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What lies beneath

04 Apr 2022 / wellbeing Print

What lies beneath

The ‘Oscar slap’ was a TV moment full of raw emotion, writes Antoinette Moriarty (head of Law Society Psychological Services).

The scene in which Will Smith strode purposefully to strike Chris Rock full-on across the face, crossed a significant line of what is acceptable public behaviour, and breached the personal boundary between the two men.

The social-media frenzy that followed offered the public the primal pleasure of moving instantly from spectator to commentator.

'Hot takes'

However, ‘hot takes’ leave little room to think about what we are seeing or, more interestingly, not able to see. Endless speculation can fail to probe what might lie beneath the surface of Will Smith’s violent outburst.

What reasons are there, in the realm of the unconscious, that give a deeper understanding of the relevance and meaning he may have made of his wife Jade Pinkett Smith’s eye-roll? 

How can we break down the ‘electric triangle’ (always a charged configuration) created in that moment between the Smiths and Rock.

As cognitively oriented beings, we like to imagine we know what drives us, what motivates our own and other’s behaviour. In reality neither we, nor they, can truly account for what was going on.

Psychological scaffolding from the inside-out

It is an unsettling and disconcerting truth that many of our actions, thoughts and feelings are fed from our unconscious. That doesn’t, of course, mean we can excuse ourselves of anything – but it may help us to slow down and think before we act. 

Knowing ourselves from the inside out, as well as knowing how we impact on others, is complex. It is rarely achievable to garner such insight entirely on our own.

We rely on the honestly of people around us to guide us. If we are curious about what lies underneath our own or other’s behaviour, we may seek an additional pair of eyes and ears. Talk therapy is particularly well suited to this journey of self-discovery.

While few of us may get the opportunity to accept an Oscar, we all know what it is like to feel unsure, under pressure, under a spotlight, or flooded with fear or anger. How we respond to those feelings, or to any provocative situations, is something we can do much to influence and support – our unconscious notwithstanding.

Window of tolerance

As professionals working within a challenging and busy environment, lawyers benefit greatly from some reliable psychological and emotional scaffolding.

Most of us know all too well the shock and impact of having boundaries breached – not necessarily physically (though levels of violence have risen in such a troubling way during the pandemic), but perhaps in terms of our psychological safety, personal dignity or indeed our professional integrity.

When we are confronted with intensely strong feelings, our own or those of another, we can literally stop thinking. Our thoughts are suspended, and with them our capacity to ground ourselves and choose our actions or words wisely and carefully.

Neuro-psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel likens the internal space within which we process stress or disturbance to a ‘window of tolerance’.

In peaceful times, this window can be large and generous. We can absorb irritations, disappointments, minor and even more significant disturbances with ease. However, when our confidence is low, or we are navigating new territory (such as a pandemic), that window can shrink – even slamming shut.

Sometimes, as with Will Smith, there are disastrous consequences for us, and the people around us.

Moving beyond right and wrong

Freud revolutionised our understanding of human behaviour with his model of the human psyche – and the varying levels of consciousness and unconsciousness we all have at any given moment.

When we can slow down and wonder about the unconscious, what is expressed in a display of abusive power can sometimes also be understood as a revelation of pain and vulnerability.


Of course, understanding does not mean accepting any and every behaviour. But it may allow us to uncover the underlying complexity, address the source of pain, our own or another’s, which is missed when we stay only with what’s on the surface.

The trouble is that we like the certainty of our instant responses, the binary and polarising positioning of good or bad, black or white, right or wrong.

It can be messy to be invited into the grey of the ‘both-and’. To stray into that complexity requires us to have to wonder (or maybe even empathise with) the acting-out or the destructive behaviour.

Fortunately, violence is rare in legal professional life. However disturbances of other kinds are all around us. The recent Dignity Matters report highlighted the prevalence of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment experienced by women and by men in the workplace.

It is in all our interest to continue to evolve that conversation, and to be curious about the deeper roots of those behaviours.


To be alive is to be continually confronted with our own and other’s limitations. Will Smith certainly ran up against his, leaving a trail of destruction on a night that should have been his finest.

The value of becoming psychologically aware and robust is that it can protect us from the worst of our primitive part. When we remain vigilant, work on our internal scaffolding, shore up our window of tolerance, we can navigate life from a place of greater awareness.

If nothing else, the past two years taught us that life is uncertain and we need each other if we are to live it well and wholeheartedly. 

If you are curious about exploring and enhancing your own ways of managing stress – or if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, please contact LegalMind. 

LegalMind is an independent and confidential mental-health support available to solicitors and their dependants, 24 hours a day, and can be contacted at 1800 81 41 77 (Freephone number) or via SMS to 00353 (0)87 369 0010 (standard rates apply). 

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland