Embracing Masculine Vulnerability: A Q&A with Lewis Howes
Vulnerability in men is terrifying, but necessary. Lewis Howes explains why.
Posted December 15, 2017
I recently had a conversation with podcaster, author, athlete, and entrepreneur Lewis Howes about an unlikely, but very timely, topic: masculine vulnerability. Lewis Howes is the New York Times bestselling author of The School of Greatness and hosts the Top 100 iTunes ranked podcast of the same name. Lewis was recognized by the White House and President Obama as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs in the country under 30, and Details magazine called him one of “five internet gurus that can make you rich.” His newest book, which we’ll talk about today, is The Mask of Masculinity.
EH: Lewis, welcome to the show and thank you so much for being here.
LH: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
EH: Absolutely! So, your newest book is titled The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships and Live Their Fullest Lives. This was a surprising topic to many people, especially coming from a former professional football player! So why start a conversation about masculine vulnerability?
LH: Because it's the most important thing in our world right now. Not many white jock men are talking about these topics openly, expressing their opinions, and talking about being raped as a kid by a man they didn't know. Not many men are talking about the insecurities, pressures, fears, and vulnerabilities that most men think they're not allowed to talk about.
It's been conditioned that it's not okay to show emotion. It's not okay to reveal the things that have happened to you in the past because that makes you a weak human being. It makes you less than a man. It makes you any type of name that kids are called all the time in school for doing anything that is compassionate, giving, caring, or empathetic. That type of conditioning is hard to break in men, especially if it's something that they've faced for decades.
For me, at thirty, I finally opened up about being sexually abused for the first time. Every single day, it was on my mind. A lot of my decisions up to that point were reactions based on feeling taken advantage of, feeling abused, feeling made fun of constantly. So I built my persona up to fit in, be accepted, be loved and liked by people, as opposed to feeling a sense of abandonment or abuse or being taken advantage of.
When I started to talk about this four years ago, I talked about it with my family one by one, and then friends. Both were terrifying in their own way, because I thought, “What if they don't accept me anymore?” But then I was heavily encouraged to talk about it openly and publicly on my podcast and I was terrified to do that, because, I thought, “What if my audience didn't accept me anymore?”
But when I did, I found it was the most popular episode I'd ever done. And more than just popularity, it was the most impactful thing I'd ever done. Hundreds of men emailed me and said, "Thank you for giving me permission to tell my wife. I've been married for 20 years; she doesn't know what happened to me. My kids don't know, my family doesn't know, my friends don't know. I've been terrified. I feel like I've been living in a prison in my heart my entire life because of these things that I'm not able to share."
So then I started to dive into the research. I started with my uneducated theory from my own personal experience and started doing a lot more research.
Psychologists have been studying this for decades, about development of boys in school, to teen boys, to adult men, to men who are in prison. These are outlets. When our energy is manifested, internalized, and we're not able to express ourselves in healthier forms—because that is deemed less of a man for whatever reason—then it manifests in other ways, and these masks, what I like to call these "masks of masculinity," help us fit into society, to be accepted, to be loved, and to belong.
The challenge is, when we are constantly putting on a mask, we're never our truest selves, and therefore we resent ourselves even more and we resent the people around us because they're not accepting us for who we are and we're not even showing who we are to them. It's really challenging, because we want to belong, as you know, as a psychologist. We want to belong, we want to fit in, we want to be accepted.
I went on a book tour over the last couple months and I started asking questions. It's about 50/50 men and women at these events. I'd say, "Show of hands of the women in the room who have girlfriends, where you get together at least once a week, whether in person or on the phone, and you talk about the things that you're going through: your challenges, your fears, your insecurities, your relationship issues, your body image issues, your work issues, anything like that. How many of you get together at least once a week? And I'm assuming some of you do this every single day. Go ahead and raise your hand." Every woman in the room raised their hand. Maybe one woman out of all the events didn't raise their hand. Almost every woman raised their hand: “Yes, this is a weekly thing.” And most of them said, “We do this every day. We get together for lunch and we talk about these things every day.”
