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Hey, it’s Marie Forleo and you are watching MarieTV, the place to be to create a business and life you love.
You know, my guest today found himself riding high on some career wins, but inside he was feeling empty and alone. He’s here today to share some lessons he’s learned about how the masks that we can all wear keep us from being our best.
Lewis Howes is a former professional football player turned lifestyle entrepreneur. He’s the author of the New York Times bestseller, The School of Greatness, with a popular podcast of the same name. Lewis is a contributing writer for Entrepreneur and has been featured on The Today Show, Fast Company, ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and Men’s Health, among others. His newest book, The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability, Create Strong Relationships, And Live Their Fullest Lives, is available now.
Good to see you, Marie.
So good to see you. I’m so excited that we’re finally doing this.
Me too. Thanks for having me.
Of course. It’s been, it’s been a while, so I want to start at the top with this book, The Masks of Masculinity. Tell us what was the inspiration to write this one? Because it’s a departure from your last book and most of the topics.
Yeah. The inspiration came from a darker pain that I think you’re aware of that I started talking about a few years ago where my whole life I felt like I needed to achieve certain things to fit in, to be accepted, to be welcomed as a part of the community – whether it be in school, with classmates, to teammates in sports, to the business world. I always felt like I needed to fit in. And by doing so I needed to prove myself to the people to fit in and to be accepted.
And so I was very driven to achieve, and it worked. That drive allowed me to get certain results, but every time I achieved those results I never felt happy inside, I never felt fulfilled. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, I’ve figured it out now that I’ve got this thing.” Like I had inner peace. I never had inner peace. I felt like I was always alone, always suffering and resentful and angry when I would achieve. It was almost as if like the moment I achieved the things I wanted to achieve, I was the least happy. And I never understood why. So I said “I need bigger goals, I need bigger dreams. I need – maybe it’s not big enough.” Right?
Right. Like you’re not dreaming big enough.
You don’t have the vision big enough.
Exactly. So let me keep going.
And so in my 20s and late 20s I just kept going bigger and bigger. And still, every time I would achieve something or certain marks that I set for myself, it wasn’t enough inside. And I didn’t understand why. I just figured this is the way it is. This is who I am. This is what life is all about.
And I didn’t have that awareness until four … about four and a half years ago, kind of everything went south for me. You know, I was achieving at the highest levels in my business. I, you know, I was achieving athletically my dream playing with the USA Handball team. I had, you know, the beautiful girlfriend. I had like what – I had a lot of money. What a lot of guys would think of like that “he’s made it. He’s making it.” But I was in a terrible just darkness inside. I didn’t know how to handle my inner world. My outer world looked good. My inner world was sick.
I think it’s interesting just to note for folks, because a lot of us, you know, especially when you don’t come from a lot and, you know, doesn’t matter if it’s middle class, poor, anywhere on that spectrum, and then you start to achieve. It’s like a lot of people go, “Oh, it’s easy for you to say.” You know, “you have all the things now. Oh, but boo hoo inside.”
But I think it’s important to make the point. I’ve certainly noticed this from so many people that I’ve interviewed, books that I’ve read, folks that I know in my personal life, that no matter how much is happening or appearing to happen on the outside, it cannot make up for some of the deep pain and suffering that’s happening on the inside that a lot of times you just don’t know about.
And a lot of the people that are so driven, that are successful, usually comes from some type of darker pain or something to prove.
Which was where I was coming from. So it all kind of came crashing down when – it’s funny, because I’m having like a deja vu moment with you. Because I actually was sitting with you I think at a coffee shop nearby when I was like, “you know, I’m thinking about moving to LA.”
Do you remember this conversation?
Totally. Of course I do.
I was like, “What do you think? Give me your advice, because I really look up to you and I appreciate your wisdom.” So I was like, “What do you think? I’m in love with this girl. Like, I don’t know but things are going well here in New York City. She wants me to be in LA. I don’t know what to do.” And you’re like, “You know what? Just go for it. Like, just go for it, because you don’t want to regret it.” And you told me to really listen to my intuition. And I was like, “You know, maybe I’ll try it out.” You know, I wasn’t sure. I was kind of torn. You told me to go for it, and I did, and I’m very glad I did because it allowed me to open – it got me to my darkest place.
