Good Will Hunting is one of my favorite movies. Will’s character is so compelling. By day he hangs out with his hard-living friends. By night he exercises his genius by solving quadratic equations, reading voraciously, and thinking big thoughts. Put another way, his public self seems to contradict his private self.
And the contradiction goes in an unusual direction. Will hides what is generally thought of as a great quality – being a genius. Publicly he revels in showing ‘bad’ qualities – getting into fights, drinking, etc. Such contradictions usually go the other way. Public selves display the ‘good’ qualities and private selves do the dirty deeds. Bill Cosby and Joan Crawford are great examples. They curated sparkling public selves while privately committing horrendous acts against their victims. Will does no such thing. He tries to be a ‘public enemy’ while keeping private what is special about him.
Why on earth would someone hide what makes them special? Control-Mastery Theory (CMT) answers this and explains why Will’s therapy with Robin Williams worked.
A Control Mastery understanding of Will starts with his goals.
What does Will consciously or unconsciously want for himself? I would assume that he has two.
We can infer from how he anonymously solves advanced math equations that he finds it emotionally dangerous to stand out. So, his first goal may be to feel safe standing out as brilliant. What’s the evidence for this? At the start Will can only allow himself to show his genius anonymously:
If he harbored no desire for the world to know his genius, he would not solve this equation.
Will’s second goal is to feel deserving of Skylar’s love for him. Or more generally, to feel deserving of love from people he respects and admires. This scene shows that Will doesn’t believe he deserves Skylar’s affection:
And this scene even moreso:
Will does not trust Skylar’s profound expression of love for him. He worries that she will learn something repulsive about him and reject him. From the rest of the movie, it’s clear that Will cares a great deal about Skylar and would like to feel deserving of her love for him.
The second question is what unconscious beliefs stand in the way of Will’s goals?
Let’s start with his first goal of feeling safe in standing out. From the way Will lives his public life he is trying hard to stay hidden. Being ‘one of the guys’ is how he does this. He may hold the unconscious belief that ‘I am no good’. If he believes this then his behaviors make a lot more sense. How can someone who’s ‘no good’ be a world-class mathematician?
You may be wondering why on earth would someone choose to believe something so harmful? We’ll get to that shortly.
Will’s unconscious belief that interferes with his second goal is pretty obvious. He does not believe that he deserves love from a woman he desires and cares for.
The third question is what early experiences led to Will’s negative unconscious beliefs?
This scene tells us most of what we need to know:
Will was separated or rejected by his birth parents to end up in the foster system. He was then severely physically abused by multiple ‘caretakers’. He experienced repeated rejections and harm from people he was supposed to be able to trust.
The first priority for all kids is to know that an adult caregiver is willing to take care of them. A kid in Will’s situation would have to try to know this about the same caregivers who reject and abuse him. Abused kids will preserve their caregivers’ status in their minds by adopting beliefs that comply with how they are being treated. So, if Will develops a belief that he’s ‘no good’ then his caregiver is doing nothing wrong by hitting him. If Will believes he is undeserving of others’ ongoing care then his foster caregivers are doing nothing wrong by kicking him back into the foster system multiple times. In a painful sense these beliefs force Will to conclude that he’s getting what he deserves.
When such negative unconscious beliefs take hold, an abused child’s development suffers. Will cannot find and maintain a romantic relationship if he believes he is undeserving of such happiness. Similarly, he cannot show, celebrate, and develop his intellectual prowess if he believes he is no good.
This scene underscores Will’s belief in his undeservedness of others’ love:
He describes hideous acts of abuse against him and insists that Skylar would reject him if she knew. Will is convinced that he deserved the abuse he got.
On to the therapy…how Robin Williams embodied good CMT technique.
We now know that Will wants to disconfirm his unconscious negative beliefs that he’s no good and undeserving of love from those he loves. CMT assumes that Will would be motivated to find evidence that these beliefs are not true. The CMT therapist’s job is to respond to Will in ways that help him do this. A series of ‘tests’ occurs in the movie that add up to allow Will to disconfirm his two unconscious negative beliefs.
Clients can test therapists in two ways: 1) acting in ways that comply with their negative unconscious beliefs or 2) treating the therapist in same abusive way they were treated.
The first type of test requires the therapist to respond in ways that convey an attitude of care, respect, and protection for the client. Showing indignation and abhorrence at a client’s description of being abused by a caretaker would be one example of how to pass this kind of test. Such reactions from a therapist highlight that the client did not deserve such treatment. These are known as ‘transference tests‘.
The second type of test can be trickier. In this case the client attempts to treat the therapist in the abusive way he was treated. The client’s goal is to see if the therapist can react differently than the client did. As such, the best way to pass these tests is to either assert one’s own rights not to be abused by the client and/or remain unflapped by it. This can unconsciously let the client know that he too did not deserve the abuse he received or that he is not vulnerable to it. Such tests are known as ‘passive-into-active‘.
