t acknowledge such feelings, we may find that we start to experience more anxiety or depression in our lives. Or, they may accumulate and come out of us in the form of very powerful anger, or even rage. The media show us extreme examples of this, where actions such as wearing a mask, or refusing to wear a mask have led to hostile or even violent reactions.

It’s important to acknowledge our feelings of being disgusted by others—to ourselves at the very least. It’s important on the very fundamental level of just being honest with ourselves about how we feel. But, also, from a Jungian perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that, when are disgusted by people, or morally repelled by them, we may be projecting on the other aspects of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge, that are part of our shadow, in Jungian terms. For instance, we may feel strong feelings of moral disgust towards the individual who doesn’t wear a mask, or refuses to wear it properly. Yet, could it be that, deep down inside us, there’s a rebel part of us that actually envies the mask denier his or her freedom?

Finding Healing in Our Disgust

If we’re in touch with feeling disgusted, the plain fact is that we probably wish that we were feeling something else. Yet that doesn’t mean that even our disgust has no gifts to give us. If we can tolerate it, and explore it, we may well find that it leads us to a deeper level of self-understanding, of acceptance of our own weaknesses, and of compassion for ourselves and others.

Often, exploring the ways in which we’re disgusted by people in a supportive relationship with a depth psychotherapist can bring a sense of healing, and an awareness of ourselves at a greater level of wholeness.

Brian  Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and Jungian Analyst


© 2020 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)

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Photo by Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr.com (Creative Commons Licence)

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