It allowed me to see what was working and what wasn’t working.
And the relationship was very toxic afterwards, but I didn’t know how to emotionally communicate in the relationship and express myself in a healthy way.
So when things weren’t going well I just didn’t feel like I couldn’t even talk to her. I felt like I wasn’t able to express myself for whatever reason. And what I would do is I would take that anger out into the world. I wouldn’t be angry with her or get in a fight with her. I would take it out in the sports world when I was playing basketball, in business with my friends. I would take it out elsewhere on people.
And I was very angry, resentful, and passive aggressive. And so the relationship was very toxic for me because I didn’t know how to emotionally communicate. I was angry, resentful, my business relationship was crumbling, and I started to get in a lot of fights. I started to get very aggressive with everyone. Any time someone would attack me or give me a comment online that I didn’t like or say “give me feedback,” it was like I had to defend myself with everything. The point where I got in a fight on a basketball court, and that literally shook my world. Because I could have lost everything. You know.
It was a fist fight.
A fist fight. A physical fight. For months it was like I was walking down the street looking for people to look at me weird so I could fight them. I kind of had that aggression. I was like, “You trying to look at me? You trying to step to me?” or whatever. And, you know, finally in this basketball game I got in a fight. And I gave myself the justification that he hit me first, so it was okay to hit back. Right? Since he hit me first, it was okay to hit back. But I didn’t know when to stop. And I finally got pulled off the fight and I looked at the guy and saw his face completely, you know, just bloody. Blood all over the courts, all over my hands. And I started shaking. And I was just like, you know, “what did I just do? What did I just do? Everything could go wrong from this moment forward.” You know, the police station was actually right across the street from this place. And I was like what happens if they saw this? What – you know, what if I go to jail?
I actually ran home like a coward. I couldn’t even face him or anyone else there. I ran home like a coward, washed the blood off my hands, looked at myself in the mirror, and was just like, “Who are you? Who are you? What are you doing? Why are you so angry?” Like, it all started to come together where it was the catalyst for me to start looking within. Kind of months and months of this toxic relationship, this being aggressive with people, constantly being defensive online or offline, that moment was the catalyst for me to say, “Okay, I need to look within and start seeing what I can do to do things differently.”
So that’s when I, you know, hired therapists and coaches and went to emotional intelligence workshops, started asking my friends and family for feedback. I said, “Give me feedback. I want to hear how I can be better.” I think for so many years I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to change. I just said this is who I am. Accept me for who I am.
And that was the catalyst for me wanting to talk about this. Because during that process of opening up myself and learning about why I was so defensive or guarded or aggressive my whole life – now, listen. I was a very loving, fun guy. You knew me before then.
Always loving and fun, but it was like those moments where I was triggered, it was like I didn’t know how to turn it off.
And I never understood why.
And then it sounds like from reading the book, there was also a pivotal moment as you were searching in your own journey and starting to discover, “oh, my goodness. How do I release this anger? How do I not have these triggers? How do I find real happiness? Because all the bullshit materialism clearly ain’t doing it.” You stumbled upon a documentary that made a huge impact.
Yeah, yeah. The Mask You Live In is a powerful documentary that started having these conversations more and more. With boys, with teens, with men in prison, with all types of men and boys about how we’ve been developed and conditioned to become men in a certain way.
How … what it means to be a man in our society, specifically in America. And I think my whole life I was conditioned a certain way to act and to not act. You know, when you’re 7 years old and your parents tell you to go be kind at school to kids, and then you’re trying to be nice to people and express yourself and you get shoved in a locker. You say, “okay, I don’t want to do that anymore if I’m not gonna be accepted.”
Not saying that happened to me, but that’s just kind of like the pattern that kids go through. Where they’re generous, they’re kind, they’re compassionate, they’re caring, maybe they show emotion, and then they get made fun of.
You know, in the sports teams growing up you weren’t allowed to show emotion. You weren’t allowed to cry, because men don’t cry. And the names that you’re called for even acting like you have any emotions or like you’re sensitive at all was that you were less than a man. They would call you all sorts of names. And so just to fit in, just to be accepted by your peers, you had to act a certain way to be cool or to fit in. And I think for me that carried on into other areas of my life. I couldn’t just turn it off after those three hours of practice.
