April 2, 2022

Hijacked by our Nervous System with a Trauma Response?—Lessons from Will Smith’s Mistake.

How does Will Smith recover from Oscar night?

Can he emerge with his career and his psyche relatively unscathed?

And if he can’t do it, how can any of us hope to recover from our own personal or professional screwups?

He’s taken ownership of his actions, which is the first step (and one that is not always taken when celebrities find themselves in the cross-hairs). He’s not trying to defend his actions as justifiable. This is excellent because most people agree that what he did was not justifiable. He appears willing to accept whatever consequences are due. He seems ready to do the work and to do better.

Isn’t that what any of us want from a loved one who overreacts with regrettable words or actions?

Isn’t that what each of us needs to be willing to do ourselves when we melt down into a puddle and have no choice but to get back up again and carry on?

Isn’t that the best we can do, faced with what we have already done?

Let’s agree on this one thing: celebrity aside, Will Smith is human. His humanity was on full display on Oscar night and again now as he navigates the messy aftermath that his impulsive actions created.

He has been an entertainer since he was a teenager. He has witnessed violence at a personal level and felt powerless against it. Understanding his background and his overreaction completely makes sense.

It’s not excused, to be sure; reacting with violence should not have been an option. But, given enough context, it makes sense.

This isn’t meant to be a defense. The situation is filled with nuances that I could never claim to understand.

This is a call for grace.

Can you see part of yourself in his actions?

Some of us truly and remorsefully can.

While I’ve never stormed the Academy Awards stage, won an Oscar, and then carried on like nothing problematic ever happened, I have spent decades wrestling my own demons with similarly mixed results.

Anger was my go-to emotion (possibly my only emotion). Actually, anger is too mild of a term. Rage. And beneath the rage, helplessness. And beneath the helplessness, fear.

It’s something that so many of us struggle with throughout our lives. Anyone who is familiar with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) recognizes part of their past or present self in Will Smith’s Oscar night story.

Only after the doing of it did Smith seem to recognize that faulty, yet hard-wired thinking was in the driver’s seat. Unfortunately, avoidable actions like this one are the main way to heal and grow. Our limits must get tested again and again, but sometimes we fail the test.

No matter how long you’ve spent wrestling with C-PTSD, the legacy of it stays with you. The over-the-top reactions that stem from it can surface again at the most inconvenient times. Your brother’s wedding. Your grandmother’s funeral. A performance review at work. Or perhaps you overreact when met with slow and inconsiderate treatment at your favorite restaurant. Or when your partner leaves their dirty dishes in a recently cleaned sink.

Each of us has our own weaknesses. Some of us can handle a great deal. Until we can’t.

That deep-seated response that repetitive childhood stressors created will resurface whenever our safety and security feel threatened. The threat doesn’t even have to be real. No one has to lay a finger on us to re-experience the emotional whiplash from distant events in our lives. The threat can be perceived. Imaginary, even. Like a joke that seems a little too personal (or actually is personal in this case).

And so, we react. Despite our better judgement, how much therapy we’ve gone through, and even the best intentions of our higher selves.

This is exactly what we mean when we talk about getting hijacked by our nervous system with a trauma response.

Well, this is one of the ways.

Remember fight, flight, freeze, or fawn? The fighting part even gets top billing. Our anger can erupt out of nowhere and carry our entire selves along with it.

I’d like you to imagine that you were sitting in Smith’s shoes on Oscar night. You’ve worked your entire career for this kind of recognition. You’re already nervous about winning. Maybe you’re wondering whether you have enough acting chops to look genuinely delighted if they don’t read your name when they open that envelope. But there’s a whole evening of spectacle to get through before it’s your turn. Does the waiting turn up the anxiety for you? Mine would be off the charts as soon as my foot hit the red carpet.

And then, guess who walks onstage? It’s that guy. The comedian with a long history of making jokes at your wife’s expense. He did it a couple of years back on this same stage, turning him into more of a frenemy than a friend.

Is he going to try the same foolishness again tonight? Yeah, probably. Especially since you’re nominated for one of the biggest awards of the night. You are a superstar, which makes you and your family fair game. So now you’re operating under the mistaken belief that you are directly responsible for whatever this guy is about to dish out.

Just seeing him step up to the microphone, do you tense up a little more? I know I would.

And that’s how it begins. We’re trying to play it cool, but the bad news here is that we’re already officially inside a stress response. The executive functioning part of the brain goes offline. Instincts kick into overdrive.

As that tension builds in our bodies, it unconsciously reminds us of the last time we felt this way, which reminds us of the first time we felt this same way. If we recognize it in time, it feeds into “Oh no, here we go again,” and we brace for the impact of what’s coming. We hold on tight and get through it. We manage it.

From time to time, circumstances can subject us to an internal sneak attack. We think everything is j-u-u-u-s-t fine until after the eruption takes place and we snap back to reality only to see we’ve done damage in every direction.

If we’ve done the work—and I mean a ton of it—we might stave off total nervous system dysregulation. We can name and witness our feelings in the moment. We can breathe or meditate our way through most things.

But if there’s impact, if there’s a direct hit, we can unravel. No matter who we are and no matter who is watching, that white-hot searing rage fills every pore and bursts out of us.

Millions of people were watching that broadcast, but that wasn’t enough of a deterrent for Smith. Although it might have been enough for the rest of us. Then again, we’re not accustomed to cameras following our every move since we were barely out of our teens.

Sometimes it’s not an option to remain seated, to grin and bear it publicly. It’s too hurtful, too personal, too close to the emotional bullseye. We are driven to action. Propelled forward by the moment and by the part of the brain that’s operating with an extremely outdated user’s manual.

Some of us ugly cry, some of us scream and shout, some of us tell jokes, some of us take that first drink after years of sobriety, some of us sit and do absolutely nothing and spend the next two weeks in a state of isolation and disconnection.

And some of us lash out physically—with a push, a pull, a shove, a slap, or worse.

There is so much shame carried along with each one of these responses, but especially with the physical response, especially with anger. Anger is not wrong or negative. It’s part of the because we all experience the fully human emotion of anger. But acting on it is almost always harmful, often dangerous, and all too normalized in cultures around the world.

Here, though, is where the opportunity lies. Feel the anger, but don’t become the anger. A quote from the Buddha is appropriate here: “To be angry is to let others’ mistakes punish yourself.”

No one with C-PTSD wanted to learn coping mechanisms that wreak havoc throughout their lives. It just happened. There’s simply no way to avoid damage done long before we were old enough to have a semblance of understanding. We have to work with what we’ve inherited, or work around it, like it or not.

Some of us never figure it out, others are on a healing journey, and the rare few of us are able to channel this wound into something that can be of benefit.

If we’re lucky—favored by the moment in time and by the whole of the universe itself—events do not escalate beyond our abilities to maintain control. If we possess the self-awareness to examine our actions, especially the most shameful ones, we may receive both the space and the grace to learn from our mistakes. I wish this for Will Smith. And I wish this for all of us.

It’s how we handle our moments of undoing that measures how far we’ve grown in this life.



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