9 Masks That Disguise Your Manliness
In The Mask of Masculinity, Lewis Howes describes nine typical ways men act in order to disguise their insecurities and show the world that they are “a man”. A mask is something that serves to conceal or disguise, and that is exactly what happens: Men conceal their real self to act in ways that meet expectations, men disguise their feelings to “be manly”.
In this article, I will not write from a place of superiority. I first and foremost read the book for myself. I wanted to understand myself better and be a better man. Through summarising this book and adding my own thoughts to it, I hope that I can understand my undesired habits even more and that you will at least start pondering about how this all might apply to you.
Another note regarding the masks: Lewis writes that he identified nine that are common among men. Nevertheless, this list is not exhaustive nor will everybody identify with each of them. I, for example, have identified other masks that I am wearing that are not listed in the book.
I will start each section with a general description, (personal) examples, and lastly what to do to grow out of the mask. In the conclusion, I will give a new vision for “being a man” as well as summarise the most important practices for growth. I hope you will find it insightful.
Every italicised quote is taken directly from the book The Mask of Masculinity by Lewis Howes. If you want to understand the masks and what masculinity means better, I recommend you get the book for yourself. This article is not supposed to be a substitute for the book but rather my personal interpretation mixed with my own experiences.
1. The Stoic Mask
You might have heard of stoicism, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. They actually received quite some attention in the last years, especially in the self-help community with books like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius or The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. Stoicism is a Greek philosophy with the aim of enacting happiness, controlling oneself and how one thinks, and accepting whatever happens. Adopting the attitudes of a stoic can benefit you and the approach of the books mentioned above has little to do with the Stoic Mask.
The word stoic is defined as “not affected by or showing passion or feeling. Especially: firmly restraining response to pain or distress” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The Stoic Mask, thus, is about showing indifference. It is about telling people “everything is fine” when it is not. It is about denying one’s feelings.
When wearing the Stoic Mask, we men present ourselves as invulnerable and tough. We do not cry, have no pain, and have no feeling. We hide insecurities and weaknesses as they are “an invitation to scrutiny, judgement, and rejection.” We hide them because we do not like to be criticised, judged, and rejected. However, the insecurities and weaknesses are there, underneath. We keep them in our closet. We deny them.
Why do we do that? Well, unfortunately, much of what is and has been communicated from society (books, news, friends, family, movies, etc.) shows good men as stoic, as emotionally invulnerable. We men want to be “good” men and if that means showing no emotions, well, we will do that. Anybody who wears this mask at least partially buys into the belief that a good man does not show a lot of emotion.
Lewis writes “Many of us wear the stoic mask because, at a pivotal time in our life, we had a conversation with someone we respected. And in a moment of honesty and vulnerability, they said "hey, man, that is way too much feeling.”
So, in a way, it is a vicious circle. Men who are not used to showing their emotions deny other (usually younger) men the same. Many men (and women) still carry the notion that showing emotions is associated women. And also, that men cannot be manly or masculine when they are characterised by something that is associated with women (like having emotions).
The way I see it, men are better men if they can choose, in any moment, whether to express in a “masculine way” or a “feminine way” without feeling deprived of their masculinity. That means being able to connect with our emotions, including all the fears and insecurities, if we choose so.
Chris Lee wrote the following about this:
Our beliefs about what it means to be a man - that we must be reserved and tough and solitary - area leading us astray, down a lonely road to nowhere.
I interpret this as meaning that if we live separated from our emotions, we will separate ourselves from other people and lead us into loneliness – whether actually (as in being alone) or psychologically (not feeling any deep connection nor love with anyone even though we are surrounded by people).
Feelings are important! Howard Gardner said:
The less a person understands his own feelings, the more he will fall prey to them. The less a person understands the feelings, the responses, and the behaviour of others, the more likely he will interact inappropriately with them and therefore fail to secure his proper place in the world.
I can remember having this mask firmly on when travelling Brazil. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do, going exotic places, spending the whole day at the beach, not worrying about a thing… And yet I felt sad.
I felt alone and disconnected from my friends and family. This feeling was something I partly acknowledged and partly tried to swallow and hide. I did not talk to anyone about this at the time. I thought “how can I be living the life everyone dreams of and feel sad?”
