Why You Get 'the Ick,' According to Psychologists

Plus, how to get over the ick when everything is otherwise going well.

Why You Get 'the Ick,' According to a Psychologist , young man and woman making faces at each other
Photo: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

"The ick." The "ick factor." Getting "the ick." Chances are, you've heard these phrases more than once — and maybe you've experienced the ick firsthand, too.

Although the term itself has been promulgated by Gen Z, the concept precedes the slang. "I have heard about the idea of the ick from my clients often," though not always with that specific terminology, says Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D, clinical psychologist, cognitive behavioral therapist, and relationship expert. And as for why it arises? "I absolutely think it's fear," she says. *Cue ominous music.*

Ahead, what it is, why it happens, and how to get over the ick.

What Is the Ick?

Generally speaking, the ick is when you're romantically attracted to someone, and then [insert arbitrary circumstance] happens, and suddenly you're turned off, and no longer interested. There's no one particular thing that causes the icky, turned-off sensation that makes you recoil — it varies from person to person. (

For example, Urban Dictionary's top definition for the phenomenon reads: "...everything seems to be going fine... you think you like them but then you suddenly catch the ick. From then on you can't look at the person in the same way, you just progressively get more and more turned off by them, weirdly [and] maybe for no reason in particular grossed out by them." TikTok users have shared the myriad of reasons they've personally experienced the ick, ranging from "had an iPad" to "got a buzz cut" to "held my hand in public."

Though the term has been brought back into common vernacular recently thanks to TikTok, it seems to have originated in the late '90s thanks to the TV show Ally McBeal. In episode 15 of season 1, following a bad date, McBeal tells the person whom she's seeing that they're not a good match, even when she's not sure exactly why; she calls the sensation "the ick," saying that it means it's "just not meant to be."

The Psychology of the Ick

As you may have guessed, the ick isn't exactly a medical term used in psychology. Yet, it's a super common experience, says Cohen. At the root of it, very often, getting the ick is a defense mechanism, she says.

"[I see this with] my clients who have had experiences of not trusting other adults, not believing that people are going to show up for them," shares Cohen. "Once someone starts to show up for them, be trustworthy, etc., their nervous system is so not used to it." As a result, those "good" behaviors can feel repulsive and unattractive, she says. (

The attention, sensitivity, and emotional attunement this person is giving you is something you need but may have grown up without or been missing in past relationships, explains Cohen. "In order to get through not being seen, heard, held [as a child, in past relationships, etc.], you have to convince yourself that you don't need those things." Therefore, "it was protective to think that that behavior was 'icky,' because it protected you from feeling what you were missing as a kid. And as a kid, you can't really feel what you're missing, because you need to see your parents as safe and comfortable. [If] you were growing up [without those needs being met], you have to kind of tell yourself that it's 'gross' when someone's really sensitive, attentive, thoughtful, and curious enough to ask you what you're feeling or even calls you on your stuff."

This might sound a little, well, drastic considering the ick can be triggered by seemingly trivial things such as the way a person orders coffee.

It's true that the ick doesn't always result from the person doing nice things for you. Ick triggers can be anything from how loud the person tells stories to how often they burp, says Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., neuropsychologist and director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York. That may still be a defense mechanism at play. "You may tell yourself you caught the ick as a way of protecting yourself from another failing relationship, commitment, or even intimacy," says Hafeez. "However, everyone you will ever come across has good and bad qualities."

Not to mention, your concept of what is and isn't attractive may be shaped by society, and that can certainly come into play in the development of the ick. "The ick tends to be an internal feeling that you get rather than something driven externally; that being said, some people are highly influenced by society and may be more concerned with outward appearances and interpret it to others as the ick," says Tiffany Denny, certified life coach and co-founder of The Relationship Recovery, which provides tools and coaching to help people move past damaging relationships.

When you lack chemistry with someone, it can create the ick factor early on, even if the person checks the rest of your boxes, says Denny. In this case, the ick may arise around the realization that you don't actually want to engage physically or sexually with this person.

"Sometimes the ick is nearly instant when you become intimate with someone, and you just can't shake the feeling of wanting to recoil if someone comes any closer to you," says licensed psychotherapist and certified trauma specialist Susan Zinn, licensed psychotherapist and founder of Westside Counseling Center in Santa Monica, California. "A bad kiss or being 'bad' at sex can suddenly be a major turn-off. This is different from having doubts down the line in a relationship. An ick feeling is instantaneous, and your intuition is signaling to you to get away as fast as possible."

Of course, "your relationship with your own body is extremely important and plays all sorts of roles in how you connect to another person," says Denny. It's completely possible that your own feelings about your body, sex, and intimacy are what's put up a roadblock. (Read more: Why You Might Have Internalized Shame Around Sex — and What to Do About It)

How to Identify the Ick

How do you know if that feeling or gut reaction is the ick (and maybe something you can work through) vs. a straight-up dealbreaker or red flag that this person isn't for you (or worse, is bad for you)?

"The ick primarily happens early in a relationship when you're getting to know the person you're dating, usually within the first few months or the honeymoon period," says Hafeez. If this is the case, give it time, says Cohen. Three dates are usually long enough to gain clarity. Waiting it out helps you to be able to discern whether the ick is something substantial or not.

"If you start having doubts later in a relationship, that's probably not an ick and would be more indicative of just drifting apart," says Hafeez. (See: The Natural Stages of a Relationship, According to a Therapist)

On the other hand, certain things may indicate that this isn't a case of the ick, but your gut rightfully alerting you that something's amiss. For example, when someone tries to isolate you from family and friends, is unwilling to communicate, or doesn't recall happy memories from your relationship with fondness, those are all potential red flags.

Another big one to watch out for is a "false sense of intimacy" when you first start dating someone, says Cohen. If the person is acting as if they know so much about you within the first few dates, oversharing, talking about making plans in the future, and commenting on how amazing, beautiful, and perfect you are, that all falls under false intimacy, she says. This is sometimes a manipulation tactic along the lines of "love bombing" used to gain control in a relationship. (

Can You Get Over the Ick?

You can get past the icky, cringe-y, turned-off feeling if you're willing to put in some work. "I always encourage clients to think about the topic and what about it makes them uncomfortable," says Cohen. Think: Can you tolerate five minutes of it? Ten minutes of it?

"And even more importantly, can you share it with your partner and tell them about your vulnerability?" she says. "By really sharing with your partner, something like, 'I just feel uncomfortable when you reflect how I feel and see me so deeply,' then you can have a corrective experience where they are like, 'But I want to understand you, and I want to see you,' … and hopefully you can take that in."

You don't have to act immediately, but ultimately you should address it no matter how trivial the cause, says Hafeez. "The ick is a gut reaction, and you should always trust your gut," she says. "You can know you want to have a relationship, you can know you like their qualities, but you can also accept you just don't feel that way about them. It depends on whether the behaviors that irritate you are negotiable and whether they can change them. It's better to accept sooner rather than later that the relationship will not work in order to move on." (See: How to Break Up with Someone In the Healthiest Way Possible)

If you think the icky feelings you're experiencing might be indicative of a larger issue, don't be shy about seeking help. "If you can't allow yourself to feel a little bit uncomfortable, loved, and well taken care of, connected to another person, and [you're avoiding] a partnership or 'love bubble,' then therapy can very much help," she says. Therapy serves as a way to talk about and work through what you're experiencing, she says.

The key is to try. Who knows... you might dig in and push past the ick, and not only discover that you've found someone truly wonderful, but also have done a lot of personal growth.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles