Spoon theory is a topic that’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. First I thought I wanted to write about it, then I thought that was pointless because surely everyone knows about spoon theory by now, and then I learned that NOT everyone knows about spoon theory so I decided to write about it.
So first, the basics. What is spoon theory?
Spoon Theory was dreamed up by Christine Miserandino and you can read the whole thing over here . If you’ve never read it or you are unfamiliar with spoon theory, I definitely recommend giving it a read. I will, however, try to sum it up here.
Basically, Christine, who lives with chronic illness and pain, was trying to explain to a friend of hers what it is like to be sick, and why she cannot do things sometimes. Even things her friend thinks should be easy and low-cost, like going out for dinner. Since they happened to be at a restaurant at the time, she chose spoons. Spoons are really just a token stand-in for our ability to do things. Our energy, our abilities, that sort of thing. Just to be clear here, spoon theory itself is a metaphor, and spoons are a metaphor for what we can do.
As she explained it, when you live with chronic illness every day you start off with a limited number of metaphorical spoons. Everything you do costs a spoon. Getting dressed costs a spoon. Taking a shower costs two spoons. Washing your hair costs and extra spoon. Once you’re out of spoons, that’s it. Your body simply cannot do anything more. You might be able to borrow from the next day’s spoons, but it will leave you short tomorrow so needs to be considered carefully. It means that everything you do needs to be carefully thought about. Every choice becomes laden. Being able to do one thing but not another isn’t just about the amount of time in a day, it’s about how much your body can actually accomplish. If you run out of spoons at 3 in the afternoon, then you’re done for the day at 3 in the afternoon and you’d better hope that there are no emergencies after that.
Why I like it
Personally, I think a big reason why spoon theory took off so much is because it is so adaptable. The theory itself has gone far past its initial roots and can be helpful to a wide variety of people.
If you do not live with an illness or condition that limits your spoons, having a basic understanding of spoon theory can help you understand why a friend may not be able to do things very often. It can provide a framework to help you grasp a thing that is entirely outside your experience, which can be very useful for developing compassion and patience for a person who needs help.
And if you do live with something that limits your spoons, this can be both a way to explain to others why some things are difficult or impossible, and be a way to help self-regulate. It’s a way to think about your own energy levels and to figure out what you may or may not be able to do in any given day.
As for me, I do not have chronic pain or any chronic condition that impacts me physically. My body is quite sound. Nevertheless, I still think in terms of spoons. This is because for me, it is my mental energy that needs to be watched. I need to think about how and when I interact with people, what kind of sensory input I am going to be dealing with, how quickly I may need to switch between tasks, etc.
For me, when I am out of spoons that means either a meltdown or a shutdown. These are things beyond my control – all I can do is be careful to not spend all my spoons and hope nothing terribly disastrous happens that takes more spoons than I have. I can, at times, borrow spoons from tomorrow, but I need to pay them back with interest. It is only a thing I do on rare occasions, if I need to or if I consider it worth it somehow. Learning how to manage my spoons is probably the biggest thing that has made meltdowns rare for me at this point. I understand the cost of things much better than I used to, and I can make informed choices.
There is one important point that I think should be added to spoon theory (beyond the “it’s not just about one’s body” thing), and that is that it is sometimes possible to increase one’s store of spoons. Sometimes you can get more without borrowing against tomorrow. How this happens differs for everyone, though. For me, my horseback riding gives me more spoons for the whole week. Also, if I feel myself getting low on spoons, I try to isolate myself where there are no people and there is very little sensory input. This can quiet my brain and if I take the time to breathe and center myself, I can gain a few spoons back that can at least help me through whatever situation I am in. Though it should also be noted that this activity does cost me a spoon to do – I cannot do it if I am entirely out, so I need to watch for when I’m getting low.
Finally, real life is not always this linear. Some mornings a person may have lots of spoons, and other mornings very few. Sometimes you may seem to have lots of spoons on hand, and suddenly find that number halved for no visible reason. Or maybe your spoons will suddenly increase, also for no visible reason. Real life can be annoying that way. Even so, many people still find it incredibly useful to think in terms of spoons.
And if you’ve ever wondered what a friend was talking about when they were nattering on about spoons, well hopefully now you know.