The right thing at this moment would have been to let the feelings out, talk about them, and process them. I did have people around me with whom I could have talked but I lacked the courage and was not aware it would be important to do so.
What happens when you lock up your feelings is that they will grow in the dark. They will grow in ways that you do not expect and either leak through slowly (for example, making you a bit angrier or distrusting or worrying every day) or build up and explode one day (for example, you losing your temper). Or both.
For me, it was both. It leaked through and I worried more than I would have wanted to and it exploded in the way of me acting in ways that are contrary to my values.
Lewis wrote: What you are suppressing is creating disease. Disease of the heart, the mind, and the soul. You need to clear this by exposing what you are covering up to the light of openness, honesty, and vulnerability.
That is what we need to grow out of the Stoic Mask: openness, honesty, and vulnerability (as in showing our pains, fears, insecurities, etc.). And probably to be able to do that, we also need courage.
Taking responsibility is something that most people would describe as a good virtue. Most men also strive to be responsible. So, let us also take responsibility for our emotions and not just let them grow inside us. Let us process them. Let us talk about them.
Let us create a world that is more open, honest, vulnerable, and courageous. And let us do that by being the change that we want to see. Let us be men who are courageous; men who open up about their emotions, talk honestly about their feelings, and expose their pains, fears, and insecurities.
If you do not currently have anybody in your life with whom you can share about your feelings, consider joining a men’s group. I lead one called Emerging Men, reach out to me for more information.
2. The Athlete Mask
The core belief behind the Athlete Mask is that “a good athlete is a good man”. A good man fights through injuries, pain, and fear to win at all cost.
You can see this mask being very active on the playing field or in the ring. It is outside of the professional sports arena, though, where it creates most trouble. When we bring the attitude of “fighting through injuries, pain, and fear to win at all cost” into our private life, we make it ourselves very difficult. One of the reasons is that life is not about competition and winning at all cost. Stephen Covey convincingly wrote about this in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
We humans are born in a state of total dependence. As babies, we cannot function on our own, we have to rely on our caregivers for food and other necessities. When growing up, we become more and more independent, possibly until a state in which we are completely independent (usually in the end teens or early adulthood). Many people see this as the ultimate achievement.
However, there is a whole other tier above that: Interdependence. We can only ever get to interdependence once we have progressed through independence. Interdependence means we know we can do things on our own but we consciously choose to live our lives connected with other people because we know we can achieve so much more together. We collaborate and share. Interdependence is the highest form of living.
Life is about collaboration. Life is about sharing. Life is about being interdependent.
Many men (my past-self included) live with a mindset of competition and wanting to be independent. Independence is part of the journey but it should not be the ultimate goal. Coming from such a limited space, we create fights where there could have been harmony.
Lewis described that he used to argue a lot with his girlfriend without even being aware of the possibility of a win-win. He was trapped in a mindset of competition and that the other person winning would mean he loses: “The idea that we were on the same team, that we could both win, never dawned on me. Win-win, what is that?”
The competition mindset is one of the consequences of the Athletic Mask but there is one more I want to talk about: Physical superiority.
When society tells us that “a good athlete is a good man”, that carries with it that a good man is strong and physically superior over the ordinary man. To be a “good man”, then, means to be physically superior to others (primarily men but also women).
I really felt this myself. I am relatively short (165cm/5ft 5), especially for a German. Because of that, many of my friends in school seemed automatically superior to me (as in taller). What could I do to compensate for that?
Being stronger and more muscular than they. I was naturally interested in sports and very athletic and through the Athlete Mask, I had another motivation to work out. I knew I could not work and being taller but how about being “wider”?
That approach actually worked pretty well for me. By being physically strong, I felt more respected, got selected earlier in PE, and was a bit less likely to be picked on. The only real problem that remained was that I relied on something external of me for my value: on the physical comparison with other men.
Actually, my coping mechanism seems to be quite common among short young men. They go to work out to compensate for not being tall. And it might work to a degree as it did for me.
To grow out of the Athlete Mask, we do not have to give up sports or working out to be fit. We can still continue doing that. The important thing is a shift in mindset. Let us not do all of this to feel like men. Let us do it to have fun and to be healthy. Let us have a good balance of things like health and fitness, intellectual life, social life, arts, spirituality, and so on.
