Mental health

Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness

comparing spoon theory and fork theory for chronic mental illness

I first heard about fork theory from a post on the blog Bipolar Me.  Well, that’s not exactly true; I had noticed that some people had made their way to my post on spoon theory by searching for fork theory.  Being a bit of a doofus, I assumed that people were just getting their utensils confused.

Different versions of fork theory

Anyway, the post on Bipolar Me talked about fork theory as described by blogger Jen Rose in 2018.  But before we get to that version, there have also been a few others that have popped up.

Cade Leebron, who was not a fan of spoon theory, wrote in the American Literary Review in 2018: “Imagine that you wake up in the morning and I hand you twenty-five very sharp forks. Every time you say something ableist to me, I take a fork away from you. When you are all out of forks, each ableist thing you say means I get to stab you really hard with a fork, and leave it stuck in your skin.”

In 2017 on the Chronically Healthy blog, a writer suggested that instead of focusing on sickness with spoon theory, we should “be a fork and stab life. Take what you want. Live a life filled with excitement, laughter, fun, and craziness, but do it in a way that works for you.”

In 2014 the Thing of Things blog described a fork theory for mental illness: “Forks work somewhat like spoons, in that you have to pay varying amounts for tasks. However, unlike spoons, forks don’t replenish gradually over time. Instead, you get forks when you finish particular tasks. For instance, socializing might cost you ten forks and give you twelve, showering might cost you three and give you ten, and eating might cost you one and give you twenty.”

Forks as external stressors

Getting back to Jen Rose’s version of fork theory, she writes: “You know the phrase, ‘Stick a fork in me, I’m done,’ right?  Well, Fork Theory is that one has a Fork Limit, that is, you can probably cope okay with one fork stuck in you, maybe two or three, but at some point you will lose your shit if one more fork happens.”  Jen lives with both mental and physical health conditions.

Jen Rose’s description really resonates with me, while the concept of fork theory suggested by the other writers didn’t really.  While spoon theory covers internal resources, both mental and physical, fork theory focuses on the capacity to handle external stressors.

Forks and my depression

My depression has left me with a very low fork tolerance threshold before both mind and body go into shutdown mode.  This threshold varies over time based on how my illness is doing, but it’s consistently and substantially lower than when I was well.

What counts as a fork (or multiple forks) also varies over time.  Sometimes getting an email from my brother would be fine, whereas other times it would feel like a fork.  A stressful email from work might sometimes feel like one fork and at other times feel like a whole cutlery drawer full of forks.

For me, both spoon and fork theory work best in general terms to improve self-awareness rather than specifically counting out spoons and forks.  They also leave a lot of room for self-compassion by recognizing that chronic illness means fluctuating capacity over time.  It can be easy to fall into the trap of self-blaming, but I think spoon and fork theory offer a better way to conceptualize the challenges those of us living with chronic illness face.


Had you heard of fork theory before?  Do you think it makes a good addition to spoon theory?

You can read more about spoon theory here.

book cover: Managing the Depression Puzzle by Ashley L. Peterson

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 MH@H Store.

43 thoughts on “Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness”

      1. Definitely! I think it helps that whilst spoon theory was initially describing chronic pain and physical illness, the fork theory seems to be borne out of understanding mental energy spent.

  1. I don’t think in utensils, it’s too complicated for me. I know I need to ask myself, before I do things the question: what does it cost me and what does it gives to me? Like you said with the forks. I don’t have an emotional bond with forks whatsoever.
    Handling external stressors is something else! Some things can feel like knives, especially words. Words can hurt so bad.
    I love the use of metaphors but I need to come up with something else.
    What was good to read is the acknowledgement that it fluctuates over time, you can sit there with your spoons but at a certain day showering cost me 20 spoons and the next week maybe one. I try to listen to my body carefully and rely on the fact that it will send me signals when I’m getting too overwhelmed or too tired for instance.

