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.
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’re at the lowest point in your depression, you might only have a third of the spoons you have available when your illness is more under control. When you run out of spoons, it takes a combination of time and rest in order to generate more. You might be able to keep going for a little while on borrowed spoons,
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 10 next week during an illness flare.
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.
Spoon requirements and mental illness
Mental illness can increase the spoon requirements for all kinds of tasks that you normally wouldn’t give a second thought to. Even just getting out of bed to start the day can be a gargantuan task.
Difficulty showering might as well be in the DSM’s list of symptoms for a major depressive episode, because it’s super-common. Showering really can start to feel like climbing a mountain. If you’re short physical energy and motivation spoons and you’re only showering once or twice a week, you might end up having to expend spoons on mental tasks like worrying if others think you smell bad or feeling guilty for not functioning better.
Even more basic tasks like brushing your teeth that seem to take no energy when you’re well can start using up spoons when you’re unwell.
Depending on your living situation, you may be solely responsible for paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and doing other household tasks. All of these require spoons.
The tasks that are most difficult may vary depending on which of your symptoms are acting up. If your appetite is lousy, cooking may feel like it’s just not worth the spoon requirement. If being around people is hard, grocery shopping is going to require a lot more energy than usual. If illness is affecting your thinking, taking care of bills is probably going to require more cognitive spoons.
Mental illness can make it much more challenging to be around people, and it may be hard to find the energy for peopling. 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.
If social anxiety is an issue, the lead-up to social interactions may be exhausting. If you get easily over-stimulated, crowded environments are going to require spoon expenditure. If you have cognitive slowing because of depression, coming up with responses when conversing with others can be exhausting.
It’s not just behavioural tasks that require spoons; mental tasks can also use up spoons. If illness is impairing your concentration, tasks that require focus are going to take more mental energy. Yes, reading can use up spoons!
Dealing with stressors can be a massive drain on your spoon supply. Even the illness symptoms themselves can be exhausting; things like paranoia, hypervigilance, rumination, and worry take a lot of mental spoons.
Things that are supposed to be good for you
Just because something is good for your mental health in the long run (or at least is supposed to be good) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require spoons.
Exercise is good for you, but it can use up spoons in terms of physical energy, as well as social energy spoons if you’re doing something like a yoga class.
Therapy is an important part of managing mental illness for a lot of people, but a rough therapy session that digs deep into difficult things can use up a whole lot of spoons and leave you totally wiped out afterwards.
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 resources are finite and requirements and resources are not static. 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?
- Big-T Trauma, Little-t trauma, and Mental Health Cutlery
- Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness
- Mental Illness & Hygiene: Survey Results
- Procrastination vs. Energy Budgeting: What’s the Difference?
- The Mental Illness Cutlery Drawer: Spoons, Forks & More
- The Rainbow Model of Mental Illness Symptoms & Functioning
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.
40 thoughts on “Applying Spoon Theory to Living with Mental Illness”
I can relate to spoon theory. Many people attempt to cover up their mental illness or invisible disability. This can feel isolating. We don’t see people. There are people all around us and we think we understand what is going on with them. Community is so important.
Yes it really is.
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.
If only borrowing spoons meant paying back the same number, but it always seems like there’s extra interest on top of that!
I’m not a fan of “spoon theory” or “spoonie” or anything like that to describe what really aren’t new concepts at all.