Then it was with my family at home. I had to act cool. It was with my girlfriends, I had to act a certain way. It was with guy friends. I never fully opened up with guys. I didn’t have one good guy friend where I could tell anything.
I think 50% of men feel that they don’t have a guy friend that they can share stuff with, whereas women in general, I see you guys getting together every day and talking about things you’re insecure about and the fears you have and frustrations you’re feeling from relationships or life or image issues or whatever it may be. You’re talking about these things. Whereas I personally never talked about them. And a lot of the guys that I grew up with never talked about any of their insecurities or fears or doubts or concerns, because that’s not what it means to be a man. You’re not allowed to show vulnerabilities, at least growing up the way I did.
And as I started having these conversations with other men I realized, wow. This is like almost every guy that I meet faces this. Except for a few guys who grew up like on a farm or like in a spiritual retreat center where their parents were so loving and open and wanted them to be more expressive. But for the majority of guys that I know and that I grew up with, that wasn’t the case.
And when I started opening up, you know, four years ago I started telling people that I was sexually abused and raped by a man when I was five years old. And this is when everything started to shift for me, because that was the secret I was unwilling to share, and that secret just manifested into toxicity inside of me where I didn’t know how to express myself in a loving way when I was hurt. So the opposite of love is some type of anger, passive aggressiveness, frustration, and that’s the only way I knew how to communicate when I was feeling pain.
And I think there was – and as I started to open up about this and share with my friends, with my family, and then more publicly over the months, something incredible happened. So many men would open up back to me. You know, I was terrified to tell people what had happened to me, because I was so ashamed. I felt guilty, I felt insecure, I felt like no one was gonna love me anymore. They weren’t going to accept me. But when I started to share, men would tell me their deepest, darkest secrets, their biggest insecurities, their pain, the things they suffered with, and they would tell me, you know, “I’ve judged you for so long and now I trust you. Like, I fully trust you now.” Men were like, “I will follow you anywhere now that I know this about you and you’re willing to talk about it.”
I would get emails and just essays from men saying, you know, “I’ve been married for 25 years. My wife doesn’t know that I was sexually abused or that I went through this other thing.” It wasn’t always sexual abuse, but the men have gone through a lot of things that they feel like they’re unable to express and talk about.
And I realized, wow, the more I start to share with my friends and family for them to actually see me for the first time and just know me, know what I’ve gone through, know what I’ve felt, I feel like I’m finally able to be myself. And the more I started to share, the more I started to heal, and the less those moments or those insecurities had control over me. I was able to take my power back, and it’s been an amazing transition.
And so I felt like this was more of like a responsibility for me to talk about this thing. Over anything else I’d do, this was more of a process for me to talk about this for me to continue to heal, for me to hold myself accountable. Because even though I started to share and heal, last week I’m getting triggered and like aggressive and angry. And, you know, passive aggressive still.
Patterns exist, and especially ones that we’ve had over the course of our lives.
You know, 10, 20, 30, 40 years you’ve been doing something one way, it is – it’s a journey and a process to start to unwire that stuff.
So I love that though, because there is something I think really powerful, right, about like taking a stand and saying, “Okay, I’m gonna talk about this and I’m also gonna use this as an opportunity to hold myself to a higher standard. I might not get it perfect, but at least now I’ve declared like, okay, this is what I’m working on. This is what I’m gonna share. This is what I’m gonna keep sharing. This is what I’m gonna keep going for in my own life.” I think that that’s incredible. And I want to put this in a larger context.
So beyond your own journey, and we’re touching upon this a little bit, but what do you see and what have you seen from writing this book and from talking to so many men and boys about what’s not working for them in terms of our culture today?
In general men don’t feel like they’re allowed to express themselves in a more vulnerable way because of whatever conditioning they’ve had. It may be them from their peers in high school or sports or parents saying, you know, “boys don’t cry.” Whatever it is that they heard or people said or something that was conditioning. And it’s translated into the rest of their life. At work, in business, relationships.