And I say, "Okay, show of hands of the men that get together once a month in groups and you talk about your fears, your insecurities, your relationship issues, your body image issues, and challenges at work. You talk about these things and you look in each other's eyes and you express them." And maybe two or three, at each event, out of the hundreds of men, would raise their hand, doing that once a month. And these are the progressive guys who have, like, men's groups and church groups where they're coming together to talk about these topics. And they do it once a month, as a planned event.
Now, it's not really acceptable to do this on a daily basis, from my personal experience, and a lot of the experiences of men that I've interacted with and heard from, at least in America. And when I started to talk to people internationally, a lot of people felt the same way on this definition and sense of what masculinity is.
EH: So in the book, and also in your life, you're walking the walk of masculine vulnerability; I'm really glad that you brought up your sexual abuse experience and the reaction that you've gotten from that. As you opened up—you've talked to your family, you've talked to your friends—a number of surprising things happened. And so I'll let you tell that story. What happened?
LH: Well, I was terrified at first, because I think all we want is to belong, be accepted, and fit in. So I was terrified at first, and I remember talking to a therapist friend of mine, who I was just trying to get feedback from. I felt like I had a safe space to talk to her, and I said, “I'm really terrified to tell my family, I don't think I can.” And she said, “Well, if you don't think you can, then that's going to have power over you constantly. If you don't feel like you can tell people, then you're still living in fear.” And I said, "Okay, I know I need to, but how do you set this up? How do you drop a bomb on someone that you care about in your family when you don't want them to get upset or hurt?" And she said, "Ask them this question first: Is there anything that I could ever do or say that would make you not love me?"
It's crazy, because everywhere I go, people open up to me now.
And by asking that question first, before I told them, I was able to gauge their reaction and response and their acceptance of me. And every one of them said, "Absolutely not. There's nothing you could do or say that would make me not love you." And so that gave me that sense of peace, of, "Okay, they're going to accept me no matter what I've been through or what I've done."
When I asked my brother, who had been to prison for four-and-a-half years when I was a kid, when I was eight to twelve years old, he was like, "Absolutely not.” Because he had the most shame and guilt because he had sold drugs to an undercover cop, unfortunately, when he was 18. He made a mistake and they sentenced him for a long time, but he got out in four years on good behavior. So he was like, "Absolutely not." And that gave me a sense of peace, of "Okay, I’m not just dropping it on them, I’m making sure that they're going to accept me.
But if they say, “Well, it depends what you did,” then maybe I don't tell them right then. Then maybe I set it up in a different way, and say, "You know, I really want to know that I can share some things where I don't feel like you're going to judge me or shun me from the family. I've been through some stuff that I've been holding on to for a long time. Somebody did something to me and I want to share it." So I think it's all about how you set it up, and the context in which you're talking.
It's crazy, because everywhere I go, people open up to me now and say, "I've never told anyone this, but I was sexually abused, I was raped, and here's what happened." For whatever reason, since I opened up and am vulnerable and so revealing, people automatically trust me. And this is what happened with my family. They started opening up and sharing things that I'd never heard about them because I led with vulnerability.
EH: So not only did the people you opened up to continue to love you, continue to want you around, to trust you, or even trust you more—they also opened up to you.
And on this podcast, we always bring it back to the science. It's been shown that intimacy—getting closer to someone—is driven by reciprocity. So, for instance, if you share some part of your innermost life with me, I'll share some part of my innermost life with you. But to start that reciprocal process, I think you bring up a good point: you had to take that first step and, like you said, you were terrified. You had to overcome a lot of fear, a lot of trepidation, in order to disclose. So, in the moment, how do you do that? I really like setting it up by asking, "Is there anything I could ever do to make you not love me?" Do you have other tips or ideas for our listeners who are ready to be brave, ready to be vulnerable? What can they do?
LH: I think that was good for my family. I don't know if I would say that to my friends. I think you need to understand who the person is, the context. My girlfriend, yes, I'd say that to her, but a guy friend of mine who has never opened up to me...if I put my arm around him, he'd shrug me off, it would be like, “Okay, bro.”
