Varieties of disgust in self-harm

Benson, Outi; Boden, Zoë V. R. and Vitali, Diego (2015). Varieties of disgust in self-harm. In: Overton, Paul G.; Powell, Philip A. and Simpson, Jane eds. The Revolting Self: Perspectives on the Psychological, Social, and Clinical Implications of Self-Directed Disgust. Karnac Books, pp. 187–205.



This chapter explores how self-disgust may manifest as part of the experience of self-harm. In its primary form, disgust implies a set of behavioural and physiological rejection responses against contamination or incorporation of contaminant material. It involves a sudden arousal of feelings, physiological changes, and action impulses that aim to prevent the threatening object from crossing the body boundary or from spreading within it. People who self-harm are, prior to the act, either in a state of high arousal, in which overwhelming anger, anxiety, or a mixture of unidentifiable emotions is typically experienced, or they are depersonalised. Feeling out of control involves an experience of a lack of autonomy and agency over one’s internal states. The self-harm act “catches” emotions that were previously felt to be “untameable” and amorphous; the wound, scar, and/or blood become a representation of the experience that can be attended to, contemplated, and something that the individual can act upon.

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