Opinion: Will Smith Reminds Us that Unresolved Trauma Can Make Us Behave in Dark Ways

Gillian May

Image by Peggy Marco in Pixabay

Many of us have had moments where we’ve behaved entirely out of character, and once the moment passes, we feel shame and regret for what we’ve done. This was certainly the case for Will Smith on Oscar night. Now, this will not be a post analyzing what Will Smith should or should not have done. Rather, the slap happened, and nothing can be done about it now. Unfortunately, we can’t take back our actions and words once they’ve flown out of our being. That’s the hard part of having moments where we don’t act like ourselves.

Unfortunately, having moments where we are “out of character” and do things we regret is a common side effect of complex trauma, something Will Smith is all too familiar with. Having grown up in an abusive home and then navigating life as a black man in a racist world likely puts your nerves on edge, to put it lightly.

The fact is, trauma is no light matter, and it can, and absolutely will, cause us to act in ways we never intended. As Will’s Instagram apology says, “this is not indicative of the man I want to be.” But Will Smith offers us an important point of reflection — that is, when unresolved trauma comes knocking, it can create dark behaviors that are not in line with who we usually are. It’s as if someone has invaded our bodies and turned us into an alien version of ourselves.

But there’s a name for this — it’s called splitting.

Splitting is a psychological term for what happens to our minds and egos after trauma. Traumatic memories are often walled off in our psyches; however, the body (or somatic) memory remains intact, exactly as it was with all the associated feelings and reactions. It’s as if these memories lie in a dormant compartment inside our psyche. Even though this is a psychological defense aimed to protect our nervous system, the problem is that hidden things don’t get worked on or resolved. Instead, the walled-off memories and associated feelings need to be rigidly protected lest they cause a massive re-experiencing of painful feelings and events. So the memories just lie there waiting. Until something triggers them.

Once triggered, a split happens in our brain. Triggers are often seemingly mild to everyone else, but to us, it’s as if we’re re-experiencing the trauma again. Our minds can’t handle the influx of negative body memory, so we must do something drastic to protect the “good” we see in ourselves or others around us. This often results in behaviors that are abusive and reactionary. However, at the moment of the split, the person seriously believes they’re doing something to protect themselves or others.

Unfortunately, Will Smith lashed out thinking he was protecting his wife, but likely he re-experienced his memories of watching his mother humiliated by his father. But it was not an active memory, rather a body memory that he wasn’t entirely conscious of. So he split, then he acted. Afterward, he felt strongly about wanting to protect, but had little insight into why his behavior was problematic — and not understanding our reactionary behaviors after splitting is a hallmark of a split.

The truth is, we are not ourselves in those moments; we are back in our trauma and experiencing a rush of severe anxiety and anger because our bodies feel we, or someone we love, are in danger. Splitting absolutely can and will make us behave in dark ways. We can become abusive and cause others to feel fear which then passes the trauma on to others. Even watching the Will Smith slap re-traumatized me and made me flush with fear. That’s often the social consequence of our dark behaviors.

If you think about it, most of us can attest to having a moment or two like this — where we’ve effectively “lost it” and seem to act like someone else. It makes me wonder if we are not all splitting at various times without knowing what we’re doing. Given that at least 1 in 7 children has experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, it’s safe to say that we will have many children growing up with trauma and effectively learning how to split.

Also, one study shows that at least 12.5% of adults in the US have reported having PTSD. And since this number is only for those who actually get a diagnosis, this number is likely underestimated. Having PTSD is a definite precursor to the splitting behavior. We get PTSD from any overwhelming negative event that makes us feel fearful and unsafe.

Will Smith’s slap brought up some critical conversation because many of us are Will Smith too. We are a world full of traumatized people who may all be splitting at various times throughout the day, week, or year. Smith’s slap just put a public eye on behavior that is likely more common than we’d like to admit. We only need to glance at the local news and see what horrible behaviors have been unleashed on others.

And it’s only getting worse.

It’s getting worse because we don’t honor trauma at all. We rarely talk about it, and we certainly don’t have accessible treatment for it anywhere. Also, moving through resolving our trauma is one of the most challenging, most painful things we can do. In a world ripe with capitalist preoccupation, a world that gives zero time and energy to promoting wellbeing, it’s no wonder that this issue is becoming, well, an issue.

As much as I am disappointed by Smith’s behavior, I find myself holding back on wanting to punish or humiliate him for his actions. Not out of respect for him, but rather, out of respect for the thousands of us who are grappling with our splitting and not sure how to manage the shame and anxiety of it. Unfortunately, many of us who have split will go even further underground watching the backlash of Smith’s slap. And I do know that further shaming the traumatized person is like pinning a death sentence on them. Instead, there has to be first — accountability and then a commitment to treatment.

I’m not sure what Will Smith will do or how he’s handling his responsibility, but I do know that treatment is required for anyone to learn to control the toxic effects of splitting. I imagine that Smith has full access to the best therapists in the world, good for him. However, most of us are without treatment or can’t access it, and as such, we will see more of these kinds of behaviors in the general public.

It would be wonderful if Smith ended up getting treatment and then using his platform to help others access treatment, but that may be too much pressure, even for a wealthy celebrity. Because the truth is, we are socialized to live with our traumas and shut up about them. And we live in a world dedicated to us not getting healed so we can continue to buy stuff and prop up the economy — anything to make us feel “ok” so we can get back to business.

However, we are not ok, and Will Smith was just a celebrity reminder.

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Former nurse turned alcohol and health writer/researcher. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in alcohol addiction and mental health. Also passionate about trauma recovery, psychedelics, and psychology. Join my Substack community.


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