The Art of Capacity Building

by | Aug 23, 2022 | Personal Growth

We’re halfway through discussing the four domains of the Change Spiral I’ve developed to describe how we humans grow and change through repeating patterns over time.

Over the last two weeks we delved into relationships and healing.

As we do our healing work, we find ourselves cultivating greater internal capacities, which brings us to this week’s focus on capacity building. (Next week we’ll cover the final domain of the Change Spiral: communication.)

Psychological capacity building is just like going to the gym for weight training. You literally figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, how your weaknesses are limiting your mobility, your strength, your freedom, your choices, and your options, and you get to work on increasing your capacity.

We build muscles (literally and figuratively) through the process of rupture and repair. When we’re weight training, we train right at the edge of our current capacity: we want to tire out our muscles and push them just enough to stimulate new growth, and not so much that we injure ourselves.

We’re looking for the sweet spot of “it hurts so good.” (Thank you, John Mellencamp.)

Educational researcher Lee Vygostky calls this our “zone of proximal development,” or “the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

While Vygotsky was referring specifically to students in schools, this principle applies to each of us as we embark on personal change work and development of our own. We each need a community where we can practice new relational moves so we can improve our current relationships or communication skills.

Whether you do this in my membership program or other communities and practices of your choosing, we grow and learn best “in collaboration with more capable peers.”

And, notice that a very important aspect of capacity building involves practicing “in collaboration with more capable peers.”

Whenever I am leveling up and building a new capacity in my own way of being, two things are critically important to me:

  • Practice: I literally need loads of safe opportunities to “try things out,” to make mistakes, to stumble awkwardly around new words and new forms of self-expression. I need time and space to cultivate more presence and empathy for myself. I need to be willing to do it badly and to get better over time, a process that invites me into deep self-compassion for all the ways I currently struggle.
  • Role models: I also need examples of these capacities being alive and well in other people. I need hope that it can be achieved. I need inspiration as I watch others who are embodying the very thing that I, also, want to be able to do. I need to see it alive, in someone else, in real life.

Developing our internal resources and psychological capacities is the mainstay of all my online educational and coaching work. It’s what we focus on in Conversations from the Heart, in my Full Membership program, and in my group coaching calls. While there are literally hundreds of capacities that we might choose to develop, here are a few that I tend to focus upon frequently these days.

We’re developing our collective capacity to …

  • Stay grounded under pressure
  • Stay in choicefulness when emotionally triggered
  • Self-soothe painful emotions
  • Stay present and relaxed when someone is upset with you
  • De-escalate intense emotions instead of adding fuel to a fire
  • Identify and experience our full range of emotions
  • Identify and connect with our intrinsic motivations, wishes, and desires
  • Ask for what we want in positive, do-able, and concrete ways
  • Separate a neutral stimulus from an internal response
  • Reclaim our projections and inhabit our shared humanity

… any many more!

There are tons of benefits to building these capacities, including:

→ We become able to take multiple perspectives instead of being stuck in a singular, rigid one.

→ We become able to self-regulate our nervous systems instead of being triggered like a puppet on a string whenever someone does something we don’t like.

→ We cultivate a witness self and learn to tolerate distress without becoming hijacked by our feelings.

→ We become more aware, more choiceful, more creative about who we want to be.

And, to close this week, I want to share a story with you, from a student in my Full Membership program. She recently shared how her own journey and capacity building over time has changed her marriage, and I share it with you here today with her permission – for inspiration and encouragement on your own journey!

“Many years ago, when I first married my husband, I remember having arguments that would last for days. Young and in love, we didn’t necessarily have the skills to navigate conflict. We had a lot of good will and a deep desire for the other’s comfort, but neither of us was well educated in exactly how to communicate when the stakes felt high. I was an expert in defensive strategies that prevented vulnerability and resolution, and he was the king of the silent treatment.


I was not proud of my defensiveness. I wanted to be the kind of person who could pause after hearing something hurtful and respond in connecting and loving ways. I desperately wanted to expand my ability to hear uncomfortable feedback as an impartial observer. I was tired of allowing that feedback to derail me. I knew this was an area of growth for me, and my relationship with my spouse provided the perfect place to heal a deep wound.


As I began to work myself through the stages of your change spiral, what started to happen was nothing short of a miracle. I got into therapy to work on healing the parts of me that were broken, and noticed that I began to be able to sit in the discomfort of conflict with my husband. When we could feel the reins of the old conflict tugging, I began to be able to allow more space into the conversation. My capacity for being able to hear and respond to feedback impartially began to increase the more I practiced it. Eventually, I became–if not exactly eager, then definitely more interested–in what my spouse had to say during an argument.


The gift in relationships is that when they’re good, they can be SO GOOD! And when they’re not, they can be the impetus that pushes us to heal, the one thing that increases our capacity. Yes, I did my personal healing work with my therapist, but it was also the on-the-ground capacity building in my actual relationship that turned the tide for us.”

I know I’d love to hear from you. If you could magically develop one or two capacities that you currently don’t have, what would they be? What stops you from embodying them now? What might help you develop them?

I’d love to know; leave a comment below.



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