On Will Smith, Janet Hubert and Making Apologies | Aunt Viv, You Are Not Alone

Will Smith and Janet Hubert
Will Smith and Janet Hubert during “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion.” (Saeed Adyani/HBO Max)

Everyone is talking about the ‘Fresh Prince Reunion,’ in which actors Will Smith and Janet Hubert brought their 27-year-long feud to an emotional end on screen.

In the case of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-stars, all those years ago, Will Smith supposedly felt so “threatened” by Hubert that it caused him to react with a so-called defense mechanism related to coping with his father abusing his mother while he was growing up.

After being labeled “difficult” and “angry,” Hubert took a pay cut, and, ultimately lost her role on the show and everything else (her Hollywood career, home and marriage). Now, Smith is being praised for opening up and listening, while showing vulnerability. So, how did this situation become more about about his healing than what she went through, especially when he sacrificed and lost nothing?

As one social media commenter said after the show aired: “An apology is nice, but I hope he’s going to get her some work in Hollywood to help make up for destroying her career.”

Just as Hubert was demonized by many when she called Smith out on social media, many women face un uphill battle when coping with the fallout, as is often the case with women who speak out after being wronged by powerful men.

So, an apology that comes years too late offers little solace to women who, like Hubert, have been harassed and worse after coming forward to air grievances and make their voices heard.

Sure, we all do or say things we later regret, especially when we overreact in the heat of the moment or make a bad judgment call in a certain situation. We’re are, after all, human, and things happens. But if my life experience have taught me anything, it’s that how someone says they’re sorry can either bring emotional closure or leave things painfully unresolved.

Someone offering a heartfelt mea culpa — the kind born from genuine remorse and deep regret — can certainly help resolve tensions, while making a contrived apology can feel like a slap in the face. All relationships are complicated, but sincerely apologizing with intention to right past wrongs (hurtful words, acts or even inaction) has to focus on what the offender said or did to cause a situation, not on the person’s reaction to it, which shifts the blame away from the person making the apology.

Psychologists say that human beings hard-wired for defensiveness, making it difficult for us to offer sincere apologies, which require three things: an admission of guilt, acceptance of direct responsibility and the ability to place the other party’s feelings before our need to be right and justify our behavior — in Will Smith’s case, seeing his father abuse his mother may be an explanation for his actions, but it’s not an excuse for them.

To right a wrong — perceived or actual — and heal a broken connection, it’s vital to have a conversation that allows the hurt party to express anger and pain, without them having to apologize for venting after being wronged.

Here are some things to keep in mind to offer an apology that will provide real healing.

Before apologizing
Look inward. In the case of minor scenarios, don’t be too hard on yourself. Recognize that we all screw up and say or do stupid things. But in the case of huge, indefensible mistakes, we should probe deeper to understand the reasons behind our hurtful words or actions.

Understand the why behind your apology. Without addressing the root cause of the issue, it’s impossible to make an effective apology that allows you to self-reflect and grow and both parties to start the healing process.

See things through their eyes. Approach your apology as a the opportunity to understand the other person’s experience and identify how you’ve caused them pain, the depths of their feelings and the level of harm you’ve caused them.

Act fast. Although it’s tempting to put your apology on the back burner, the longer you delay discussing the situation, the more harm will be done. Give yourself a little time to come to terms with things, but don’t procrastinate. Putting off having a heart-to-heart with the other party can be worse than the initial offense, causing irreparable damage.

When apologizing
Own up to it. Resist the urge to get defensive, make excuses or make yourself the victim. Take responsibility and make it clear to the person that you don’t take things lightly.

Keep it real. Make sure your apology comes straight from the heart. Avoid canned phrases like, “I’m sorry if you were hurt.” That language distances yourself from your actions and can feel hollow to the recipient.

Don’t email or text it. Written communications can make apologies fall flat, since they offer no way to convey body language, facial expressions and vocal sincerity. It’s best to apologize face-to-face if possible. If you can’t, doing it by phone is the next best thing.

Reassure them there won’t be a repeat. Telling the person what you’ve learned from your mistake and letting them know that it won’t happen again shows that you’re making an honest effort to correct your behavior, while showing good faith.

After apologizing
Go for a reset. When feelings are hurt, moving on to have an uneventful or positive interaction with the other person will provide a glimpse of what your relationship will look like going forward.

Make amends. Sometimes, a simple “I’m sorry” and a hug are not enough. In these cases, ditch the words only approach and apologize through actions. Depending on who the other party is, that could mean making an unexpected kind gesture, giving a surprise gift or, in the case of someone like Will Smith, making a job offer.

Be prepared to let go. If after making your apology the other person can’t move on, it’s time to disengage from them. All you can do is offer a sincere apology and own up to your mistakes; you can’t make someone accept it. Recognize that some relationships can’t be repaired.

Finally, it’s a good idea to view the act of apologizing as a way to exercise an emotional muscle that needs to be developed over time — something that gets easier the more you use it.

How you apologize depends on the situation, but no matter how you do it requires understanding, awareness and maturity to be well received. If you find that sweet spot, both parties can truly heal and move on in healthy ways.

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