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Applying Spoon Theory to Living with Mental Illness

illustration of spoon theory and number of spoons needed for daily tasks
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One of the many things I’ve learned about through blogging 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 spoons were easily available to use as a metaphor representing the limited resources available for doing things.

Spoon theory has since become quite popular to describe living with a variety of physical conditions, including ME/CFS (chronic fatigue), and chronic pain. Spoon theory is also a great fit for mental health conditions.

Available spoons

The supply of spoons that’s 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 number of 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’s 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 “shoulds” 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?

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43 thoughts on “Applying Spoon Theory to Living with Mental Illness”

  1. I have never heard of the “Spoon Theory” before, until now. I find this very fascinating, to say the least.
    Because this is a new theory to me, I guess it somewhat goes along with accomplishing a list that I have constructed the night before for the following day. Say I have 5 chores I want to accomplish, as I check them off upon finishing each one, I do in fact feel gratified.
    I enjoyed reading this post! Thank you for sharing! 😊

  2. I like spoon theory as an idea, I think it’s a very visual concept and makes it easy to explain to others as well as to allow yourself some slack

  3. The infographic is pretty cool at showing the types of things spoons are used up for, and you’re right, the amount required can vary a lot and when struggling say with depression heaps more spoons are needed.xx

  4. I like the concept, having first heard of it in cancer-land. I’ve not used it as the effort of deciding how many spoons an activity takes would probably use too many of my spoons… joking aside, sometimes I feel all out of spoons before I’ve even done anything.
    What’s the answer? How do we get more spoons?

  5. That’s utterly fascinating! I know several people who would benefit from this, so I’m reblogging you on my site AND sharing that meme on FB for friends over there who suffer from invisible illnesses, but get weary of having to explain, again and again, why they ‘can’t’ do things that others seem to take for granted… Thanks Ashleyleia!

  6. I have heard of spoon theory, but not of “spoonie” – not sure I like that. I don’t want to be defined by my health issues and just the word… maybe it sounds too much like some kind of cult!

    For me the real difficulty with spoon theory is how much the amount of spoons needed can vary over time. Some tasks take more energy the more tired you are e.g. walking home from the station. When the depression is not so bad, I can have a lot more spoons than on days when it’s bad. Then there can be a spoon deficit over time, if I use a lot of energy, sleep may not restore me back to normal amounts of energy, even accounting for the fact that depressed normal is not the same as non-depressed normal. (I am possibly being autistic and focusing too much on the details here.) But it is a useful metaphor.

    Interesting how dealing with colleagues is more draining for you than dealing with clients. For me it’s the other way around. When I was in a student-facing library role, I found dealing with students (even the well-behaved ones) much harder than dealing with colleagues, although dealing with my boss was probably the hardest thing.

    1. I agree, spoon availability and requirements can vary a lot as the illness fluctuates. I think for me it works better as a general metaphor rather than actually trying to specify spoon counts.

      1. Yes, I’ve been trying to monitor my energy levels over time for the last few weeks and I’m not sure it’s possible, or at least easy. The same tasks can require vastly different units of energy on different days.

  7. Never heard of it before and I liked the metaphor! So thank you for sharing this! I guess that according to Spoon theory, some days I need 10 spoons to get up from bed πŸ™‚ As you mentioned “it’s a matter of scarcity of resources.”…”Taking a shower might take a lot of spoons for energy reasons, or it might take more spoons due to limited motivation”
    It’s very informative, thank you

  8. I have found spoon theory so helpful in explaining how I feel to my husband. If I say that I don’t have enough spoons for a certain task, trip or activity he totally gets it. We don’t don’t need to use it quite so much these days as I’ve found other ways to evaluate my energy levels.
    Great post, thanks Ashley xxx

  9. I wish that I this was more widely known. It would be really helpful in talking with coworkers and friends about how mental health can affect my day to day. I hate when people just say, “get out of bed.” Sometimes it’s just truly impossible.

  10. This is awesome Ashley – l have never heard of this ‘theory’, but find it really informative – l had a similar experience, bar the spoon at my last consultant appointment when he asked if l had to rate certain tasks of functionality out of 10 as in 1 being easy and 10 being virtually impossible, how would l thus so rate them. I explained things in a similar fashion to the above image.

    That since this thing with my shoulder began, l have noticed significant deterioration levels with regards functionality – as an example – initially walking Scrappy with my right hand as a right handed person in say June 2018, was at that point about a 1 spoon, however since an incident last year, l find l can only hold the lead now with said right hand, but can not physically walk her with that hand anymore without experiencing serious pain, so now l walk her with my left, as the right is now a 5.

    Walking in March of last year was a 1, but we live on a hill, and with the slow to eventual collapse of the acromion, my arm and neck responds so viciously now as in a 5, my nerve reacts to any uphill movement.

    Brilliant post.

    1. Thanks! I’ve seen spoon theory referred to often with respect to fibromyalgia, and it seems like something that would be relevant to any sort of pain condition.

      1. Very much so Ashley, l think also quite significantly is something like this was adopted professionally into the medical side of life, as in, when a doctor asks you out of 10 what is? But you know everyone experiences pain on a different level to the next person, but it would l feel act as more of a stabiliser. This is really excellent.

  11. I discovered the spoon theory through your post. What an idea It relates so well to my depression and how I deal with it. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and seeing how it relates to my my life and my friends’. I have a friend with polymyalgia who experiences pain almost constantly. Yet she pushes herself and does more than she should. She seems to be borrowing spoons from tomorrow and the next day which will eventually have to be paid back sometime. I do that .too. If I throw a party I need to “borrow” spoons and I know that I will spend the day after the party in bed, paying back those spoons. I wonder if some people have hidden stashes of spoons lying around the house . LOL. They just seem to keep going when the rest of us have flaked.

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