Engaging in something that develops your brain and your heart and not (just) your muscles can be a good approach to become more balanced. Start doing something artsy like painting, playing music, or dancing.
In giving up on wanting to be physically superior, I now focus more on practicality (of developing certain muscle groups or being able to do multi-hour hikes or bike tours) than on looks. I do sports that are fun and that I enjoy and I work out for my health, not for my ego.
3. The Material Mask
The Material Mask is in place when “a man’s net worth becomes his self-worth.” The problem with that is that “your net worth will never create self-worth, no matter how much the two might seem to be related.”
Men who wear the Material Mask only feel valuable when they can show that they are materially wealthy. That could be buying expensive clothes, travelling to far-away countries, playing expensive sports, or driving a fancy car.
These things are not intrinsically bad, though. There is nothing wrong with spending money the way you like to spend it. There is only something wrong with it if you do it to feel valuable.
Lewis wrote “I like having nice things myself, and there is nothing wrong with wanting them or having them. But they are not the things that leave me fulfilled inside at the end of the day, and they do not solve all my problems once I have them.”
And that is what we often forget: Having these things does not fulfil us.
For many men, the thoughts go along these lines of: “If I make this money, I will be important. If I make this money, my parents will respect me. If I make this money, I can get a pretty wife. If I make this money, it makes me a real man.”
It can be a bit tricky because there seems to be a bit of truth to that. There are going to be people that will see you as important and respect you if you have material wealth. Arguably, your chances of getting a pretty wife might be higher. But it will not make you a real man.
“What we need to realise is that we are valuable, regardless of what we have.” Our value as men is not defined by our salaries, our possessions, nor our partners.
The Material Mask describes a man as a “real man” when he is financially successful. It is – like with the athlete mask – a lot about comparisons: Am I richer than my neighbour? Co-worker? Friend? Can I afford to buy whatever I want right away?
It gets installed mostly through (social) media: We see pictures and videos of other people’s lives’ high points (like travelling, eating at the best restaurants, winning prizes, etc.) and compare our day-to-day life with it. Of course, that is a recipe for disaster.
Again, life is not about competition.
Often, success is defined in material terms. What is important for men wearing the Material Mask is to define success in their own terms. That could include a deep relationship, time for being with children, family, and friends, contributing positively to society, and so on.
Luckily, my Material Mask was never very strong. I grew up in an environment where materialistic things were given less attention. Nevertheless, I did compare a lot and buy into the traditional definition of success. By defining it for myself (and reminding myself of my personal definition periodically), I could let go of the majority of the comparisons… it is something I continue working on, though.
It is also important to “live in gratitude. Someone who is grateful for what he has, no matter how little it is, will be more open to living a joyful life. When we live in gratitude, life gives us more to be grateful for.”
When you are grateful and grounded, you will also naturally refrain from comparing yourself to others. You can look at someone who is happy and successful and not be envious but rather happy with them.
I generally live very mindfully. I spend a lot of time in nature and appreciate the small things: the birds flying (I recently was filled with joy by seeing how graceful a pigeon flew), the wind in the trees, the small flowers on the sidewalk.
I somehow carry this attention with me throughout most of my day: I notice small joyful moments that other people would not notice. In a way, I trained myself to do so, and because of that, I feel happier.
4. The Sexual Mask
When wearing the Sexual Mask, a man’s self-worth is measured by his sexual conquests. I remember this all too well. When I was in secondary school and then transitioned into university, this mask was taking the better of me.
I was constantly worrying about my worth as a man and comparing me with friends and acquaintances regarding who was better with the girls. Better, in the beginning, was about flirting with girls, then getting numbers, then having the first time, then the number of girls slept with.
I was confident about talking and flirting and also getting numbers (which probably, at least partly, was because of my Joker Mask, more on that later). I was less confident about dating, kissing, and eventually having sex.
Quickly, this whole mindset of the boys I was surrounded with became a big game: Who had more dates? Who made out more? Who had more sex?
There were competitions of who would kiss with most girls in one night. I wanted to but was actually not confident enough to join the game but these competitions did install the belief that to be a man, I needed to be successful with girls.
And the whole thing just was about numbers, just as Lewis wrote: “Boys simplify the discussion of sex down to a binary system - whether they have or have not had it - and their social status and masculine security hang on the answer.”
