A friend was appalled when I shared that I was writing a blog describing my trauma theory that might explain Will Smith’s violent outburst and assault on Chris Rock at the Oscar’s on March 27th. He couldn’t believe I was going to excuse his violent behaviors because it was somehow related to childhood trauma. He was adamant that Will Smith should be punished and that there was no excuse for his outrageous behavior because adults need to know how to control their anger.
I respectfully disagree.
I think we first need to differentiate between excuses and explanations. Excusing someone means that they are not held accountable for their inappropriate or harmful behavior. On the other hand, explaining provides information as to why they behaved as they did.
In some ways I think Will Smith is already being punished enough by all the negative publicity and even more by the guilt he feels for his highly impulsive and out of control behavior. He is being seen as a bully who consciously chose to slap Chris Rock for insulting his wife. He chose to give up his membership in the Oscars and I am guessing is feeling regret, guilt and shame.
I wonder if he fully recalls what happened. If there had been no recording of it, would he have even remembered what he did? Could it be that the reason for these possibilities came from extremely upsetting experiences in childhood? There may have been traumatic memories stored in his brain, lying dormant until activated, and can underlie and provoke out-of-control behavior.
Trauma has the power to completely override a person’s cognitive self. Think about how quickly you react if you accidentally touch a hot stove. Do you pause to think, “Oh that is hot. I should move my hand so I don’t get burned.” In the time it would take to make that cognitive decision, you would be burned. The instant your body senses the danger of being burned by the hot stove, a part of the brain called the amygdala completely overrides the thinking part of a brain, the cortex, and that happens in 1/12 of a second! The amygdala simultaneously signals the brain to release powerful neurochemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to prepare the body for a fight or flight response. This response can be a quick one, such as what happens when we jerk back from the hot stove, or it can go on for several minutes in what Daniel Goleman in the classic book Emotional Intelligence (video below) calls an “amygdala hijacking.”
Everyone has a working amygdala whose job it is to protect the person from perceived or real dangers based on memories gathered and stored from personal life experiences where they were hurt or in danger physically or emotionally. The amygdala is fully operational by the seventh month of pregnancy. It is equipped to take over the brain causing the person to act in ways to protect itself or others who might be perceived as being in danger or possible physical or emotional harm.
The person who experienced severe adversity, extreme stress, major attachment issues and other childhood traumas has a brain that stockpiled traumatic memories all stored in the amygdala. Having this storehouse of traumatic memories creates the potential for any real or perceived danger reminiscent of those early childhood traumas to launch a full-fledged amygdala hijacking. These hijackings are reflexive like when a doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer, making your foot kick up. So how about if someone threatened to punish you if you “allowed” your foot to jerk up? Would that be fair? Could you use your mind overpower this reflex? No!
Let’s look at what we know about Will Smith. Much like his character in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, as a child he lived in a tough neighborhood in North Philadelphia and probably experienced many adverse childhood experiences there, each of which could become traumatic memories. More importantly, according to an article in the November 3, 2021 issue of People magazine, he reveals that his father, who he describes as violent at times, scarred him for life. Apparently, he watched helplessly as his father physically assaulted his mother, making him feel both outraged and powerless.
So in the moments leading up to his assault of Chris Rock, he endured a verbal assault on his wife as he saw how upset she was for being mocked for her hairstyle that has its basis in a medical condition. We can almost witness how he was triggered to actually remembering his own childhood experience. First he seemed to be joining in with others and laughing at Chris Rock’s remarks until his wife gave him a pained facial expression.
I hypothesize that in that 1/12 of a second, when his traumatic childhood memories were triggered, his amygdala totally hijacked him! As he strode up to the stage, he was directed to complete what he could not do as a child: protect his wife, a highly significant woman in his life, from someone who was verbally assaulting her. I suggest he was not at all in his right mind but rather was almost forced into a kind of reenactment of that childhood experience. But this time he was able to take action, something he was powerless to do as a child.
Again, I am not writing this to excuse un-excusable behavior. At the same time, I think when someone is most likely operating out of their own traumatic past in a reflexive way, where they were overtaken by their hijacked amygdala, they deserve understanding and compassion. In a way I think we need to appreciate that his outrageous behavior was not his fault.
Should there be consequences? Absolutely! Just like if you accidently broke something of value. It might be an accident, but you’d still need to make it right. We need to make amends when we intentionally or unintentionally do harm. I think Will Smith needs to find ways to make amends but not with the goal of being shamed for his behavior. If my hypothesis is correct, he needs to do the trauma work to better understand his significant unresolved trauma and how he can learn and have the tools to prevent future amygdala hijackings.
I hope as you read this you might be reevaluating your reactions to Will Smith’s inappropriate behavior at the Oscars. I hope this gives you a new perspective and something more to think about concerning this complex issue.
Invitation for Reflection
- How did you react to what Will Smith did at the Oscars? Did you think he absolutely has no excuse for that behavior?
- Does the information in this blog change anything about your view of his behavior?
- Does this information cause you to wonder about out-of-control behaviors other people demonstrate? Is it possible those behaviors are the result of amygdala hijackings stemming from traumatic childhood memories?
- Can you see that we still need to hold others and ourselves accountable if we do harm?
- Are you willing to work on seeking explanations while not excusing unacceptable behavior?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute
Marian Stroup says
I did not see the incident until I received a news notification shortly after it happen. When I viewed the incident immediately my thinking turned to what happened in your past, Will?
Then to see his reaction shortly after the incident receiving the award and the tears streaming down his face — I witnessed how many people suffering from trauma respond after their reaction to a triggering event.
I appreciate your deep analysis of his reaction and the effect on the brain. It is a good instruction to include when speaking about trauma 101 and 102 – and the hot stove metaphor.
Yes, it doesn’t take away Will’s responsibility for poor behavior. He was held accountable especially when reacting negatively in a physical way to a triggering event.
I hope Will saw this warning as a sign to seek help.