Over the last year of blogging I have learned many things. One of those things is spoon theory. Spoon theory was first described in a 2003 essay by Christine Miserandino, who had used the metaphor to describe to a friend what it felt like to have an invisible illness (in her case, lupus). She and her friend were in a restaurant at the time, 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 illnesses, including mental illness, and the term “spoonie” is sometimes used to describe people living with chronic illness.
The graphic above shows how some activities may just take one spoon, while others will take more. How many spoons each activity will take will vary depending on the individual and where they’re at with their illness at that point in time. The metaphor is something that those without chronic illness are likely to be able to understand.
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 very realistic assessment of what you’ve got available, and what the true cost is associated with each type of activity. It recognizes the cumulative effect of multiple draining tasks occurring within a short time frame.
I think it’s essential that we don’t judge our functioning when our illness is bad based on our daily spoon allotment and spoon requirement per task that we have access to when things are going pretty well. 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 in between those numbers over the course of the illness.
Sometimes a task will take more spoons for different reasons. Taking a shower might take a lot of spoons for energy reasons, or it might take more spoons due to limited motivation. The number of spoons required to be around people will vary depending on a number of factors. Sometimes it’s a matter of being overstimulated. Sometimes it’s more to do with cognitive slowing, because I’m slow to come up with responses. Context matters. Group social situations always require a lot of spoons because I’m such an introvert. In my work as a nurse, dealing with patients always requires fewer spoons than dealing with colleagues.
I like how individualized spoon theory is. There’s no standard that applies to everyone, and it’s just as easily applied to physical and mental illnesses, or a combination of both. What I think is 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 “shoulds” that hold us to unreasonable standards, whether those standards involve comparisons to others or comparisons to ourselves when we are feeling well.
Is the spoon theory something that resonates with you? How do you apply it to your life/illness?
You may also be interested in a more recent post I did on fork theory and how it relates to spoon theory.
My new book, Managing the Depression Puzzle takes a holistic, everything up to and including the kitchen sink look at how to put together the pieces of your unique depression puzzle. It’s available on Amazon and other online retailers, as well as the Mental Health @ Home Store.