Over the last year of blogging, I’ve learned about many things. One of those things is Christine Miserandino‘s spoon theory. In a 2003 essay, she described using the metaphor to explain to a friend what it felt like to have a chronic invisible illness (in her case, lupus). She and her friend were in a restaurant and a spoon was easily available to use as a metaphor.
Spoon theory has since become quite popular and is used to describe many forms of energy-limiting chronic illness, including mental illness, ME/CFS (chronic fatigue), and chronic pain. The term “spoonie” is sometimes used for people living with chronic illness.
The number of spoons available at the start of each day is not static; it varies depending on both environmental demands and what’s currently going on with the illness. When you run out of spoons, it takes a combination of time and rest in order to generate more.
The graphic above shows how some activities may only take one spoon, while others will take more. The spoons required for each activity varies depending on the individual and the particular day. Something that only requires one spoon today may require three next week during an illness flare.
Spoon requirements and mental illness
There are a number of factors that may affect the spoon-to-task ratio for people living with mental illness. Taking a shower might take a lot of spoons either for energy reasons or due to limited motivation (on a side note, it’s interesting how common an issue showering is for people with mental illness). The number of spoons required to be around other people can also depend on a number of factors. Sometimes it’s a matter of anxiety or overstimulation. Sometimes it’s more to do with cognitive slowing, leading to a delay in coming up with responses.
Context matters, including details like where, with whom, and how many people are involved. Introversion can mean socialization is likely to use up more spoons, while extroverts may be able to gain some spoons from socializing in the right circumstances.
In the graphic above, getting out of bed just requires one spoon. When depression is really bad, that number might be more like 10, and it may move back and forth between those numbers over the course of the illness. It’s important not to judge the 10-spoon state based on the ability to do a task at 1 spoon when feeling better. If a task requires 10 spoons and you manage to do it anyway, that may be a greater accomplishment than when you’re feeling better and the same task is easy.
Benefits of spoon theory
One of the things I really like about this metaphor is that it’s very self-forgiving. It’s not a question of whether you tried hard enough to do something; rather, it’s a matter of scarcity of resources. It also calls for a realistic assessment of what have available and the true cost associated with an activity. It recognizes the cumulative effect of multiple draining tasks occurring within a short time frame.
I also like how individualized spoon theory is. There’s no standard that applies to everyone, and it’s just as easily applied to physical and/or mental illnesses. What’s most important is that we be realistic in evaluating both our daily spoon allotment and the spoon requirements of different tasks. We need to challenge the “shoulding” that hold us to unreasonable standards, whether those standards involve comparisons to others or comparisons to ourselves when we are feeling well.
Another good thing about this metaphor is that it’s easy to understand even for people without a chronic illness. It can be hard for people to wrap their heads around what it’s like to live with an invisible illness, and this metaphor presents the illness experience in concrete terms without oversimplifying.
How spoon theory is helpful for me
In terms of my own depression, I don’t think in terms of specific numbers of spoons, but I find spoon theory very useful in conceptualizing how requirements and resources are not static, and resources are finite. If I have a task one day that I know is going to require a lot of spoons, I recognize that for the rest of that day, I need to minimize spoon-requiring activities. Overall, I feel like spoon theory is a good fit for my own chronic illness experience.
Is the spoon theory something that resonates with you? How do you apply it to your life/illness?
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.