Food for thought: Our like or dislike of a particular aroma/essential oil

by Jade Shutes

Should we only use aromas that we love or are attracted to?

Years ago I was teaching a class in Vancouver Canada. During the class I passed around sweet orange (Citrus sinensis). One of the students in the class quickly proclaimed “I cannot stand the smell of orange.” I was fascinated. How could someone not like the smell of sweet orange? I asked her why she did not like the smell of orange and she responded that she was not sure, she just did not like it. I asked her if she would be willing to come to my home for some free reflexology sessions so we could explore her response to sweet orange. She was willing. Over a period of a few months this student came to me for reflexology sessions during which we used sweet orange in the blends we made for her. She also used the blends at home.


About 2 or 3 weeks into our sessions together she proclaimed “I finally remember why I do not like sweet orange”. She then went on to tell me the following: It had been her birthday (I do not recall what age she was although it was under 10). Her family, which included a brother and her parents, went out for the day to celebrate. She recalled as the day proceeded that her father became more and more drunk (he was an alcoholic). At some point during the day her mother brought the entire family behind a building and began feeding the father oranges. And voila, her dislike of sweet orange was connected to the memory of a ruined birthday and of her father’s alcoholism (which ended up costing him his marriage). With this awareness the student was able to build a new relationship with the aroma of sweet orange although she would always remember that experience and what it meant to her.

I share this story for two reasons: to highlight the need to explore when a person dislikes an aroma and to acknowledge the longevity of memory based responses. Odor based memories are long lived and appear to be resistant to both retroactive interference (a change in meaning for example) and to extinction-like procedures (e.g. forgetting). Meaning can be changed however, although the original context of the odor memory will remain. It has been said that olfactory memory is a system designed ‘not to forget’.

In Aromatherapy we often say that we should use essential oils that we are attracted to, however, the above case (and many over the years to follow) have shown me that it is the essential oils we do not like that can often reveal either ‘forgotten’ memories that have been attached to a particular aroma or even a weakness in a particular system or organ of the body.

There are many reasons why someone may not like a particular aroma/essential oil including:

  1. Negative memory based association (such as above)
  2. Lack of familiarity with a given aroma/essential oil: it is common that individuals who do not have a relationship with individual essential oils often find them ‘unpleasant’, however, the same essential oil in a blend is perceived as pleasant.
  3. They simply do not like it.
  4. Potential weakness in organ/system that the essential oil has an affinity with: e.g. Rose (affinity with reproductive system), Eucalyptus (affinity with respiratory system) etc.

Food for thought on our sense of smell and our unfolding relationship with and understanding of essential oils.