You know, I’ll speak for myself, I came from a place of win-lose. I had to win in sports, and if I lost it was an attack on my identity that I wasn’t good enough. And so I took that in every other part of my life. In relationships with girlfriends, I had to win. Even if it was like a fun little contest or competition we were doing, it was like no. I had to like show you I was gonna win. And that never makes the other person feel good.
And I had to be right. Even when I was wrong, I had to be right in relationships and business and whatever, because that was a form of winning. And it got me the results that I was looking for. I won a lot and I was right a lot, but it left me feeling very alone because I was hurting everyone else in those moments. So it was working in terms of getting me those results I wanted, but when relationships were suffering and other people felt disconnected to me, is it really working?
Yeah. You know, there’s this interesting Harvard study that … I remember when it first came out and I was reading about it. They had followed an entire kind of group of men over 70 years. And I got a little pissed, because I’m like, “well, back in those days they didn’t even think it was worthy to follow a group of women for 70 years.” But my point is that, you know, at the end of the life of this group of men, and so many of them achieved, you know, such incredible things in terms of money and wealth and business and prestige and impact and all of them, the most consistent thing that they said at the end of their life was the most important was the relationships.
And the quality of their relationships.
So I’m curious because, you know, obviously we have an incredible audience. A lot of women.
The best audience.
For the women listening going, “Okay, I totally get this. I love Lewis. I understand what he’s saying.” How is this relevant for them?
Well, women have lots of relationships with different types of men. It could be your father, it could be your boyfriend or your brother, it could be the sons that you have. And I think a lot of the conflict that is happening in the world right now, especially in the media that I’ve seen just this year alone. Besides the natural disasters that are happening, you see Charlottesville, the racial marches, and the hate and anger and fear that men are – men are having. You see the sexual violence and the sexual abuse that’s happening, the domestic violence is happening with sports figures. You see the political dis-ease that’s happening, this conflict.
You see all these instances. You know, Las Vegas shootings which is, you know, a man that doesn’t know how to express himself. You see all these instances happening this year alone, and these are all members of society in your life as women. All these men are part of your life. There are men who are angry, who are protective, who are passive aggressive. All these different things that are men in your life. And if your relationships with the men in your life are suffering, then it’s just something to be aware of. If you feel like you’re not connected to the men in your life, if you feel like your father is never emotionally available or distant from you or you can’t fully connect and share how you feel – if you feel your husband hasn’t been there for you or isn’t able to show emotion in a moment when you’re vulnerable and sensitive and they’re cold and guarded. If you feel like your sons never look you in the eye, then it’s important for you to understand first, why. And not make them wrong for this, but to just have some compassion and an understanding and awareness. Why?
That’s going to give you so much freedom and power when you understand why the men in your life act this way. And that’s the first step is understanding why and just being aware of it. Not saying it’s right or wrong, not making it good or bad, but you’re saying, “okay. Here’s a situation. Here’s why they’re doing it. Now, what can I do to connect with them on a deeper level?”
And that’s the first step.
Yeah. No, I love that. And I really, I appreciate that in the book that at the end of every chapter, and you go through a series of masks. That there was note for us ladies to say, “hey, if your guy, your son, your nephew, your student, whoever it is.”
Exactly. “They might be experiencing this, here are some things that you might want to keep in mind.”
Yeah. And in no way am I saying that I’m some expert. It’s like a psychologist that knows how to – how women should be acting fully with men.
You know, as a whole, you know, there’s a lot more out there. This is like getting into the first step of understanding. And when we have that awareness and understanding I believe it’s so powerful for us and we can start to just have a little bit more compassion or patience.
For each other.
For each other.
Not making them wrong, it’s not making them right, but just having a little bit of compassion and understanding and seeing, okay, “how can I connect with this person in a way that works for them? How can I come from a place of understanding them so I can resonate with them and connect to their heart, even when they have a wall between our hearts? How can I get to their heart?” And I think that’s what we all should be working on.
