The Neuroscience of Emotional Power: Embracing Your Passion for Relationships, Work, and Self


We should not feel embarrassed by our difficulties, only by our failure to grow anything beautiful from them.”  Alain De Botton

            In his poetic and powerful book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship, David Whyte says,

“There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden to work or vocation; and that third, and most likely hidden, marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves.” 

Whyte goes on to say that

“the current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic.”

For too many of us we feel like we are going up and down on a teeter-totter with our work and love lives competing for our attention while our personhood often gets battered underneath both seats. David Whyte offers us all a great service when he suggests this basic reality:

“Each of those marriages, is at its heart, nonnegotiable. We should give up the attempt to balance one  against another, of, for instance, taking away from work to give more time to a partner, or vice versa, and start thinking of each marriage conversing with, questioning, or emboldening the other two.”

Yet, even understanding the importance of empowering the three primary aspects of our lives and committing to a partner, our work, and our true selves, it often seems impossible to succeed having a successful marriage of all three.

I achieved success in my career, or more accurately, I was successful at working long hours, making good money, and gaining a level of public and professional acclaim. But my love life was a disaster. Writing a book (Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions) about it helped me professionally, but it didn’t immediately improve my relationship life. If you visit my website, you will see my welcome video, “Confessions of a Twice-Divorced Marriage Counselor.”

Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power

            We need a new way of engaging the three nonnegotiable marriages for a lifetime of passion, power, and purpose. With my background over the last fifty plus years developing skills for healing men, women, and families, I was excited to read a recent book by neuropsychologist Dr. Julia DiGangi who completed her residency at a consortium of Harvard Medical School, Boston University School of Medicine, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

            In her book, Energy Rising: The Neuroscience of Leading with Emotional Power, Dr. DiGangi offers an exciting new approach for helping us become successful in the three marriages we all need and want. She says,

“Your success in life—at work and at home—rises when you harness the energy that powers your brain. Your drive to create change, catalyze impact, and build relationships all come from neuroelectrical energy—real, electrical impulses—firing in your brain. Who you are as a person depends on how you work with this energy. When this energy rises within you, you feel empowered and dynamic. But when this energy falls, you feel down, stressed, and defeated.” [Emphasis, mine.]

Foundational Understandings for a Lifetime of Passion, Power, and Purpose

  • Emotional Power is the key to success in life.

Dr. DiGangi simply defines emotional power as

“Your ability to stay strong in the midst of life’s inevitable challenges.”

In these times of stress and strain all of us feel like we are knocked off balance. Emotional power is the foundation for everything that follows.

“Your emotions are, in many ways, the final judge of your experiences.”

says Dr. DiGangi.

“Until you understand how to work more effectively with your emotions, it’s easy to expend tremendous energy yanking at ineffective levers of change.”

She goes on to say,

“Your emotional power is best understood not as a set of activities you do or strategies you execute, but as energy you possess.”

  • Emotional Pain is the Invitation to Emotional Power.

Our brains create a whole lot of sensations that are both painful and pleasurable, but they all reduce to two kinds of emotional energies. She calls them: Emotional Pain and Emotional Power.

Emotional Pain includes any type of negative sensations you feel. These can include things like anxiety, fear, worry, irritation, anger, shame, etc.

Emotional Power includes any type of positive sensations that makes you feel worthy. These include positive sensations we call confidence, strength, resilience, importance, etc.

“In what I have come to understand as one of the greatest paradoxes of life,”

says Dr. DiGangi,

“the depth of your emotional power relies directly on your ability to work with the energy of your emotional pain.”

  • Embracing Emotional Pain is the only way to develop Emotional Power.

“To rise to new levels of your emotional power, you will have to accept one core counterintuitive premise: that your emotional pain—all those negative feelings you keep trying to avoid—is often the precise path to your empowerment.”

It is a normal reaction of all organisms to avoid pain, but there are times when avoiding one pain actually causes more pain in the long run and embracing pain can actually empower us.

Avoidance of your painful feelings doesn’t end your feelings; it just exhausts you,”

says Dr. DiGangi.

  • Failure to embrace Emotional Pain causes us to betray ourselves.

Our emotional pain is really a signal from our “inner knowing,” our “true selves,” that there is something important missing in our lives. When we run away from the pain, we abandon ourselves.

