Spoon Theory

This post follows on from my last entry on invisible conditions.

Yesterday after a full day of work and reheating dinner I collapsed in a heap in front of the TV. I was thinking (beating myself up) about all the things I still had to do and how normal people can just get stuff done in the evening. I felt bad that I wasn’t spending quality time with my child. I felt lazy. I had to remind myself:

“I’m not lazy, I’ve just run out of spoons.”

What is spoon theory?

Spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino. It is a visual metaphor (spoons) to explain the limited energy reserves of people with chronic illnesses. Every activity you do costs you spoons. This means that you would need to proactively manage the activities you do each day so as to not run out of spoons.

Image Source

How many spoons do I have?

When I first learned about spoon theory I got very excited, because it made a lot of sense to me. It explained why I would just collapse after certain activities, whereas other people could recover.

Spoon theory is a way to understand and explain your energy levels.

But I like to know the details. I tried to backwards calculate from the activities that I did each day how many spoons I had. That just doesn’t work.

Spoon Myth: The amount of spoons you have is static

Not everyone will have the same amount of spoons. Some may have 10, some may have 20. The amount of spoons that you have will likely vary each day.

This is because you are more than your chronic illness. There are other things that impact on your energy levels, for example, how you slept, if you have a cold/virus, extra stress, or are just generally having a difficult time (like being in the midst of a pandemic).

The same goes for how much energy something takes to do. The first thing I always notice about spoon charts (like the one above) is that a shower costs 1x spoon. This sits wrong with me, because I think showers are invigorating and give me energy.

The point is not to have a detailed log of spoons spent each day. Rather, the point is to use spoons as common language/metaphor that communicates the costs of completing activities for someone with a chronic illness.

Spoon theory can help us focus on our wellbeing

We can also use spoon theory to refocus the conversation. Instead of focusing on what I can’t do (my limitations), I can talk about what I can do – which is a strengths-based focus. When I talk about using spoons, it is a reminder that I am making smart choices for my own wellbeing and living in a way that is sustainable.

“I don’t have the spoons to . . .
Let’s reschedule for another day.”

Similarly, we can use it as a tool to demonstrate our understanding that other people may have limited resources.

“If you have the spoons, you could…”
This acknowledges that whilst something may be a great idea, it may not be practical. It empowers the person to say no.

Spoon Myth: You can bank your spoons

If you don’t use up all your spoons today, it would make sense that you have extra spoons tomorrow. This would be true if the spoons were a literal, concrete item that we were given each day.

However, chronic conditions don’t play fair. You wake up feeling energised and hopeful for the day, but within an hour you’re back in bed. You eat right, you exercise right, you say no to extra commitments, and still you feel exhausted. Chronic conditions are complex. Be prepared to be flexible every day. Just because we did not use a lot of spoons doesn’t mean we are guaranteed extra spoons tomorrow.

Spoon theory does not explain everything.

As much as I want to give you an easy answer and tell you that everything will be great now that you know about spoon theory. It’s not. It won’t be. Like everything, there are strengths and weaknesses to the concept.

Spoon myth: Spoon theory explains everything

Chronic illness is complex, but people crave to simplify the complex. Which is understandable, but unfortunately not possible by definition. Spoon theory in essence is a very simple analogy. To call it a theory is probably going a bit far. It’s just an analogy of limited physical energy.

However, the great thing about spoon theory being so simple, is that we can adapt it. Ultimately, the goal of spoon theory is to facilitate compassion by highlighting that we are not being lazy or flaky, but rather we have to prioritise our energy expenditure in a way that’s sustainable and maintain our overall wellbeing in accordance with our invisible conditions.

You should pick and choose from any theory and adapt it to what works for you.

Some people have suggested that spoon theory has been appropriated by the wider disabled community. I think that this is actually essential in social sciences (and very different to cultural appropriation), because through building on theories we actually build a much richer understanding of people. Theories are here to serve us, to explain our experience, not the other way around.

How I used spoon theory in my life

This is embarrassing to write down on the internet, where it will be forever, – but trying to live by my blog name strength through vulnerability.

Since forever, I have lived my life in a pattern that look something like this:

Not until after my autism diagnosis in my 30s did I break this cycle. Learning about autism I realised that feeling overwhelmed by my commitments was probably related to autistic burn out. That neurotypicals find a lot of things easy that I did not, like meeting with a couple of friends (I usually need to have resting time before and after in order to cope).

Having my diagnosis was a life saver, because it gave me permission to stop trying to measure up to what everyone else was doing and find my own path. I analysed what my priorities in life were. I took the top 3 priorities and I dropped everything else. I didn’t like it. I resisted it at first. But I dropped everything.

For the first time in my life I quit the things I loved not because a crisis was forcing me to, but as a way to proactively take control of my own wellbeing.

In doing so, I created extra space for myself to breathe. To come to terms with my diagnosis and really realise what this meant for me. To teach myself how I needed to live my life differently in light of my autism diagnosis. I spend more time processing things, emotions, situations, so that they weren’t building up. I learned to look after myself emotionally, and not rely on others to calm me down.

The idea is that eventually I will begin to incorporate more activities back into my life – and I have. I am looking for long-term sustainable ways that I can live, rather than short term gains by living like a neurotypical.