You probably think you’ve heard everything there is to say about Will Smith.
Nor have you heard the most important part of it.
On the afternoon of March 27, I finished Will Smith’s memoir. I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-thirds of it, but as I’d drawn closer to the end of it, I’d grown uneasy, though I couldn’t quite articulate why. Then, a few hours after finishing it, my family and I watched live the slap heard round the world.
Stunned, I checked Twitter, because it’s the speediest news outlet in the world. A recording of the incident had already been posted from Australia, where they didn’t censor the scene for their audience. Will Smith had clearly assaulted Chris Rock in front of 12 million people. And, finally, I was clear about why the end of his memoir had bothered me, and I understood what had happened at the Oscars:
A younger version of Will Smith had pushed its way into the present.
Our adult self is created in a three-stage process. First, we arrive in the world with a true self that was created for us. It was made by love and for love, to give love and to get love. This original version of ourselves considers its lovability self-evident.
Then, our true self encounters pain and shame in one form or another. Abandonment, rejection, abuse, or simply the loneliness of feeling unseen and misunderstood. In the midst of it, a new and wounded version of us begins to form. If the first version of us was the lover, this version of us is the loner, and its lovability is always in question.
In the third stage, we begin creating versions of ourselves to hide, defend, and prove the worthiness of our inner loner. This goes on for many years. Layers and layers of identity. A sedimentary self. Gradually, our inner world becomes crowded with the many versions of ourselves. There are hiders in there. And fighters. And rulers. Chameleons and conquerors. Damsels and dictators. This, in and of itself, is not a problem. In fact, it’s normal, even ubiquitous. We’ve all got a gathering of younger selves within us.
The problem isn’t the gathering, it’s the urge to eliminate it.
Near the end of Will Smith’s memoir, he talks about a journey of self-discovery: he went on multiple retreats, read a library’s worth of wisdom books, and completed fourteen ayahuasca ceremonies. In the process, he reconnected with his true self—that spacious and gracious original self from which all of his other selves sprang—and that is a beautiful thing. However, I was troubled by the implication that, having rediscovered his true self, he could somehow jettison all the other versions of himself. That mindset is a recipe for disaster.
You can’t uncreate the versions of yourself you’ve already created.
As much as you’d like to, you can never really put the past behind you. That’s why the first line to my new novel is, “The past is behind us, but it is also, always, within us.” We don’t get to simply delete the most troublesome or most painful parts of our story. Nor can we erase the versions of us that lived that story.
Moreover, trying to do so perpetuates the very same rejection that gave rise to them in the first place. More rejection equals more shame. More shame equals more need for the very versions of us we created in order to cope with shame. Not to mention, if you tell yourself you can eliminate them—and you believe you’ve done so—then your inner fighter might just show up when you least expect it and slap someone without your permission.
About a month before the slap heard round the world, I was facilitating a small couples retreat when a younger version of myself pushed its way into the present. I didn’t know what was happening at first. I rarely get anxious when I speak anymore, but I was sweating, noticeably. Then I got panicky about everyone noticing I was sweating. So I started to sweat more. I wanted to crawl under a rock but I couldn’t, because I was in the spotlight.
So instead I took a moment, and a breath, and I realized my little loner was feeling what he always feels: like he doesn’t belong. He feels unprepared for people with class and manners and inside jokes. He feels like he’s on the outside and missing some essential key to getting on the inside. Sitting there in the spotlight, I so much wanted him to go away, to never have existed at all, which of course is a lonely thing to do to a lonely little guy. So, instead, I did what I knew he needed: I welcomed him into the moment.
Instead of trying to eliminate the younger versions of who we are, we must welcome them.
Instead of hiding, I told the participants what I was experiencing, and the next day I told them why it had happened: we all have a younger version of ourselves always pushing its way into the present. If we try to eliminate those younger versions, they’ll have no guidance to go by when they show up. They’ll just do what they do. But if we welcome them, learn how to relate to them, love each and every one of them, then we can all work together.
For what it’s worth, I’ve forgiven Will Smith for being a lot like me: for having younger versions of himself that push their way into the present, for thinking he could eliminate them, and for having to learn the hard way that there’s really only one way to heal:
The welcoming is the healing.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.