The problematic results of this attitude, of course, do not just show up for boys and men but also for girls and women: “A woman definitely is not getting the best of this man, even if the guy thinks he is doing it all to please her... because really he is just trying to please a part of his ego.”
You might guess it already, the root issue here is that we men, when wearing the Sexual Mask, rely on something outside of us for validation (that is a recurrent theme). Robert Green explained that “a man's need to conquer women actually reveals a tremendous helplessness.”
Before we dive deeper into that, let us look at another progression of the mentioned attitude. According to Lewis, it goes like this: “Have sex or you are not a man. Then it progresses: Have a lot of sex or you are not a man. Then it gets even worse: Start having sex with only one woman... And you are less of a man.”
I actually remember judging a friend of mine for dating only one woman while I was dating several. At that moment, I felt superior and more “masculine” than him. When I look back, I am anything but proud of my behaviour I am sorry for acting in that way towards him.
What I had not dealt with yet were self-acceptance and self-love. I just bought into the traditionally masculine notion that sexual conquests would make me worthy. What I still had to learn and incorporate was that “When you are looking for love and validation from the outside, you inevitably lose yourself and the ability to cultivate self-love because nothing inside you seems as valuable as what you get from someone else. You will never get enough from the outside to fill the void created on the inside, and so you must learn how to be happy by, and with, yourself.”
This resonates with we cannot have enough of what we do not really need which is a key concept of Rich Litvin in the book The Prosperous Coach. We do not really need outside validation and that is why we can never have enough of it. Instead, we need to nurture self-love and self-acceptance.
I did learn how to be happy by, and with myself and I also looked the void into the eye and processed it. I grow out of the beliefs behind the Sexual Mask. I did that by forgiving myself for how I behaved, by talking about the traumas, fears, and insecurities that were associated with the Sexual Mask. First, I needed to allow myself to even think about these feelings and then, later, I could share them with people I trust.
A couple of weeks ago the mask slipped back on for a brief moment. I was telling my friend about a particular experience of having superficial sexual encounters with several women. The way I noticed the mask slipping on was that somehow, I felt proud of what I did. I stopped and corrected myself, adding to the story that, in the end, the encounters were just that – superficial and that they did not fulfil me.
Like with the other Masks, the Sexual Mask is largely coming from messages from society. But most strongly, perhaps, it comes through porn. Matthew Hussey expressed it very much to the point: “If you watch porn these days, it is disproportionately aggressive. It is all about dominating women, so much of it is about humiliation. It is not just the amount of sex. Guys feel more like a man if they are dominating and aggressive in bed. Instead of the definition of a man being about making her feel good in bed, it is all about showing physical dominance over her. Because that is so pervasive in porn, I think men have a warped sense of reality when it comes to masculinity in the bedroom. I dread to think about kids who are like 9 or 10 who have never kissed a girl and that is their first data point with sex, that that is what it looks like. It is creating some messed-up men.”
When I read that, I see other masks at play as well. Physical superiority comes with the Athlete Mask. Women are often displayed as something “to be possessed”, which connects with the Material Mask. Dominance and aggression come with the Aggressive Mask. The Invincible Mask and the Alpha Mask are also very much present in much of the porn world.
I agree with the quote above, porn is creating some messed-up men. I stopped watching porn and know several other men who have done so or are on their way. Their reasons are always the same: They realised that the sex portrayed in it is not the sex they want to have in their lives.
To grow out of the Sexual Mask, we men need to practice self-love. We need to accept ourselves the way we are and stop seeking validation by sexual conquests. You and the woman you are sexual with will enjoy the experience much more if you are not worrying about being worthy (by, for example, showing dominance, aggression, etc.) but instead are fully present in the moment to actually experience what is happening (rather than being in your head).
5. The Aggressive Mask
The Aggressive Mask is all about violence and anger. Anger and associated emotions are the only ones that are manly and that are acceptable for men to show.
In reality, it is good to express your emotions. However, anger is mostly not the primary emotion but rather becomes how any other emotion – like pain, sadness, anxiety – is expressed. I have seen that a lot in movies. The most common or even the only emotions that men have is anger. It is also really present in video games, especially the ones targeted at boys and men. In moments of grief, for example, the loss of the loved one, the male character does not express grief, rather he is stoic or gets angry at whatever the cause of the death could have been. If another person was responsible for the death, the male character gets enraged and seeks revenge.
