Will Smith on growing up in abusive home — and how fatherhood was healing

"People laughing and people having fun was my defense mechanism."
/ Source: TODAY

Will Smith says growing up in an abusive home caused him to develop unhealthy defense mechanisms that impacted his personal life and his professional career.

"My father was violent in my house. So a part of the whole creation of Will Smith — the joking, fun, silly — was to make sure that my father was entertained enough not to hurt my mother or anybody in the house," Smith told clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula on Friday's episode of Facebook Watch's "Red Table Talk."

Being unable to stop his father's violence against his mom caused Smith to struggle with feelings of "inadequacy" as a little boy.

"So when someone comes at me like that, the little boy is fully in that space and I would perform and dance and tell jokes, right? People laughing and people having fun was my defense mechanism," he explained.

The "Men in Black" star says, at the same time, he grew up believing that if he hurt people first, they couldn't hurt him. "I realize the other side of it was, if I cut you bad enough, you wouldn't be able to respond," he said.

Will Smith, right, and wife Jada Pinkett Smith, second from right, with their children (L-R) Trey (with Smith's ex Sheree Zampino), Willow and Jaden.TODAY Photo Illustration / Getty Images

Smith's childhood wounds affected his relationships with women. He called a woman's disapproval "the central greatest pain in my life."

"I think because of my dynamic with my mother — as a little boy my father beat my mother and I couldn’t protect her — female disapproval is unbearable and my body can't handle it," he said.

For years, Smith misinterpreted a woman's disapproval as a loss of love.

"That’s absolutely my central wound. In the last three years, I’ve been seeing it and confronting it more effectively," he shared.

The actor credits fatherhood with helping him to heal, and says he's especially proud of his relationship with his his 20-year-old daughter, Willow.

"My relationship with Willow has been a major part of healing. Willow’s the only female relationship I’ve ever had that I didn’t mess up," he said, adding, "I'm sure there are aspects from Willow’s point of view, she would say, 'No, you messed some stuff up Dad,' you know? But in my mind, I did right by her."

Smith reunites with former "Fresh Prince of bel-Air" co-star Janet Hubert for the first time in 27 years.HBO Max

During his healing process, Smith realized that he brought his unhealthy defense mechanisms to the set of his 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," where he felt "threatened" by former co-star Janet Hubert.

Hubert was the original actress to play Banks family matriarch Aunt Viv on the series. She was replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid after the show's third season in 1993, and reports of a feud between Hubert and Smith have circulated over the 27 years since.

"Janet was Juilliard trained. Janet can sing, she can dance, she can act, she’s brilliant and she was in the parental figure, right? So my little boy desperately needed her approval," Smith recalled.

"So, on the 'little boy in me' level, with Janet, I needed mommy to think I was great and then once I realized that she didn’t, my dragon woke up," he added.

The former co-stars recently talked about their rift for the first time during a cast reunion that was filmed for an HBO Max special that premiered this week.

"I wanted us to seek healing and I knew the first phase of that healing was me understanding what she experienced, so I asked Janet to sit down with me," said Smith.

Smith posted a photo of the pair's emotional reunion Friday on Instagram captioning it, "It was beautiful seeing YOU and more importantly hearing you. Thank you, Janet."