Yeah. You know, one of the most fascinating masks I thought was the aggressive mask as it relates specifically to boys and aggression and violence. There was a section in the book, a lot of people say boys will be boys, that it’s all testosterone. And not only is this a cheap excuse, but it’s wrong. And I thought one of the things I really loved was the Samoan Malaysia, one of the most peaceful societies known, that in that particular society men don’t fight each other, husbands don’t beat their wives, parents don’t hit their children, assault, rape, and murder are virtually unknown.
And as I was actually doing some more research on that, because I found it fascinating, I also discovered the Hutterites. And forgive me if I’ve mispronounced that. Here in North America there’s actually – that’s another community. There’s virtually no violence. And I thought this was interesting, because 90% of homicides are committed by men.
So your key point in the book, “a destiny of aggression isn’t born, it’s made. We can raise boys to be nonviolent if we choose.”
Absolutely. And, you know, when I was growing up I think I was more sensitive than any other girl in my age group. From like ages 4 to 7 I cried more, I was more emotional, I was very sensitive, and I could feel energy. And I always was, you know, insecure as a kid and I think I showed it more than the girls that were around me.
I would – I remember in the middle of the night screaming to my mom when I was in my bed alone, when I was afraid. Screaming at the top of my lungs until she would come and sing me a lullaby, and then I would make her stay with me so she would snuggle with me. Until I was like eight or nine years old, this happened many nights every single week. I was very sensitive and emotional and fearful and scared. And yet conditioning, you know, habits the training of just everything in society, you know, it starts with the peers in school. When kids just would make fun of you for any of that stuff.
Media, whatever. You know, our heroes that we’re seeing, what they’re doing. The people in power and positions of leadership, what we’re seeing them doing. It all affects, you know, the way we show up. Especially as young children.
And it’s just the conditioning. You know, I wish I was able to be more responsible and be more aware and be like, you know, “I’m gonna stand up for myself and continue to express myself the way I want to. I don’t care if everyone makes fun of me.” But I didn’t have that power. I didn’t have that emotional capacity to be like “I don’t care if I’m by myself. This is what I believe and I’m gonna be emotional and cry when I want to cry.”
It’s like, no. You were made fun of and you were, you know, excommunicated from the school if you did something that didn’t fit in. And all I wanted to do was fit in. And I think a lot of us put up masks to try to fit in and be accepted in society, whether it be on sports teams or the club or church, whatever. We’re putting on masks so that people accept us into what they think is right.
And it’s hard to take that mask off when you have the results. “People like me, people accept me, they acknowledge me for this thing that I’m wearing, so why take it off?” But when we’re suffering inside and we don’t have inner peace, that’s when we get to take a look at ourselves and say, “well, who are we and how can we move forward in a different way?”
Yeah. So I love, you know, the fact that this is a practice. And I wanted to ask you, knowing that you’re in the midst right now of sharing about this book. You know, you’re out here talking to us and lots of other people. Is there one of the particular masks that’s been … you know, I think we all have patterns and stuff comes, you know, you’re like, “Oh, boy. This one again.” You know what I mean? The one that for all of us even if it’s for a period of time, that keeps popping up. You’re like “I really need to keep my eyes of awareness and my heart around this one, because this is the one that sneaks in.”
Yeah. I mean, for me it’s the aggressive mask. Because, you know, I think I tell myself the story that I was abused, that I was picked on, that I was always in last, that no one wanted me, that I was like the last kid. It was the story I told myself for so many years that I said, “you know, I’m gonna become so big, so strong, so powerful, so, you know, results-driven that people have to accept me, that they always want to pick me first, that I’m always accepted.”
And so even just last week, even like flying to one of the places I was going to to talk about this, I missed my flight. And I have never missed a flight. And all of a sudden I wanted to – and I felt like it wasn’t my fault. I thought it was TSA’s fault, but I had lost my – I forgot my ID, and so I had to go through a whole process to go on the plane. Because if you don’t have your ID you have to like call and they pretty much like strip you naked and everything. I was like “just do whatever. I’ve got to get this flight.”
And they told me when they’re stripping me down and like checking everything out, they’re like, “You’re gonna make your flight. It’s okay.” I’m like “the doors are literally closing in two minutes. Can we speed this up, please?” You know, I’m trying to be patient. They’re like “it’s right there. The gate’s there. We’re gonna be quick. You’re gonna make it, trust us.”