EH: Right, that wouldn't match.
LH: You've got to understand your audience and meet people where they're at. And so I would say, "There are some things that people did to me in my past that I'm really ashamed of and feel guilty and insecure about. I want to know if you'd be open to listening to me without judging me and without making me feel wrong or bad about it. And if it's not something you're ready to hear, it's completely okay, but I want to let you know that I really want to share it with you and a lot of other friends because I feel like it's going to hold me back unless others know about it."
EH: I imagine the first time you did that was probably the most terrifying, but something that we talk about on this podcast a lot is that the more often you do something—the more you own it—the easier it gets. And I wonder if that was true for you.
LH: Absolutely. It went from the first times, where my heart is palpitating and my lip is quivering and I'm stuttering and looking down at the ground and not in their eyes because I'm humiliated and ashamed, to more and more friends saying, "We love you. We accept you. It's okay." And even more so, a fraction of them said, "I've been through that as well." And when they've been through some similar experience, you ultimately have a deeper sense of connection and a bond.
It's like you've taken your relationship to a whole other level when you've shared a common experience of something of that magnitude. So there's automatically a deeper understanding and connection from that point moving forward where you're both able to share and open up and trust each other more. And that's a beautiful thing. If we're living in anxiety constantly, that's a challenging inner world to live in.
Men are not just rocks, solid, with no emotions. They're human beings with a lot of sensitivities that they've masked for years.
EH: So here's a question: women also live in anxiety and feel inadequate or unlovable, but it's not tied to gender necessarily. It doesn't threaten our femininity. But why? Why is this perceived inadequacy in men so closely tied to masculinity?
LH: That's a great question. I mean, you're the psychologist, you probably know better than I do. But I think it’s the conditioning of what it means to be a man from early childhood. You know, I was crying probably more than any other girl in kindergarten, preschool. I cried all the time as a young boy. I was constantly emotional, constantly crying. And then at some point, someone was like, "What are you, a crybaby? Don't be a little girl. Don't be a little crybaby. Man up." I can't remember exactly, but at some point you think, "Oh! That's unacceptable. I want to fit in and want to have friends, so I can't be that way. So the next time I feel pain, I won’t show it. Otherwise, I'm not accepted and I won't fit in in class, or in a sport, or in music class, or whatever."
EH: "Showing pain is incompatible with my gender.”
LH: Exactly. You're made fun of by the other boys, or by other girls. You know, men are human beings as well. They're not just rocks, solid, with no emotions. They're human beings with a lot of sensitivities that they've masked for years.
EH: So, to wrap up, I have a question about a different topic, about habits. Your plan of action, for writing books, for launching School of Greatness, for starting businesses, is known for being simple. You emphasize discipline and execution; you set a goal and you crank through it. Even the boring, unglamorous tasks, you just crank through and achieve it. So what do you do on the days where you just don't feel like pushing things forward? How do you motivate, and how can our listeners motivate on the days they don't feel like being disciplined?
LH: I think about my vision. I think about my vision and I think that this could be my last day. And I really connect to, "Okay, if this is my last day, would I be happy with myself for being lazy? Would I be happy that I'm in a rut and that I wasted the potential to share something with the world that could potentially make an impact on one person's life and help them?"
It doesn't have to be as drastic as saving their life, but something to improve humanity. And if, let's say, I am gonna die today, and there's a moment where I get to look at myself and ask, "Did you give everything you've got or are there any regrets," I don't want to look at myself and think, "You know what, I wish I would've given it a shot. I wish I would've just finished it. I wish I would have just done that."
I think a lot of us are afraid to put something out there or complete something because it's not perfect. It needs to be a certain way; it needs to be perfect. I'd rather put something out there that is 98% complete that is still going to make a massive impact. And if it has a couple little mistakes here and there, then I can update it later.
EH: Lewis, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your thoughts and for being here today.
LH: I appreciate it very much.
EH: Lewis Howes is the host of the excellent School of Greatness podcast and author of the New York Times' bestselling book of the same name. His newest book is called The Mask of Masculinity, and you can pick up a copy at your favorite place to buy books.