We are all Will Smith
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” - Viktor Frankl
It’s been called “The slap heard around the world.” Will Smith marched on to the stage at the 94th Academy Awards and struck comedian Chris Rock after Rock made a bad joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hairstyle. And, as if he wasn’t content with physical assault, Smith topped off his performance with some vulgar verbal abuse. Repeated twice.
Will Smith presented a case study in poor impulse control, something that most of us, if we’re honest, can relate to. You may not have an audience of millions watching as you slap down the best day of your professional life, but who wouldn’t want to curb the impulse to reach for that next drink, make a frivolous online purchase, or commit a reckless act of impatience on the road?
Controlling your impulses is a skill you can train, just as you build muscle at the gym. Every time you resist the urge to act thoughtlessly and destructively, your impulsivity is weakened just a little bit.
But how can you resist a powerful urge?
You don’t fight it, you surf it—you ride out the urge, trusting that, just like an ocean wave, it will build, crest, then subside. It's not recommended that you begin your surfing-the-urge practice at the Academy Awards ceremony. You begin practicing where the stakes are relatively small and work your way up to your weightier compulsions.
Here’s how to surf an urge:
1. Hop on your surfboard. Take a deep breath, acknowledging that there's a wave of thoughts and feelings that are driving you to act in a way that doesn't serve you.
2. Get curious about the sensations that your thoughts and emotions are creating in your body. Where in your body do you feel the urge? Is it hot or cold? Is it staying in one place or is it moving around?
3. Return to your breathing and mentally repeat the words inhale and exhale for a few breaths. Go back to step 2 and get curious about bodily sensations again. Alternate between breathing and getting curious until the urge has passed.
If you fall off your surfboard and into a wave of temptation, don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself credit for attempting to ride out the urge, and try again the next time you feel a wave approaching that you know will take you somewhere that you don't want to go.
My challenge for you is to pick one temptation this week and attempt to tame it with urge surfing. Above all, be curious. “When we get curious we step out of our old fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being. We become this inner scientist where we’re eagerly awaiting the next data point,” says Dr. Jud Brewer, associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University. Explore with your inner scientist all that is happening in your body. Keep the metaphor of the wave in mind, trusting that the urge to act will pass.
Urge surfing works because it helps you to create distance between the tempting stimulus that life presents to you and your chosen response. You become an active observer rather than a passive participant carried along by the emotional momentum of your life's drama.
You feel a hot coal of righteous rage alight in the middle of your chest when you see the pained look in a loved one’s face, realizing, based on prior examinations of this sensation, that it’s connected to a long history of witnessing hurt. Rather than lashing out to avenge an old injustice, you take a few deep breaths and remain seated, exploring the burning sensation with curiosity, watching as it builds, sending currents of energy down your arms and legs, then subsides. The presenter announces the winner. It's Summer of Soul.
“Someone catches you on the wrong day, says the wrong thing, and you lash out. Then you think, ‘I didn’t have to do that.’” - Will Smith, from a 1998 interview in Rolling Stone
Get Fully Charged on Surfing the Urge
“A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit,” Dr. Jud Brewer, 9-minute TED Talk, November 2015.
“The Craving Mind: From cigarettes to smartphones to love—why we get hooked and how we can beat bad habits,” Dr. Jud Brewer, Yale University Press, 2017.
“How to Beat Cravings with Urge Surfing,” a 10-minute instructional YouTube video.
“Why People Are Acting So Weird.” Olga Khazan, The Atlantic, March 30, 2022.
Here’s Will Smith’s biographer Mark Manson with his take “On Slaps and Celebrity.”
Happily curious urge surfing!