This is what the result of unresolved trauma looks like.
What we witnessed Will Smith do in assaulting Chris Rock during the Academy Award ceremony was a trauma response.
While I am in no way condoning violence, this is a very public and important opportunity for us to understand what a trauma response can look like.
A trauma response can take many forms and look like:
- Slapping someone for saying “the wrong” thing.
- Yelling at someone for not doing something “fast enough” or “up to your standards.”
- Avoiding or not responding to a boss’s emails about scheduling an upcoming performance review.
- “Having to” do everything “perfectly,” otherwise you feel anxious or unsettled.
- Not setting boundaries around your time and energy because you’re worried about confrontation and upsetting the other person.
- Working endless hours without taking time for yourself or the things and people you enjoy because your job is your primary source and measure of your own self-worth and value.
When a person has experienced trauma (“Big T” or “Little t”) from their childhood (or adulthood), the brain and body store that traumatic memory in ways such that aspects of that memory can be re-activated by present-day interactions and situations.
When this happens, the person experiencing this re-activation is split-second processing (on a subconscious or unconscious level) the current event through the filter of that past trauma. This means that that person is, for all meaningful purposes, experiencing things as if they are right back in that previous circumstance of trauma. As a result, they are reacting (taking action)—emotionally, physically, and/or verbally—from that place of trauma.
Those past traumas can be diverse and range from:
- Witnessing a parent being physically or verbally abused during your childhood.
- You, yourself, experiencing physical, sexual, or verbal abuse in your childhood or adulthood.
- Experiencing emotional abuse or neglect as a child.
- Being harshly reprimanded (including being spoken to with an angry tone and demeanor) or shamed by others for not doing a task “the right way” or not “well enough.”
- Being told (and, perhaps, punished) as a child by an adult caregiver that it’s not polite nor acceptable to say “No” when an adult tells you to do something (including getting hugs from relatives, being made to attend events despite your objections).
- Being called out by a teacher in front of the class for having the wrong answer and feeling embarrassment and shame.
While some of the above may be horrific, and other things may seem inconsequential, depending on the age of occurrence, the emotional, mental, and physical resources that person had at that age and any prior traumas could determine the extent to which that person experienced trauma. A 2-year-old wandering into a closet with a door that shuts behind them that they can’t easily open, plunging them alone in darkness for 15 minutes before someone finds them is a far different experience than that of an adult in the same predicament.
In the case of Will Smith, he detailed in his autobiography, Will, that he witnessed physical violence at home as a child. He writes:
“When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed,” he wrote. “I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her at the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”
So, the combination of Chris Rock targeting Will’s wife for his “joke,” along with the look on her face (signaling to Will her level of upset and distress), triggered a split-second accessing (and instantly being placed inside) of that earlier memory when he was 9yo and was unable to protect his mom (the woman he loved).
Will’s reaction at the awards ceremony was that of the nine-year-old traumatized little boy who simply reacted in the way that 9yo boy wanted to react back then.
Does having a history of trauma (big or little) give a “free pass” for the present-day trauma reactions that involve the harming (physically, verbally, or emotionally) of another? No, of course not.
However, it does highlight the importance of understanding trauma and its many manifestations, and addressing it with effective trauma-informed approaches that address the emotional, physical (because we hold emotions in our body), and mental aspects of trauma.
Hopefully, rather than simply vilify Will, and say he has “an anger problem,” people close to him can help him recognize that this is “a trauma problem,” and help him get the trauma-informed help in the form of therapy in combination with modalities such as EFT (emotional freedom techniques, or “tapping”), EMDR, or other somatic modalities that can effectively and efficiently release the traumatized aspects held in his memory and body.
Once his trauma and emotions are no longer dictating his actions, he could have a much more measured and effective response to situations such as that that occurred at the awards ceremony.
My further hope is that if anyone reading this finds that they are stuck in patterns of extreme reaction (such as Will experienced), or even less severe reactions, but you recognize are getting in the way of you living life the way you really want, please consider getting trauma-informed support.
Even if you’ve not experienced “Big T” trauma, all of us have experienced various “Little t” traumas that have impacted each of us in various ways personally and/or professionally—some mild, some not so mild.
As physicians, we are masterful at suppressing so many of our emotions, and the thoughts and memories associated with them. However, trauma has a way of impacting us in great big obvious ways (as we saw with Will Smith), and not such obvious ways (perfectionism, workaholism, lack of boundaries).
I’m not suggesting any of us go unearthing swaths of past trauma. Simply be aware that it may be impacting you in ways you recognize and have yet to address, or in ways you never quite thought of as being associated with trauma. And, if needed, allow yourself to get the support you need by working with a trauma-informed therapist, trauma-informed coach, or other trauma-informed specialist.
Melissa Hankins is a psychiatrist and physician coach.
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