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On Capacity and Capability



Mind-Life Project Officer and Resource Developer Sharon Vaughan offers a personal reflection on the Mindset: People have an innate ability to overcome adversity.


At Mind-Life we believe that people’s capacity to overcome adversity doesn’t go away just because they are experiencing distress or mental illness. When contemplating capacity, I immediately conjure memories of supporting people who were seemingly “unwell” to make a life affirming choice. Holding a space for that person when they didn’t believe in themselves. Their words, actions and even their immediate thoughts were telling a story that they were incapable and had lost their capacity. Yet somewhere deep down, below the waves of anguish and confusion crashing on the surface there was a quiet undercurrent of wisdom that said, “you can do this”. I believe that this undercurrent is always there, and that it is our innate, capacity to overcome.


Maybe I was able to hold this space because sometimes this person with the waves crashing on the surface was me. Throughout my years of depression and anxiety, every time I reached the point where I thought I couldn’t anymore, something inside me just did. Sometimes I hated this part of myself because it would be easier not to. But despite myself I always did. Even at my worst, I had a capacity to overcome, but sometimes I didn’t have the ability on my own. I needed an environment that rather than being deceived by those crashing waves, saw beyond them, and reminded me of my undercurrent of wisdom and asked me to draw upon it.


As years of work and reflection and “just doing” went on I learned to ride those waves with more skill until I eventually reached a stage where the waves calmed and that quiet undercurrent that sometimes acted in spite of me, became my friend.


I have no special superpower. I was not born with any extra capacity than any of the other babies that January. All of us were born helpless but for one thing, our innate capacity and drive to survive, thrive and overcome. While a baby may utilize others as the key strategy to meet its needs, the drive to do so is not passive or quiet or relenting. That baby sure doesn’t lay there quietly hoping that someone will guess what it wants and when. Oh no! That baby yells and makes noise until its need is met.


So, if we were all born with it, why is it that sometimes people seem to lose this capacity? Why do some people seem to deteriorate where others don’t?


I believe that the reason is not a diminished capacity, but an interrupted capability and an environment that fails to understand the difference.


When I researched the difference between capacity and ability, I learned that ability and capability are becoming quite interchangeable as our language evolves. However, capacity is quite different. Ability and capability refer to a person’s current ability to perform a task at a proficient level. Ability and capability can be learned and impacted on by factors such as health, economic and societal impacts. You can change and improve your ability or capability to do something, and others can help by teaching you the skills. However, capacity is something you are born with, it's not learned or taught. No one can give you more capacity or take it away because it's part of who you are. It's your birthright, your potential, the part of you that can; even when your capability is not quite there yet.


In my experience, I think about the things in my environment that recognized and re-enforced my capacity even when my capability was interrupted. There were several things.


When we are born, we know that if we want a need met, then we are responsible for getting that need met. In the early days this is by crying until an adult accurately guesses the need and provides us with a solution. Toddlers also mostly see themselves as a self-determining entity (much to their parent's dismay at times) This understanding that I am the one who must meet my needs and I decide when and how, is born into us and it is referred to as an internal locus of control. In my case, my environment maintained my internal locus of control. When things were hard, I mostly looked inward for a solution and I didn’t spend a lot of time looking to others to fix me. I sometimes did ask for and utilise external help. But I understood, as did the people around me that I was the primary change agent. When I doubted myself or lacked skill, the people around me encouraged me to develop my capability, because they never doubted my capacity. I opened up about hearing distressing voices in my childhood. Instead of taking me to see a psychiatrist immediately, my Dad told me that I had authority over them, and I could manage them. He taught me to communicate with them assertively and coached me on how I was going with my relationship with them. He didn’t freak out about them or treat me differently because of them. He just saw them as a naturally occurring part of me, that I could influence and control. I’m sure if they had gotten worse, he would have sought help (as he should), but my mastery was growing and he trusted my capacity to overcome, by the time I left high school they were gone.


I understood and felt a sense on interdependence and belonging. As mammals we are born social beings. We are born with a need and desire to belong. This sense of belonging doesn’t mean I take up space in the social group and am accepted by not expected to contribute. No, my sense of belonging is tied up in my interdependence, I am accepted and expected to contribute. If I am not fulfilling my role, then the whole herd suffers. Without the expectation we don't get a real sense of belonging. I got a part time job the moment I was old enough at 14 years and 9 months at KFC for $3.80/hour! I immediately started contributing to a small amount of my own financial needs. Of course, I sometimes complained about it because I was a teenager. However, it set a standard and belief in me that I could and would contribute to my herd by being responsible for myself and helping others where I could. Work was very hard for me. With my constant self-doubt, suicidality, and anxiety, every single shift was terrifying. But I knew that I had been rostered on and people were counting on me. Plus, my family also expected and needed for me to develop my ability to contribute. So, I kept showing up. I even went to work during times of suicidality because that deep undercurrent said to me that I was safer at work than sitting at home. I was also involved in many different choirs, bands, and orchestras. Again, it was hard to show the kind of confidence needed to get up on stage, yet that sense of belonging and being counted on kept me showing up. No one took my responsibilities away just because I was distressed and so I maintained my sense of interdependence and belonging.


I was expected to overcome and succeed. Those who believed in my capacity regardless of my current capability, treated me like an equal, an intelligent adult, whilst still acknowledging my struggle. Sometimes, when I was caught up in the waves I didn’t act like a capable, intelligent adult, but I was treated as one all the same. When I encountered a service or person who didn’t believe in my capacity, I quickly felt the difference. They treated me with a kind of patronizing, clinical coldness. They related to me through my diagnosis and symptoms and due to my age and gender treated me like a silly little girl. I instinctively knew that those places were not for me. I had an almost physical revulsion and left as soon as I could. This protected me from a system that would have pandered to the crashing waves as opposed to helping me seek the undercurrent of my own wisdom. Instead, I read books, studied and found small numbers of people who “got me”. They were the best therapists I ever had.

These are the top 3 things that jump out to me as protecting me from falling into the pitfalls of a support system that would have confused my lack of capability with a lack of capacity. There were times when I really wanted to just give up or find some service to take over my life for me. Those waves of anguish told me to. But because of these three things I was protected from doing that.


Sometimes supporters try to teach the 3 things above as if they are a skill to be learned. Do it the way I do, and you’ll be fine. Others use these things as a weapon, admonishing people with phrases like “you need to take responsibility for your own wellness” when they have been trying to do just that but struggled. The trouble is that they are inherent things we are all born with. Sadly, many of us are not fortunate enough to be in environments that re-enforce these naturally occurring qualities. We get caught up in the waves and our supporters do too, reacting to each wave and making big decisions about us based on that transient storm rather than seeing and believing in the deep and powerful capacity each of us has.


As supporters, we need to believe in the undercurrent of wisdom that says, “you were born to overcome this”. Those waves do make it harder, and we might go about things in a longer and more complicated way. Sometimes we will fall down in our efforts to develop our capability and this is also often confused as a lack of capacity. But you can't learn to surf without getting wet.


If we trust in a person’s capacity and are willing to hold a space for them while they find their own way, we may just help them connect to that undercurrent of wisdom that has been there all along. If we believe that overcoming is not just a capability to be taught or done to someone, but an inherent birthright, then we are challenged to provide opportunities and environments that believe, expect and count on people to overcome in their own way, in their own time, with us holding a space for them.

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