I see my past self in this as well. When I felt hurt because of what somebody said to me, I would not process that feeling of hurt. Instead, I would channel it into anger and act that out. The thing is that those who “cannot express themselves emotionally, cannot be honest or open with anyone around them.” So, by not acknowledging what is there (the hurt), I close myself off – to myself first and then to others as well.
Women and girls have it a bit easier in that sense. Pollack writes that “women are emotionally educated in understanding and expressing a wider range of emotions than men. Socially, it is more acceptable for women to express sadness, fear, disappointment, or embarrassment. In contrast, a myriad of men are emotionally uneducated, not having learned how to constructively express negative emotions, such as fear, embarrassment, or guilt. As a result, they may cover these primary negative emotions with secondary negative emotions, such as anger.”
This is a good insight because it gives us a hint of what we have to do: educate ourselves emotionally, enable ourselves to recognise and accept a variety of emotions, not just anger.
You might wonder, “how much of this difference is biological?”, “men have much more testosterone than women”, “men, in the end, were the hunters and fighters, right?” That is something I wondered as well!
Certainly, men have more testosterone than women and were more common to hunt and fight. However, back in those days, there was a necessity to hunt and fight. Nowadays, we do not have to fight and hunt to survive, not in the literal sense. As to testosterone, research has actually shown that testosterone is independent of aggression. Researchers studied the most violent boys of a psychiatric centre and found them to have the same testosterone levels as average boys (see pages 124-5).
Growing out of the Aggressive Mask, it all starts with accepting what is. Accept the primary emotion you are feeling. Then, you can express it by speaking to yourself and speaking with others, by physically hitting the punchbag or going for a run, by crying, by writing, etc. The essential part is processing the primary emotion.
Take up some courage and express it. You might want to find a way that is easy for you... I tell you right now, in most cases, it will not be easy! You will be challenged to express it, hesitate, find all the reasons not to do it, but if you embrace the courage that is within you, I know you can do it!
6. The Joker Mask
The Joker Mask is used to deflect attention from something, to avoid talking about certain topics that are uncomfortable. It is used to mask pain, fear, and deep connection (because that can be uncomfortable) and it distances one from one’s emotions and from other people.
This is in line with the stereotype of the sad clown. He makes other people laugh all the time and makes fun of himself but inside he is feeling horrible and unable to express his emotions. He uses humour to be liked and connect with people and the results are addictive: attention, good mood, and the feeling of respect and belonging.
I remember wearing the Joker Mask. I was at a friend’s place who was hosting a party. We were sitting in the living room and just talking with a group of people. My friend told us that through some weird coincidences, he had met his girlfriend and that that would have been “the best thing that ever happened” to him. I felt uncomfortable, the mood was positive but somehow to “deep” for me. I did not want to talk about love. I wanted to have fun! That was when I made fun of him by countering “you only say that because she is here!” The moment after I said it, I felt disgusted by myself but everybody – except him and his girlfriend – laughed and I saved myself from talking about love.
“Humour becomes a way of building barriers between us and the world around us. At first, it feels like protection, but over time, it becomes isolation and we end up living on an emotional island” (citing Raymond Tucker and psychologist colleagues, page 140).
That is what I did, I built a barrier to not talk about a certain topic but actually embracing that topic would have connected me with the others (but requires vulnerability which I did not want to show).
Mikhail Lyubansky explains that “the ones who are silly, that tell nonstop stories and jokes? They may be struggling more than most.” One shortcut I use to see whether somebody is wearing the Joker Mask or comes from a true place of joking is to pay attention, whether they laugh about their own jokes or not. If they do not, it is likely they are wearing the Joker Mask.
Just a month ago, I met that friend of mine and his girlfriend again. We went for a hike and I had set the intention of sharing my Joker Mask with them. There were many moments in which I could have started the conversation but I hesitated. It is still challenging for me to open up some times. After a couple of deep breaths and reminding myself how I want to show up in the world (real, authentic, honest), I shared the story and apologised for my behaviour.
They did not remember the situation I described but the conversation we had certainly connected us and built deeper trust than most of the other conversations we had (and it was an important step for me to process the Joker Mask).