There are three indicators that a therapist has passed a client’s unconscious test that it’s safe to disconfirm a negative belief:
1. The client becomes more engaged in the therapy by bringing up new content, showing more vitality, or depth of exploration.
2. The client improves inside and/or outside the session
3. The client increases the intensity of her tests
Test #1: How does Robin Williams respond to Will’s emotional abuse of him?
Watch this scene:
Will tries to psychologically abuse Robin Williams. Instead of talking about himself Will puts the therapist in his cross-hairs. He tries to elicit information so that he can use it against Robin. Robin Williams does something that’s more for Hollywood than reality by physically attacking Will. The underlying point is that Robin would not allow Will to abuse him. We can think of this as a passed test because it models for Will that his therapist does not believe he deserves Will’s abuse.
Once Robin Williams has some time to calm down and reflect he delivers a more unflapped response to Will’s attempts to abuse him:
This is a great example of how a therapist can pass a passive-into-active test. It showed Will that he can’t get his therapist to believe that the therapist is undeserving of respect or love. Robin is saying that he will not allow himself to be treated the way Will treats himself. We can assume that this was a passed test because Will grew more engaged in the therapy. He returned for his next sessions.
Test #2: Does Robin Williams agree that Will’s undeserving of love?
In this scene, Robin counters Will’s presumption that he must be perfect in order to deserve Skylar’s love.
Assumptions of perfection of oneself often lead to feeling undeserving of love. Robin’s anecdote about his wife’s farting countered the idea that one must be perfect in order to be loved. As they trade playful barbs with each other at the end of the clip, there’s an atmosphere of closeness, relaxedness, and vitality. Those kinds of moments reflect a passed transference test.
Test #3: Does Robin Williams agree that Will is no good?
In this scene, Will’s efforts at to not stand out are discussed:
Robin calls out the contradiction in Will’s assertion of being ‘just one of the guys’ with his anonymous solving of the math problems at M.I.T. The purpose is not to embarass Will but to challenge his unconscious belief that he is no good and that it is dangerous to stand out. Will makes light of Robin’s effort to take Will’s ambitions seriously by saying he wants to be a ‘shepherd’. Although it may seem ‘mean’ or whatever to kick Will out of his office, something therapeutic is being done. Robin is communicating to Will that he takes Will’s talent and ambitions seriously and will not tolerate Will making light of this. Robin does not comply with Will’s belief that he’s no good.
Will grows angry at the end of the scene and tries to abuse Robin but Robin remains unflapped. We can think of this as a passed transference test because Will’s anger showed an increase in the intensity of his tests. He shifted into the passive-into-active stance by growing abusive but Robin passed that test too.
Test #4: Are Will’s friends going to reject him for standing out?
Life is not only lived in the therapy room. Tests can be passed by friends and lovers too. In this scene, Ben Affleck directly contradicts Will’s negative unconscious belief that he is no good and that it’s dangerous to stand out:
Ben does a lot in this scene to tell Will it’s safe to stand out. He shows that he will not feel diminished by Will’s accomplishments – on the contrary he would be thrilled. He clearly views Will as special and quite good. And he insists that Will is entitled to fulfill potential.
Test #5: Did Will deserve the abuse he got?
This scene is iconic and speaks for itself:
All the passed tests in Robin and Will’s relationship lead up to this moment. Will has amassed enough disconfirming evidence of his negative beliefs that he deserved the abuse he got to relent to Robin telling him it was not his fault. Will initially tries to fight off Robin. I think this may because he fears that Robin will turn on him like his foster parents if he trusts him. The momentum of the safety Will has experienced with Robin overcomes Will’s fear and he allows himself to believe Robin. Will is overcome with a relieving grief as he sobs in the arms of Robin. This kind of cathartic moment happens when one has found out that it’s safe to disconfirm a negative belief like this. Similarly to crying at happy endings of movies, we often allow emotions to overtake us when we no longer feel endangered.
How do we know this was a passed test? Will shows marked improvement after this session: he takes a job commensurate with his genius and sets about to win back Skylar’s affection. Both moves show that’s he’s not living under the tyranny of his negative unconscious beliefs that he’s no good and should not stand out and that he’s undeserving of love.
Good Will Hunting sometimes gets lampooned for reducing the process of therapy some magical incantation and ‘poof’ everything’s all better. Family Guy does a pretty funny job of this:
I think there’s a lot more to the process of therapy that the movie accurately portrays. It’s also striking how much of it aligns with the process of therapy outlined in Control-Mastery Theory.
Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who is trained in Control-Mastery Theory. This client-centered theory works to empower you to reclaim aspects of yourself that are valuable. If this blog post resonates with you, psychotherapy from a Control-Mastery perspective can be particularly helpful. Contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit.