Have you created a hard exterior to mask internal insecurities?
Today’s guest is no stranger to creating a strong and tough exterior.
Thanks to his role in Brooklyn Nine-Nine for eight seasons, Terry Crews has become a Hollywood hit. Terry’s current success might appear that his life has been smooth sailing, but Terry had to overcome both external and internal challenges to get to where he is through therapy and deep reflection.
In today’s episode, we’re discussing the recognition of childhood anger, Terry’s final push to try therapy, some lessons he learned in therapy, and why competition is the opposite of creativity.
Before the episode starts, I want to give a quick trigger warning that we discuss different forms of sexual abuse and healing from those experiences.
Let’s jump right in!
Author, action-movie hero, sitcom star, children’s book illustrator, advertising pitchman, playable video game character, talent show host, high-end furniture designer, and human rights activist all describe the man that is Terry Crews.
On top of all that, Crews has also released his memoir, Tough: My Journey to True Power, via Penguin Random House. In it, Crews chronicles the story of how he went from being a six-year-old boy with a goofy, toothless smile to being utterly selfish and angry, to a man who can finally acknowledge his own weaknesses and vulnerabilities and use his experiences to help motivate those around him.
After several years in the NFL (where he painted portraits of teammates to supplement his income) with the Los Angeles Rams, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins, and Philadelphia Eagles, Crews turned his talents to the performing arts.
After making that pivot in his life, his talent, hard work, character, and dedication have made him one of the most sought and respected talents in the industry.
Terry grew up in Flint, Michigan when the auto industry imploded and was just ten years old, and around the same time the crack epidemic happened – it was a very violent time. Terry was surrounded by crime, drugs, and gangs, and felt virtually powerless. A wave of deep anger built inside to last into adulthood.
“There were smokestacks around the city, and they were burning foreign cars. I remember walking to school across a parking lot in this factory, and they’d be burning a car effigy and throwing rocks at it. It just hit me about [what] the problem was. The city was very resistant to change, but change is inevitable. And this is what I was going through.” – Terry Crews
Terry also recognizes his early years were dominated by competition. He always felt it was him against a drug dealer, a gang initiation he wanted to avoid, or even the grown men in the neighborhood challenging him as a young man. As if that wasn’t enough to stoke Terry’s anger and mad rage, he grew up with an alcoholic father.
“One of my earliest memories is him knocking my mother out. I knew that my desire to get strong, to have power, [and my] obsession with muscle even as a little kid was because I knew one day I might have to kill my father. He was unending, never bending, just constant intimidation. You never felt comfortable. You never felt like he accepted you. You always felt like something was wrong, [like] you didn’t iron your pants enough. You just always felt inadequate.” – Terry Crews
That was the mindset of many men in the culture of the city while he was growing up. It felt relentless, and because it felt like nobody was going to let you off easy — that boggled Terry’s mind. All he wanted was an answer on what to do. But nobody gave it to him.
“Just tell me what you want. And they [said], ‘One day you [are] going to find out, let me tell you one day, one day you [will] get it.’ It was only after I grew up that I realized that they didn’t know. So that was a kind of a cop-out. What does life mean? What’s the true meaning of this, and you ain’t [going] go to church for that. And the whole concept with a lot of men in that world was that church was for scared people. We’re too tough for that. We made a vow — my best friend and me — that if you find out something before I do, promise me that you’ll tell me. We literally shook on it. I’ll never forget it.” – Terry Crews
In that friend, Terry found an ally to learn, grow and find a healthier outlet for his anger. But it wasn’t until much later, though, that Terry felt he could conquer it.
Terry and his wife have been married for 20 years, and the whole time he’s had a pornography addiction he never told her about. And early in their marriage, Terry cheated on her at a massage bar earlier but vowed he’d never tell anybody.
He thought that keeping it buried was the best way to handle his situation, but he underestimated the shame and rage still deep within.
“I used to get into arguments. So she’d ask me questions like, ‘do you watch porn?’ [ And I’d reply], ‘Hey, no, don’t even bring that up.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘You know what, no. Listen, I don’t know who you think you are,’ and start an argument. So she’d [say], ‘I’m out.’ Just so she wouldn’t bring up more because I knew what I was doing. And I knew that I wasn’t living right. It’s almost like you tell one lie, and it turns into two, turns into 10.” – Terry Crews
During those ten years, Terry projected his secrets onto his wife in a manipulative game so that he could keep them together. Ultimately, the image of Terry Crews had become more important than who Terry Crews was.
“I had to worship that image and [my image] ran everything. I was like, ‘I’d lose everything.’ My wife would leave. People who knew me would be ashamed. Everybody would be done. All of it would be finished. I decided, ‘We gonna put this image up, and we gonna prop it up.’” – Terry Crews
Unfortunately, the longer you leave already shaky foundations, the more rickety it gets. It all fell apart in 2010, and Terry’s wife found out and wanted him gone.
“One thing about men is that what we’re looking for is intimacy. Someone who knows us inside and out and loves us anyway. But if you never reveal who you are, you can never, ever have intimacy. This is why you always love your mom. Cause your mom knows who you are. I finally went in to deal with these issues.” – Terry Crews
Where Terry grew up, nobody does therapy. In fact, the saying is, “you can’t cure crazy,” and even if you go to church, they talk about having demons. It took Terry’s wife almost leaving him to break that societal stigma for him.
