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a stencil outline drawing of will smith from teh cover of his book
Dr. Debbie Magids
May 9, 2022

Dr. Debbie’s Reflection on Judgement

She asked me straight out where my empathy had gone.

We need to watch ourselves and try to understand where our own opinions come from because what we put out into the world with our words has lasting impact.

Even though it’s old news by now, I find myself somewhat profoundly affected by the infamous 2022 Oscar slap. Like so many of us, I witnessed Will Smith’s action live on TV. At first I thought it was a staged bit, and then as I realized it wasn’t, a strange discomfort came over me. What the hell had I just seen?

I went right to my typical response of empathy. I’m an extremely effective therapist, after all, with over 25 years of successfully treating patients. When a patient reports a shocking act or thought, in my mind I always go straight to "what happened here; where in this person’s core did we hit a trigger?” So I did the same with Will, and wondered what on earth could be going on in his unconscious core that got him so completely outside himself that he sabotaged perhaps the pinnacle of his career?

Over the days and weeks that followed, everyone from my dry cleaner to The New York Times piled on, and I found myself getting caught up in the media frenzy. Celebrities and commentators I admire, like Mika Brzezinski, Wanda Sykes, and countless others, all started to take sides, and my thoughts unconsciously shifted. I got pulled into the media machine and began judging Will Smith, a man I certainly don’t know from Adam.

One day in a therapy session the brouhaha came up with one of my clients, and when I voiced my (now brazenly judgemental) opinion, she asked me straight out where my empathy had gone. This young woman was surprised by what she saw as the harsh stance I had taken, and we shared an awkward moment of silence during which I realized I needed to reflect on my own behavior.  I took my patient’s question to heart, decided to read Smith’s new memoir, and contemplate.   

The book reveals so much about Smith’s childhood and deeper anger, about all that he has had to overcome to make it to where he is today, and as I flipped the pages I felt ashamed of my reaction to his poor choice on Oscar night. In the face of one person’s profound subconscious helplessness from young, who am I to draw summary conclusions from a distance? Childhood trauma, no matter how adeptly one labels it and works through it, does re-surface in times of stress, and the work of being human is to continually try to heal and revisit our own suffering.

Reading Smith’s memoir helped me find my "grounded" place again,  and here are the lessons I took away from this experience and want to share:

  1. One action or moment is not a true reflection of who we are. We all have deep triggers. They are generally just not seen for the world to judge. We all have had, or will have, moments in our lives that do not reflect our best selves. 
  2. It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and critique those who are putting themselves out in the world and taking risks. Generally, the people who judge the most are the people who feel the worst about their own selves.  Take stock and look in the mirror before sizing up others in one fell swoop.
  3. Empathy is the ability to step into the experience of someone else, to try and feel what they feel. This is hard. We are all, as human beings, spinning in our own orbits. Our individual experiences color our perceptions and dictate how we filter information. If it hasn’t actually happened to us, we have a very tough time understanding someone else. We all need to work on our empathy skills.
  4. Opinions and advice are based on "n of 1.” We each process information based on our own personal stories and our own histories. No one person’s individual triggers and experiences are the same as anyone else’s, and there is never one absolute truth.

We need to watch ourselves and try to understand where our own opinions come from because what we put out into the world with our words has lasting impact. The Butterfly Effect is real, and everything we do and say matters.  Let's try to be more responsible and mindful of others when we speak.

Thanks to this one client (and all my clients) from whom I continue to learn every day. We all need to be kept in check from time to time.

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