What We Can Learn from the Incident Between Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Academy Awards
By Beverly Engel
For most people, the violent incident at this year’s Academy Awards was shocking and for some, traumatizing. But aside from its shock value, there are important lessons to be learned from this incident:
Lesson #1: Unhealed trauma from our past can dictate our present and future behavior.
Unless we focus on healing past trauma we are vulnerable to being triggered (reminded of) that trauma and re-enacting that trauma. Experiencing a current event through the filter of a past trauma can cause a person to experience the event as if the person is back in the previous trauma. This appears to be what happened to Will Smith. In his 2021 memoir, Will, Smith wrote about how his father hit his mother:
“When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
He continued: “…there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”
Both stars have violence in their background. And both men have been carrying false assumptions about themselves based on their reactions to that violence. For Smith the false belief about himself was that he was a coward because he didn’t protect his mother from his father. For Chris Rock the assumption was that his anger was a very destructive thing and that he should avoid getting angry at all costs.
Chris Rock has told the story of how he was bullied as a child and how he finally fought back by wrapping a brick in a cloth and hitting the kid who bullied him with it, almost killing him. From that day forward, Chris was horribly afraid of his anger, specifically, what could happen if he ever became angry again.
The way these traumatic incidents shaped the lives of both Smith and Rock was acted out that night at the Academy Awards. We saw Smith, triggered by his wife being laughed at and desperately trying to “protect” her, going onstage and slapping Rock. And we saw Rock, not defending himself but standing silently and taking the slap. The reason? As Chris quoted his shrink: he felt so afraid of his anger after the brick incident that he has spent his life letting people walk all over him.
Lesson #2: The shame that comes from being victimized can profoundly shape a person’s personality in a negative way.
There are more lessons to be learned here, lessons about what witnessing violence does to a child, how children often blame themselves for their parents’ violence, how children feel deep shame when they can’t defend themselves, how being bullied negatively affects children. But most importantly, we see how shame attached to a victimization can shape a person’s personality in overwhelming ways.
In Will Smith’s case we learn from his memoir how painful it was to witness his mother being hit by his father and being unable to do anything about it. This was understandable, of course, he was just a child. But as is typical of children, Smith erroneously blamed himself and suffered profound shame for not being able to defend his mother. This shame was likely a way of covering up the rage he felt toward his father. As we know, victims—whether they have been emotionally or physically abused, molested or raped—often blame themselves. It is their way of maintaining a sense of control over their lives. As bizarre as it sounds, a victim would rather blame herself or himself than to admit that someone overpowered them or that someone they love could do horrible things. This is especially true for male victims who universally blame themselves because of the way males are socialized. They are supposed to be able to defend themselves against an attack as a way of showing how “manly” they are. In our culture, and in almost every culture on earth males are taught that if they don’t ward off an attack they are weak and a loser.
Will Smith seems to have extended the expectation that he should have been able to defend himself to that of needing to defend his mother, which is also typical of male children witnessing their mother being attacked. The truth, of course is, he couldn’t have stopped his father from beating his mother, any more than any child can. Instead of facing his feelings of helplessness and even impotence, he blamed himself and he carried this shame throughout his life.
Chris Rock was also operating on a misconception. He believed that since he was capable of almost killing someone due to his rage, he needed to shut down his anger completely. Thus his shrink’s conclusion that his fear of his anger caused him to become a door mat to the people in his life.
As psychologist’s know, shame and anger are inexorably tied together. When we are shamed or victimized the almost automatic reaction is to feel rage—rage at being violated. But in most cases of victimization, it is dangerous to feel this rage at the time. Our survival instincts take over and we typically flee, freeze or fawn (activated when we try to appease or subdue our attacker in order to get away without being physically hurt, further injured or killed). Children seldom fight because they know they will be overpowered. Females have the same realization. And if a male realizes he has no chance of overpowering his attacker, he will also refrain from attempting to fight him off. He will either flee (if he can) or freeze, a common response for victims when they realize there is no use in fighting back because they will be overpowered.
Victims typically need to find a way to acknowledge and express their unspent rage in order to heal their shame and become empowered. Had Smith received the help he needed it is doubtful that he would have felt so compelled to “defend” his wife in such an inappropriate and violent way. As for Rock, since he did seek professional help he appears to be far more self-aware. Thus we witnessed a man responding in an admirable way to an attack—he remained in control. Hopefully, he will release his righteous anger at being attacked by Smith in a healthy way instead of suppressing or repressing it.
Lesson #3: The best way to heal past trauma is trauma-informed therapy.
In addition to addressing their shame, fear and anger, both men would benefit greatly from trauma-informed therapies such as EMDR and other somatic treatments. As experts like Peter Levine have discovered, we hold traumatic experiences in our body until we can find healthy ways to release it.
Human beings don’t know how to “blow off” the stress of a traumatic experience the way animals do. For example, a captured bear who has been shot with a tranquilizer dart will come out of his state of shock by trembling and flailing its limbs in coordinated running movements. It is as if the bear is completing its escape—in other words, it shakes off the “frozen energy.” Based in over forty years of observation and research, Levine created body-oriented techniques that can help clients repair their traumatic wounds by similar shaking movements.
Some people would say that Will Smith has an anger problem. But I think it is more accurate to say that he has a trauma problem. Instead of anger management classes, I believe Smith needs to engage in trauma-informed therapy. Specifically, my hope is that he receives some trauma-informed help such as somatic body work to release the original trauma from his memory and his body.
As for Chris Rock, trauma-informed therapy could help him to release the frozen energy connected to the trauma of almost killing someone. He also needs to begin to trust himself and realize that it is safe to stand up for himself. While it is commendable that he reacted with such grace, I believe he needs to give himself permission to express his righteous anger without the fear that he will hurt someone. A good trauma-informed therapist can guide him through this process.
Let’s learn from the shocking incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock. Unhealed trauma can be debilitating and potentially dangerous—to the traumatized person and to the people around him or her. It can influence and even shape our personality and the way we interact with others in profound ways. But there I something we can do about it.
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