“While plenty of pain can be inflicted upon you,”

says Dr. DiGangi,

“this is, for example, what interpersonal assaults and abuse are—a significant amount of pain in your life comes when you abandon yourself. This pain of self-betrayal—the times when you create pain by abandoning or forsaking yourself—is what I call self-division.”

  • Self-division is so common we often don’t recognize it when we are doing it.

For example, do you ever:

  • promise you’ll do something that is good for yourself, but then don’t?
  • swear to set and hold a boundary, but don’t follow through?
  • want to connect with someone you’re interested in, but withdraw instead?
  • tell yourself that you will speak your truth, but remain silent?
  • find you are hurt by what someone says or does, but pretend that you are fine?
  • react with hurt or anger, blame the other person, but still feel disempowered?
  • Power often gets a bad rap, but real power is good for everyone.

“The word power often carries a sinister connotation,”

says Dr. DiGangi.

“Far too often we are made aware of traumatizing situations where someone is overcontrolling, rejecting, or abusive, and we think of that as a kind of power. It is not. If someone uses their higher-status position to force others to behave in certain ways, this behavioral phenomenon is more accurately called manipulation or coercion.”

Systems scientist and President of the Center for Partnership Studies, Dr. Riane Eisler, first presented her research findings on the partnership-domination continuum in her book, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future.  Dr. Eisler said,

“The dominator model, is what is popularly termed either patriarchy or matriarchy—the ranking of one half of humanity over the other. The partnership model is based on the principle of linking rather than ranking.”

Power in a domination system is very different from power in a partnership system. Domination power is harmful to many. Partnership power is good for all.

  • Power associated with men is often mistakenly equated with domination, manipulation, or coercion.

It is true that males have a long history of domination, manipulation, and coercion. Historian, Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes numerous examples in her book, Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. She says,

“Ours in the age of authoritarian rulers: self-proclaimed saviors of the nation who evade accountability while robing their people of truth, treasure, and the protections of democracy.”

She cites numerous examples including Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany: Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy; Victor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister; Vladimir Putin, President of Russia; Donald J. Trump, former President of the United States.

Riane Eisler was one of the first scholars that supported women’s liberation and who  also recognized that men could express a different kind of power than that expressed through domination.

“For millennia men have fought wars and the Blade has been a male symbol. Moreover, obviously there were both men and women in the prehistoric societies where the power to give and nurture, which the Chalice symbolizes, was supreme.”

Eisler concludes,

“The underlying problem is not men as a sex. The root of the problem lies in a social system in which the power of the Blade is idealized—in which both men and women are taught to equate true masculinity with violence and dominance and to see men who do not conform to this ideal as “too soft” or “effeminate.”

The 5 Codes For Connecting With Our Personal Emotional Power

            David Whyte brilliantly described the three marriages and the reality that we often neglect the personal marriage as we focus on our work and love lives. Dr. DiGangi recognizes that our success in our love lives and our work lives is limited if we are not successful in addressing emotional power in our personal lives. In her book, she offers guidance for personal power in the following five codes:

            Code 1: Expand Your Emotional Power—How to transform your emotional pain into emotional power.

            Code 2: Build Your Power Pattern—How to harness the brain’s pattern-detection abilities.

            Code 3: Harness Your Emotional Energetics—How to work with your deepest emotions in the toughest situations.

            Code 4: Master Uncertainty—How to stay emotionally powerful in the energy of uncertainty.

            Code 5: Rewrite Your Source Code—How childhood directs the way you lead your life and what to do about it.

            The last three codes offer guidance for improving our work and love lives.

The Three Codes for Connecting to Others

            Code 6: Quit Commanding—How to release ineffective command-and-control styles of leading.

            Code 7: Unleash Your Magnetism—How to create your most effortless leadership.

            Code 8: Build a Relationship from the Future—How to design your most powerful relationships at work and at home.

            In future articles I will go into more depth with these issues and describe how I use Dr. DiGgangi’s practices in my own work.

            You can learn more about Dr. Julia DiGangi and her work here:

            You can learn more about my own work here:

            You can subscribe to my free newsletter for updates and articles here:

            You can learn more about our world-wide movement to heal men and their families and tip the balance from domination to partnership here:

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