Eric Hyde explains how humour has actually hurt his relationships:
“Humour always allowed me to engage in relationships without risk. Using humour, I was able to derail conversations before they ever got too deep, thus keeping people at arm's length; keeping them at a safe distance emotionally. Unfortunately, this behaviour continued into my marriage (unwittingly) and became a barricade to intimacy. One of the things I desire most in life - true communion with my wife - was being frustrated by my subconscious fear of vulnerability, displayed by way of humour.”
Can you see this in your life? I do. In my love relationship, I used to not open up much because of fear. Now that I do challenge myself to open up, the connection with my partner is much stronger.
If you tend to wear the Joker Mask, connect with your feelings and ask yourself, “is it appropriate to be laughing at this moment?” Connect deeply with your own feelings. Allow them, accept them, and process them.
7. The Invincible Mask
The Mask of Invincibility is based on the idea that men get their self-worth and self-respect by doing things. We feel that we get valued more, the more extreme these things are – think of extreme sports, working all night, and the like. Really, it is about taking risks and pushing ourselves far beyond our limits. What is dangerous about this is that we quickly believe that we are invincible and that everything will always work out. We see ourselves as superman and deny the downsides of our behaviour. We are obsessed with doing.
Pushing ourselves is often what we are taught when young – be it by our parents, teachers, sports trainer, or somebody else. The problem is not pushing ourselves per se. We need to push ourselves and leave our comfort zone, even to take off any of these masks. The problem is when we believe we can do it all day all the time and start feeling invincible.
Lewis put it very nicely, he wrote: “in business, in sports, in life, if you think there will never be consequences for your decisions, that you can just take risk after risk after risk, eventually you will attempt something that jeopardizes everything you have built.”
When I hear that, I have to think of a friend of mine who is a landscape photographer. We went to a very popular, about 100m high cliff by the sea and took a picture of ourselves. He was looking at the other people taking selfies right next to the overhang and shook his head, “I used to be like them and go at length and do dangerous things just to get a bit of a better angle on my shot. Now I do not do that anymore, I have learnt to be okay with the shots that I can do without putting myself at risk of dying. It means that I might not be able to compete with some other photographers but I can keep enjoying being with my family rather than in hospital or dead” (loosely paraphrased).
Lewis advises: “Ask yourself if you are doing something because you need to do it - or if you are doing it because you believe you are Superman, or that you cannot get hurt, and the bragging rights are worth the risk.”
This mask also applies to the workplace. When we wear the Invincible Mask, we believe we can overwork, take long nights and still be part of the 5 AM club without paying the price for it. “We think we can just keep burning the candle at both ends because, well, nothing can stop us. [...] We can choose not to sleep and take pills and push ourselves to the breaking point. And then we wonder why we have a short temper and are tired all the time.” “It is important to remember that you are mortal, and that you have needs like sleep, healthy food, family, friends, and community - and that they can be ignored for only so long before ignoring them bites you in the ass.”
To grow out of the Invincibility Mask, we need to cure ourselves of the obsession of doing. Being human is not about doing. It is about being. Allow yourself to “just be and not constantly do.”
In my coaching work, I am actually very connected to that idea. I shifted my mindset from “people pay me for what I do” to “people pay me for who I am”. That way, I do not have to be actively giving them advice or be the most proactive coach ever, I can also just be there and listen to them (which can be really therapeutic).
The first step to be more and do less could be writing a to-be list or asking yourself every morning “how do I want to show up today?”. Just in general, pay more attention to your being than your doing.
8. The Know-It-All Mask
The Know-It-All Mask helps us to cover up our insecurities. By always knowing the answer, we feel like we prove ourselves to others. “It is much more comfortable to go around saying “here is the answer” instead of saying “I do not know”.
We even give answers when they are not required or even asked for, simply because it makes us feel valuable. In the mind of a person wearing the Know-It-All Mask, “not knowing equals weakness, and weakness cannot be tolerated.” Hanna Rosin picks up on that and explains “there are unwritten rules of macho everyone understood and enforced. Like, do not question authority... If you made a mistake, hide it. If you do not know something, pretend that you do... Never appear weak. If, for some godforsaken reason, you feel an emotion rising... swallow hard.”
