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Embracing Masculine Vulnerability: A Q&A with Lewis Howes

Savvy Psychologist and author Lewis Howes discuss masculine vulnerability: why it can be both terrifying but necessary.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
12-minute read
Episode #180

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.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.