Anger management: How could Will Smith’s attack on Chris Rock have been avoided?

‘There is always something deeper’

Joanna Whitehead
Monday 28 March 2022 17:20 BST
Moment Will Smith slaps Chris Rock at the 2022 Oscars

Viewers of Sunday evening’s Oscars ceremony were astonished to watch Will Smith strike comedian Chris Rock after he made a joke at the expense of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Rock was presenting the award for Best Documentary when he made a joke about Pinkett Smith’s appearance.

“Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see you,” he quipped in an apparent reference to the actor’s shaved head.

The Red Table Talk host, who has spoken candidly about her hair loss from alopecia in the past, was seen rolling her eyes at the comment.

Smith then walked onstage and struck the comedian, yelling “keep my wife’s name out [of] your f***ing mouth”.

The clip, which has gone viral, has divided viewers, with some commentators stating that Smith had done the right thing, while others felt his behaviour was out of control.

Mike Fisher of the British Association of Anger Management believes that the entire incident could have been avoided, however. “What happened was essentially assault, and the fact that Will Smith is a mega star makes it even worse,” he tells The Independent. “What kind of message is he sending to his huge fan base, many of whom are young people?

“We don’t know what was going on in his life that drove him to do that, and that does need to be discussed. Perhaps, considering Chris Rock has previously joked about Jada Pinkett Smith, this was just too much for Will. The problem with being that angry is that you’re just not thinking of the consequences – but he should have done so,” he added.

Dannielle Haig, principal psychologist at DH Counselling, agrees that the debacle could have been averted. “For someone to become so enraged as to calmly walk onto a stage in front of an audience and hit someone, so quickly after laughing, is quite concerning,” she tells The Independent.

“Of course, we’d all be upset if we heard someone joking about our loved ones in public, but physical assault isn’t the way to resolve the matter.”

She added: “Smith had every right to be upset but stepping away from the source of this emotion would have been a much better response followed up with a private conversation with Rock afterwards to discuss why he thought his jokes were inappropriate.

“I know it may not feel like the best response at the time, but you can’t win by fighting fire with fire, you win by fighting fire with water.”

Anyone experiencing similar feelings of rage would do best to remove themselves from the situation, says Ms Haig.

“If someone ever felt themselves so enraged or in a similar position, I would recommend they get up and remove themselves from the situation. Will Smith has publicly embarrassed himself and physically abused another person in front of the world on live television on the biggest day of his career. We should learn from this behaviour.”

Mr Fisher agrees. “He could have pulled Chris Rock aside afterwards, or given his wife the choice and the space to do that herself. This was an extreme reaction.”

Will Smith and his family in October 2016
Will Smith and his family in October 2016 (Getty)

Viewers who recognised Smith’s behaviour in themselves should realise that there is support available and that feelings of rage can be managed, the pair note.

“If you have an anger problem then you need to realise that you can change it - it’s not a lifelong affliction,” says Ms Haig.

“Like most things in life, managing or changing a response, thoughts or behaviour requires attention, energy, and time. This can be difficult but difficult is not impossible. In order to change a behaviour then you need to want to first of all. You need to be brutally honesty with yourself and take accountability.”

Some commentators criticised Smith’s subsequent comment after the incident that “love makes you do crazy things”.

Ms Haig said: “When it comes to anger and rage, many clients will say, ‘if they hadn’t done X then I wouldn’t be angry’. This is totally incorrect. We are all responsible for our thoughts and behaviours. We cannot control other people or the world around us - we can only control our responses. Taking responsibility for your choices is incredible liberating and gives you a greater sense of autonomy over your life.”

Mr Fisher agrees that managing anger requires commitment, energy and attention. He says: “Some people who come to our anger management programmes think it is just a weekend and they will go away cured. But it’s not and it requires a lot of discipline.

“There’s also a lot of shame and embarrassment around how [a person has] acted. I hear a lot from people who called [for help] 20 years ago and arrive 20 years later saying, ‘I wish I came when I first called 20 years ago’.”

Ms Haig recommends seeking professional help for those struggling with anger in order to “uncover the source of your anger”.

She says: “You must also commit to making a change for yourself and start paying attention to your thoughts and behaviour and learn what it is that is triggering a response in you. Once you know what triggers the aggression then you can start working out how to resolve that issue for you and in the meantime, start to remove yourself from any situation that could cause you to be emotionally aroused into an aggressive state.”

Mr Fisher added: “Will Smith is going to have to investigate for himself why his behaviour was extreme and what triggered him. He needs to unravel that therapeutically, as well as through anger management. There is always something deeper.”

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