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Oscars 2022: A psychological analysis of that Will Smith moment and what we can learn from it

Will Smith wanted to be “the biggest movie star in the world”, as he said once to The Graham Norton show. And for years, he worked hard for it. He was nominated three times for best actor at the Oscars and last night (27th of March 2022) he finally landed the Academy Award.

Less than an hour though prior to his moment of triumph, an incident took place where after Chris Rock made a joke about his wife’s hair, Will Smith, walked onto the stage and slapped the comedian before shouting at him using foul language on live TV. When he later walked back to the stage to accept his Oscar, Will Smith tearfully gave an emotional speech, and apologised to the Academy.   

This long-worked-for moment in his career became linked with an instantaneous poor behavioural choice. Many of us, if not all, can relate to this incident. There have been moments in our lives where we reacted poorly when triggered and then resorted into different (in)actions whilst soaking up the short- and longer-term negative consequences of our behaviour.  

Inspired by this incident, the present article offers an insight into such behaviours and offers a healthier and rewarding – yet painful – way out.  

What we definitely don’t know about such behaviours and what we definitely do

A couple of things are important to clarify first.

Chris Rock’s comment (or if you want to be more exact, Jada’s Pinkett Smith’s disapproval of it) acted solely as a trigger to Will Smith’s reaction. The real cause behind Will Smith’s behaviour – the real culprit – is deeper and more complex and definitely unknown to all of us who have no access to Will Smith’s upbringing, life experiences and their psychological impact on him and his relationships. Any conversation on this topic is pure speculations. In a similar fashion, the real culprit of our own wrongful behaviour at times remains elusive to many of us too who have never taken the time to look deep into ourselves in order to understand how and why we behave the way we do.  

But a couple of things are definite. Will Smith’s behaviour had nothing to do with God or Devil neither with his claims that he acted out of love and need to protect the female(s) in his life. Religion and the stereotype that strong males need to protect weak females were just constructs used as a defence to justify bad behaviour. Again, similarly, we too make such calls in the name of love, honour, freedom, etc, or resort to stereotypes and other biases in order to justify our actions.

A hypothetical analysis of such behaviour using emotions as navigation tools

There are times – if not all the time! – where we clearly have an outcome in mind or expectations on how we wish people to behave, things to be or turn out.

Anger
When the desired outcome is clear in our mind it is natural to want people or things to be unspoiled – if not perfect. But then a trigger comes along, and we feel wronged – something violated the way things should have played out. Now a barrage of overwhelming thoughts and emotions come up from past experiences – often subconsciously. Anger is quick to activate our nervous system whilst hijacking our thoughts and civilised behaviour. We act out an automatic unfiltered reaction.

Regret and Shame
Soon after, the fog starts clearing out we realise that things didn’t go as planned. This outcome which was caused by our decisions and actions was not the desired one. Regret appears. Then we realise we fall short. We may internally blame it on our “flawed self” and unworthiness of love, belonging and connection, which are very likely linked with our ghosts of the past and then we feel shame. Shame is not a drive for positive action – in fact it leads us to do quite the opposite such as hide or judge. And using faith, toxic stereotypes (i.e., males need to protect females) or the hard realities of showbiz or life’s in general (“people talk crazy about you”, “people disrespecting you”) is hiding.

Shame can be destructive and hurtful, and it can affect our mental health because it is not a compass for moral behaviour. Instead of spiralling down from here, there is a way out, yes a painful one – but with big awards at the end.

The antidote: Guilt and Self compassion

Although it might not feel like it at the time, we do still have a choice. We can use our regret as an emotional reminder that there is something within us that calls for reflection, for change, for growth. The important step is to mentally shift from focusing on our self and its flaws to our behaviour and start feeling guilty instead. Because when we feel guilty we can admit that we did something wrong, something perhaps against our values, we can own up. And to do this we need to start with being kind to ourselves before we feel ready to share our story – we need self-compassion. In other words, we need to recognise that we are imperfect, that our personal inadequacy is part of our shared human experience and allow ourselves to mindfully feel the pain with compassion for it at the same time. This shift in our focus and our self-compassion approach can help us emotionally move successfully from shame to guilt. And although this too is a discomforting feeling, it is a preferred one, because when becoming accountable of our behaviour it helps us focus on doing something to set things right, like apologizing.

A final thought

Having a “Will Smith moment” is human. We are all subject to such behaviours at times and can attest to it. Self-connection and awareness are requisites for us to understand the trigger and the factors that drive our emotions prior to becoming able to own our story and speak out. It’s an uncomfortable learning process but the end-result is powerful and of valuable service to us and others around us. Because behaviour matters.

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