There several issues with this mask. One is that “you cannot learn what you think you already know” (Epictetus). When we pretend we know everything, we lie to ourselves and live closed-mindedly. When we stop listening, we stop learning.
I am really grateful for something that happened in secondary school. I used to wear the Know-It-All Mask quite a bit; perhaps to cover up insecurities, perhaps for other reasons as well. I received something that helped me out of it. For my birthday, one of the headteachers gave me a card, which read “strength and vulnerability are not contrary to each other because it always shows strength to show vulnerability and own it” (freely translated from German). From that moment on, I saw talking about uncomfortable things as a strength of mine.
Another issue is that the mask hinders us from having deep relationships. “What people want most from their relationships with men - whether romantic or platonic – is not a repository of solutions to all their problems; it is someone who will listen to them.” Regular men already tend to try to fix things much more than women (who listen more), those wearing the Know-It-All Mask have even more difficulties listening.
In my summary, I have focused most on the personal side of the masks, Lewis also describes how they affect the work side. He writes that “there is nothing scarier than a man who cannot admit that he does not know what he is doing.” Think about that in a work context. In some professions, being able to admit not knowing or not can influence the survival likelihood of colleagues or clients.
The Know-It-All Mask is also similar to the Athlete Mask in the way that we seek superiority, in this case intellectually. Therefore, the things we should focus on to grow out of it are similar.
Work on connecting with your emotions and expressing them. Work on finding value in yourself by being truthful, honest, authentic, and vulnerable instead of relying on external validation. Practice listening (“listen” has the same letter as “silent”). Realise that “the one constant in the world is change. If you stay stuck in your point of view, you limit yourself and your growth.”
9. The Alpha Mask
The Alpha Mask helps us men to feel important. It is related to the feeling of being superior in one way or another. Societally, men are often praised for being assertive, for getting what they want, for winning over others. When our ego and self-worth are dependent on winning over others and always getting what we want, the Alpha Mask is in place.
Here we are, the last mask described by Lewis. And it might feel a bit like a repetition: wanting to feel superior… it comes from society… ego… Yes, that is right. Many of these masks are actually overlapping and based on the same fundamentals.
I remember wearing the Alpha Mask a lot when it comes to communication. My partner might come to me and tell me that she is angry about a stupid text miscommunication with somebody and ask me for advice. When she gives me all the context, I get angry and want to show the other person who snapped at her that I am superior by just writing something mean and rejecting and cutting off communication.
These thoughts still come up pretty frequently but I have learnt to accept them and postpone replying.
When it comes to relationships, Lewis makes a good point: “No one is attracted to someone who is constantly stroking their own ego or endlessly comparing themselves to other people.”
People look for others they can trust, they can share with, and who are vulnerable. Glenn Harris writes “most Alphas are insecure, self-centred, outcome-driven individuals who have little time for people and feelings. However, vulnerability is a characteristic associated with authentic pride (considering yourself a person of value, not superior to others). Becoming appropriately vulnerable increases genuine humility and acceptance of oneself and others, allowing them to see you as relatable and human.”
A couple of mental attitudes can help us grow out of the Alpha Mask: Stop focussing on winning over others and start focussing on win-win scenarios. Empower others to win. Look for things that unite.
Consider Lewis’ words: “a true leader does not need to be right in order to feel worthy; he is able to see the best idea from anyone and bring it to light.”
X. Underlying Steps
You might have read through this all at once and it is a lot of information. To make it easy to digest, I want to give you the underlying steps that help you grow out of multiple masks at once. Except for the first two, these steps are not ordered in any specific way.
Connect with your emotions. Feel them. Accept them.
Express your emotions. Start by speaking with yourself or writing if you need, then speak with others about them.
Accept yourself the way you are. You are enough. You can be a man by being who you already are.
Live connected with yourself. Be grounded. Live from a state of being rather than doing. Live intentionally not habitually.
Look for win-win scenarios with others.
Listen to understand.
I want to end with a quote by Lewis, which, in a way, summarises it all:
“Masculinity is a bogus concept. You don't need to worry about being 'a man' or 'the man' or anything like that. Don't pretend to be anything or anyone except who you actually are. Do what you know is right and true; that's your only obligation as a man and as a human being.”
If you have gotten anything from this, please share it! Men and women will be grateful for it!
If you are interested in joining an Emerging Men group, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!