And something in me, I was like “I just don’t think I’m gonna make this, but I’m gonna go along with trusting them anyways.” I get to the gate, it just closes. I’m sprinting without shoes like carrying everything. I’m like “please open it.” They’re like “once it’s closed, it’s closed.” I go, “But the plane is right there. Just let me on this plane.”
For 20 minutes I’m watching the plane just sit there and they won’t open the door. I’m talking to the customer support woman and I literally want to punch a wall, kick the trash can, scream, and make a scene. Like, I was raging inside, so frustrated, trying to blame like the TSA, but really I just forgot my ID. That’s my fault.
And so I’m sitting there. I don’t say anything to the customer support person because I’m like “I’m about to do something I’m gonna regret,” and how fitting is it I’m going somewhere right now to talk about masculine vulnerability? It’s like, wow, how great of an opportunity I have right now to see if I’m actually gonna live up to what I’m talking about?
I love it.
Or if I want to keep going back into old patterns. So I felt horrible. This woman was like, “Sir, what would you like to do?” because she was giving me these options. I just wouldn’t even say anything, because I was like I just don’t want to say anything that’s going to hurt her or just make me feel like an idiot right now by getting so mad. So let me just breathe for minutes. I’m breathing. I’m not even looking at her. I”m just breathing by myself until I feel like I can have a conversation and express myself in a different way.
And this is the thing. I never knew how to express myself in a loving way when I was triggered. So for me I focus on every single morning now … going through different scenarios in my day that could go wrong. What if someone cuts me off in traffic? What if I’m late for something? What if someone’s late for this? What if my girlfriend says something to me that upsets me? What if whatever? How do I want to react? Do I want to react as a trigger and be angry, or do I want to respond as a loving, vulnerable man and just, human being?
And so I go through these scenarios in the morning of all these things that could happen, and prepare myself. And I think that helps me focusing on one day at a time.
Saying okay, here’s the tendencies. I can get aggressive, I can get mad, I can like puff my chest and act like the alpha man in the room. But does that really serve this situation and does it make me feel good? No. It doesn’t serve my vision, it doesn’t serve humanity, and it doesn’t serve me. So I continue to focus on working on just being a little bit better every single day, and that’s all I can do.
I love it. That’s all we can all do. Right? I love that story. I love that the universe was like, “Oh, yeah? You’re gonna go talk about this in a few minutes? Let’s see how this situation.”
I was literally looking at the wall. I was just like one of the seat, punch through it, and just see my hole in the wall of my fist.
But that’s such growth though I think for all of us. You know, to have that moment. Because all of us, right? It’s like we have the things that we do that pop out of our mouths automatically that we find ourselves in the midst of feeling or saying or doing, we’re like “we’re such an idiot. Why did this happen again?” So I think it’s just – it is a testament to what you wrote and that you’re on the path and you’re doing it and you’re like “I’m gonna take it one day at a time.”
One day at a time. And, you know, I’m not a perfect human being.
None of us are.
And I … I thought you were.
Oh, hell to the no.
Come on, Marie.
And so for me, you know, this is like a process for me, just this journey. It’s like, okay, “man. You were really messed up, Lewis. And you’ve made all these mistakes.” Like, my whole life, you know, in the book I talk about how I failed as not even a man, just as a human being with all these masks and how they’ve continued to be patterns for me.
So for me this is like, okay, so coming out of like all the faults that I’ve had of myself and how lots of guys have faced these different things and how if we’re not aware of it, it’s gonna continue to happen. So once we’re aware of it, now we can start to work a little bit to improve and try to improve humanity along the way.
I love it. Lewis, thank you so much. Congratulations on everything that you’ve been creating. You’ve been doing such an incredible job on this new book and everything you put out in the world. You’re awesome.
I appreciate it.
Now Lewis and I would love to hear from you. Out of the entire conversation, which insight was the most impactful, and can you turn that insight into action in your life right now? Leave me a comment and let me know.
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This is like getting into the first step of understanding. And when we have that awareness and understanding I believe it’s so powerful for us and we can start to just have a little bit more compassion or patience.
For each other.
For each other.