  2. Never heard of it, but I am not sure I like any of these theories that force us into victim/explain mode. It comes back to bite us in the butt as you allude to… why? Because people will “stab” us with the fact that we did X thing one time and were fine. Then we have to explain that we were pretending to be fine in order not to whine or that things have changed or whatever. So damn tired of this. Why do WE always have to explain?!! I note that my friend with a horse just says things like, can’t go, gotta ride my horse, or gotta leave, time to feed my horse. NO ONE QUESTIONS THIS! But God forbid I need to leave because a room is so noisy it’s triggering a migraine. Then I get the 3rd degree later.

  3. I hadn’t heard of fork theory before. Jen Rose’s version was the only one that appealed to me

    I struggle with the varying nature of mental health, the fact that (for example) yesterday I did a full day of work, plus a long commute and then I came home and worked on my novel for a while. Whereas today – well, I’ve been worse, but I didn’t get up until lunchtime and it’s more of struggle to do stuff. That gives me practical problems in terms of working out what is realistic, but also makes it harder to accept when I’ve done my best but have been unable to do what I wanted to do.

    1. That’s hard when there’s day to day fluctuations. Planning doesn’t work very well when there’s no way to know what resources are going to be available.

  4. Huh! Fascinating new concept. I’d never heard of it and am still trying to wrap my brain around it. I love the concept of earning points for taking a shower, because I need points for that sort of thing, or I won’t freakin’ shower. I also appreciate the concept that too many stressors is just going to wear you down to breaking point. Fortunately, I have an ingrained way of coping with too many forks sticking into me–I take some Seroquel (it’s allowed) and lie down and just let myself completely relax and refocus; it’s sort of a dopey drug (and I never take advantage of that), and suddenly, everything seems okay again. Since stress is beyond my ability to cope with in the workplace, for example, I’m glad I have strategies just in day-to-day life. Motivation seems to be a factor too, like “Seize the fork!” or whatever. But this time of year, I can’t get myself to do anything physical–household repairs, exercise, you name it, I’m not doing it. I finally decided to just sit here at my computer and work on my novel until the days get longer. Very interesting post!!

  5. I have to admit that I was only vaguely aware of spoon theory itself, so fork theory is new. I like the part you pointed out about forks representing our ability to handle external stressors. I really like visual metaphors for mental health because they just “stick” with me better (pun semi-intended).

    Also your line at the beginning about cutlery confusion made me chuckle. 🙂

      1. Forks are new. You taught us about spoons. We like how forks can cost you and still result in a net gain of more forks sometimes. That resonates. Life can be that way at times. The way vulnerability can reap rewards. Our Spouse originally rejected our overtures. Spent a lot of forks at a net deficit for weeks or months. Those risks are still paying back forks 💕❤️

      2. A lot of people have talked about knife theory. Knives are a lot like forks, only they’re traumas, rather than “chronic inflammation”. They’re the things you need active medical/mental health care to deal with in the long term, and they may not be 100% heal-able. Forks, for me (and my husband, who’s actually the one who came up with Fork Theory) are more transitory. They hurt, they can push you over the edge, but they aren’t long term damage, and you can get rid of them pretty easily.

        So for me, dealing with an ableist git is a fork, having a friend betray me is a knife. A headache is a fork, a new major illness is a knife.

  6. Familiar with the spoon metaphor, but not the fork one. I like your take on it. Even people who don’t have to deal with chronic illness should be able to relate to it, because everyone has days where their ability to deal with the stresses of life is compromised.

      1. This is about as layman’s as I’ve found an explanation for spell slots. I just like the addition of some (usually stupid and useless things) are cantrips. My cantrips are watching tv without a series-long arc or reading fluffy urban fantasy. Upgrading either of those to things with a serious plot to follow makes it at least a first-level spell :-p
        https://medium.com/collected-blog-posts-of-a-bipolar-author/spell-slots-and-spoon-theory-f9481abaacd6

        1. I think by D&D theory, “forks” are when you roll a failure – or critical failure! Like you normally can do the thing…but, nope, some other magic user imposed a penalty on a spell that requires a saving throw, or you cast a spell that you have to roll a d20 for and just rolled a 1 :-p

        1. In your WP stats there’s a referrers section that lists sites people came from, and a search terms section that lists the search terms (presumably in teh WP reader) people used to find your posts.

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