“When my wife left, I was at my wit’s end. I said, ‘I gotta try this therapy stuff.’” – Terry Crews
Sometimes, it takes us to reach rock bottom to finally accept the help we need. I’ve seen the benefit of therapy in my own life, and even after I made significant gains in understanding — I kept on going to continue learning how to accept my past traumas and allow myself to grow.
As human beings, we all have some assembly required. The problem is, it’s not anybody else’s job to assemble you, and it’s up to you to assemble yourself. You have to work on yourself. And just like LEGO, if things don’t fit the way they should, keep trying.
“If things don’t fit, you pull it off and put it back together the right way. A lot of people have said it’s either nature versus nurture, but nurture always works no matter what your nature started. Nature is you born naked in the woods. But nurture is you learn, build to make a coat, and put it on. You can build a house. You can build a building. You can build a whole society. That’s what nurture does.” – Terry Crews
Therapy gave Terry a powerful moment when he finally realized what shame was. Growing up, everybody used shame as a tool. From the church to sports, you were simply made to feel ashamed.
“In church, you should be ashamed to even think those thoughts. ‘How could you think that?’ Shame was a motivator, and it goes right along with revenge movies that start with shame. Shame tells you, in your default resting state, you’re a bad person. You have to do all these things to be good, which means it’s only in your efforts, you only get good things by working for them.” – Terry Crews
By feeling shame, Terry created a persona to cover all this shame up. He created an image, built it, and worshiped it, but shame was always in the recesses of his mind lurking and ready to pop out. It was the therapy that helped him understand shame.
“Guilt is good shame. Guilt says you did something wrong, and you have to correct it. But shame just says, ‘you’re wrong.’ I said, ‘wait a minute — I’m good in my resting state.’ In the book, there’s a picture of me at about six years old. No teeth, and it’s just the cutest little picture. I had to ask myself, ‘is that kid bad?’ I’m still that kid.’” – Terry Crews
While competition helped Terry navigate a difficult childhood, he’s now realized that it can’t be what you build your life upon. And he’s found that the profound impact competition has in the entertainment industry is evidence of that.
For Terry, competition has always been at the forefront. Whether growing up in Michigan or in the entertainment industry, his drive to be the best has seen him achieve great success. I was curious if competition still drives him, so I had to ask him about what role competition plays in his life now.
“Over time, I have discovered that competition is the opposite of creativity. Competition is about you versus another human being. But creativity is always collaborative. You can’t be creative without being collaborative. Just try it. Who’s going to be creative alone? The essence of being creative is that you’re taking one thing and mixing it with another and creating a brand new thing.” – Terry Crews
Something else Terry learned that blew his mind was discovering that you need other people’s success for you to be successful.
“I was like, ‘Why am I jealous of other actors?’ I’d see something I went for, and the billboards are up. And I was auditioning for that. It would make me sick, and I had to examine why am I sick? Why am I feeling negative toward this person? He didn’t do anything to me — [they] just picked him instead of me. Then I started changing myself. I said, ‘I wish nothing but good for that person.’ [But] I didn’t feel it. This is where you have to act your way into a feeling because I wasn’t feeling it.” – Terry Crews
Terry would buy tickets to movies he didn’t get the part to get over feelings of jealousy and envy in competition. A perfect example is someone he now calls a dear friend, Dave Bautista when he got the Guardians of the Galaxy role ahead of Terry.
“I remember when he got it, I was like, ‘Okay, universe test.’ I was like, ‘Oh man.’ And then I saw the movie, and I said, I have no business in that lane — that’s his. He’s doing so many other things. If I had let that affect me, it would’ve affected a friendship.” – Terry Crews
Terry believes that we get tricked into thinking everything’s limited and that we have to compete over it, yet there’s more opportunity out there for collaboration than ever before.
Guys, I couldn’t agree with Terry more about choosing collaboration over competition. Competition drove me to be a professional athlete, but collaboration fueled my drive to build The School of Greatness. We discover new perspectives and opportunities we would never have found otherwise when we work together.
This episode with Terry Crews was jam-packed with a ton of information that I just couldn’t fit everything in this post. You should listen to Episode 1,258 to get all of Terry’s raw wisdom about accepting your true self and finding ways to heal.
And don’t forget to pick up a copy of his book, Tough: My Journey to True Power. With Tough, Crews’ transformation journey offers a model for anyone who considers themselves a “tough guy” but feels unfulfilled. Anyone struggling with procrastination or self-sabotage, or anyone ready to achieve true, lasting self-mastery will benefit from reading his book.
Before we leave, I’ve got one word of advice from Terry. On my show, I ask all my guests what their definition of greatness is — Terry’s was truly incredible:
“The person who serves the most is the greatest among everybody. My goal is to serve, serve, serve. If I can help you in any way, get what you want. It makes you great. It’s amazing.” – Terry Crews
If you liked this episode, we would love it if you could tag Terry, @terrycrews, and me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with what stood out most to you. Also, please consider giving us a 5-star rating on Apple Podcasts to help spread these messages even further!
If you’re ready to learn how to overcome the shame and guilt that’s holding you back from achieving the peace of mind you deserve, then this episode is for you!