Changing gender roles are key to accelerating the culture shift around changing the way we work and live. Redefining Masculinity is an editorial package that investigates what it means to be a man in 2017—and beyond. Read more about the project here. The below is an adapted excerpt from Howes’ new book The Mask of Masculinity, published October 31 by Rodale Books.
I grew up an athlete.
I played pretty much every sport in high school, was a two-sport All-American in college, and went on to play Arena Football professionally.
My entire childhood was built on beliefs about what “masculinity” meant, from being in the locker rooms, to what coaches would say to me over and over, to society, and what the media showed.
I was raped when I was five by a man that I didn’t know, the babysitter’s son. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I remember having all this resentment, anger, frustration and defensiveness built up inside of me.
I became so driven to prove everyone wrong, so driven to be number one and to never lose.
I was driven to be the best athlete I could be.
A lot of it came from feeling like I wasn’t good enough.
People questioned my masculinity and all these things about me, so I was very driven to achieve, and I did.
I achieved everything I wanted, but I was left with this very empty feeling that I still had accomplished nothing.
There were many dark moments, a lot of internal suffering.
I messed up a lot of relationships just because I didn’t understand how to process the emotions from being abused.
In my new book, The Mask of Masculinity, I revisited these memories and lessons in an effort to unravel where I came up with my twisted sense of masculinity, which I believe is common to many men today.
I remember one day in 4th grade at Smith Elementary School in Delaware, Ohio, my teacher decided that instead of going out for recess on our own, we would all play dodgeball together. I’m not sure if he did this intentionally, but he picked two of the popular boys to be team captains for the game. In standard playground fashion, each boy then chose one classmate after another to join their team until everyone had been selected.
I remember standing there, expecting to be picked early as part of strategically building a good team. I was one of the better athletes in class, so I wasn’t being egotistical—I was just being logical. The captains, being boys, started by picking boys. I was the tallest kid in class, so they couldn’t miss me, but boy after boy was chosen before me. Then the last boy besides me, a kid who was notorious for having no athletic abilities at all, was chosen. Being the last boy picked hurts, a lot.
But as a nine-year-old, that pain doesn’t compare to the humiliation of not being picked at all, of watching as the two captains call out the girls’ names one after another until the very last girl—a girl who I could lap around a track in a sprint—was chosen and I was the only person left, shunted off by default to the team with the tough luck of having to pick second.
Like many kids, I’d been bullied and teased before, made fun of, picked on, and laughed at. But not like this. This was in front of all my classmates. I was made to appear not only less than the other guys. I was shown to be less even than the girls—the ultimate insult in the world of nine-year-old boys. It was deliberate and intentional humiliation, for a reason I can’t even remember.
In that moment, I decided that I would never be picked last in sports again. In response to their snub, I set out to “prove” those boys wrong and show them how good I actually was. I went out that game and crushed every single one of them. I returned the humiliation they gave me by dominating them not only in that inconsequential game of dodgeball but in every game I ever played from that point forward, physically reminding them of their mistakes.
I dedicated my life after school to becoming the biggest, fastest, strongest athlete I could become. Without a doubt, this was the fuel for my drive to become All-State in multiple high school sports, a two-sport All-American in college, a pro football player after that, and then a USA Handball National Team member after a wrist injury ended my football career. Winning and succeeding in sports made me feel the opposite of how I felt as a vulnerable, picked on kid.
Do you know what the worst part of my story is? That it’s not unique. Nearly every man I know has their own version. The specifics may be different—it could have happened in eighth grade instead of fourth. It might have been a teacher who mocked them for being stupid instead of unathletic. It might have been from a well-intentioned father figure or an early girlfriend. It might have been about money or academics or any number of other topics. It could have turned them into a soldier, a ladies’ man, or a billionaire instead of an athlete or an entrepreneur. But almost every man has a story in which he learned—through pain, humiliation, or even force—how he does not measure up.
When that happens to him, he puts on a mask, essentially a “front” or a coping mechanism, to help protect him from from feeling that pain. Masks become more than hiding places, they become armor. In this way, all men—each and every one of us, including myself—has worn or currently wears a variety of these masks in order to endure the onslaught of expectations from the world and to live up to their definition of what it means to be a man.
It wasn’t until about three years ago when I started talking about these issues and sharing them with my audience on my podcast, The School of Greatness, that I had a complete sense of freedom.
Finally I started healing myself and letting go of what had been eating me up inside.
Through this journey, I’ve become aware of the things that have been holding me back — not just as a man, but as a human — in terms of being resentful, guarded, frustrated and defensive.
I’ve become aware of what it feels like to have my “masculinity” or “manhood” attacked. I understand when things happen why I feel the way I do. I especially allow myself to feel hurt or sad now, instead of trying to cover up insecurities, which has allowed me to become more vulnerable in personal relationships.
I also realized there are so many men out there struggling because of these ideas of masculinity.
I know there are a lot of people talking about vulnerability, opening up, and similar topics, but as a jock growing up in America, neither I nor any of my peers would’ve ever listened to any of those messages from those people.
I want to connect with the men who are not open to hearing this message in a way that will resonate with them.
I want to help men break through the walls that hold them back from living the fullest, richest life they can—in all areas.
I also want to help women understand the men in their lives. I want to help women understand when their brother, boyfriend, husband or son, has a mask on or a wall up, how to communicate with that that man to have them disarm the mask so that they can have a deeper, rich relationship with that person.
It’s time to understand the men behind the masks of masculinity.
Lewis is a New York Times Bestselling author of the hit book, The School of Greatness. He is a lifestyle entrepreneur, high performance business coach and keynote speaker. A former professional football player and two-sport All-American, he is a current USA Men’s National Handball Team athlete. He hosts a top 100 podcast in the world, The School of Greatness, which has over 30 million downloads since it launched in 2013.