“Spoon Theory” Can Change the Way You View Mental Health

For many people, day-to-day life is a series of relatively easy errands, appointments, and to-do’s. For others, however, keeping up with daily routines can be a monumental effort.

And on hard days, even the bare minimum can seem like an impossible feat. It’s not uncommon for struggling individuals to be left wondering how those around them manage to thrive so easily—let alone get out of bed.

Many of us may know this feeling all too well; others may not. This fact alone can be frustrating for those familiar with the experience. However, we now know that this phenomenon can be understood with what is referred to as “spoon theory.”

What Is “The Spoon Theory”?

The term was conceptualized by Christine Miserandino in her essay titled “The Spoon Theory,” which follows her response to the question of what it’s like to live with chronic illness.

She explained the difficulty in finding the words to describe such a constant yet inexplicable experience but also acknowledged the importance of doing so.

This prompted the creation of the theory: “I quickly grabbed every spoon on the table; hell, I grabbed spoons off of the other tables. I looked at her in the eyes and said ‘Here you go, you have Lupus.’” And with actual spoons, she created a thought experiment that served to describe the indescribable.

Imagine that every day, you wake up with a set amount of spoons in your possession. Each spoon represents a unit of energy you have to use throughout the day. Just like currency, these spoons are finite—you can only spend what you have, and there’s no getting more once you’ve used them all. As you go about your day, every action you take costs you one or more spoons. The more demanding the task, the more spoons it requires.

For many people, these tasks are manageable within their daily allowance of spoons. They can easily go to work, run errands, meet friends, and still have energy left over for hobbies or other activities.

However, people with chronic illnesses, disabilities, or mental health conditions will wake up with fewer spoons. For them, simple tasks like getting dressed, making breakfast, or taking a shower can be costly; addressing their basic physiological needs can leave them with few spoons left for the rest of their day.

Given this limited supply of energy, people with fewer spoons must carefully manage their day. They may need to prioritize essential tasks over social activities, work commitments, or exercise. They may need to plan rest breaks and pace themselves to avoid running out of spoons too early. If they exhaust their spoons, they might not have the energy to do anything else.

You may notice that people with chronic conditions appear to have less stamina or to be more cautious in their choices. This is not because they lack motivation or willpower but because their energy resources are limited. With a lower allowance of spoons, they must use them wisely.

Since Miserandino’s essay, the theory has served as a poignant metaphor that illustrates the limited energy resources available to individuals with compromised physical and mental well-being.

As for the use of spoons, she explained, “I wanted something for her to actually hold, for me to then take away, since most people who get sick feel a ‘loss’ of a life they once knew. If I was in control of taking away the spoons, then she would know what it feels like to have someone or something else, in this case Lupus, being in control.”

The Implications of the Spoon Theory

Research further exemplifies how spoon theory has become an incredibly effective way for people with illness, disability, or mental health issues to communicate the fluctuating nature of their experiences.

The metaphor resonates because it simplifies a complex reality into a tangible concept. It allows people to describe their daily challenges in a way that others can understand.

With spoon theory, a person can explain that they may have good days when they have more energy, and bad days when they have far less. This framework makes it easier to talk about conditions that are often invisible, helping others comprehend why they might need extra support or flexibility. The theory’s simplicity also serves as a bittersweet prompt for everyone—those who have ample energy and those who do not—to reflect.

For those with limited spoons, the theory is a crucial reminder to slow down and listen to their bodies. It can be difficult and disheartening to realize that you need to pace yourself while others don’t. But, it’s important to remember that there is no race to the finish line of a day; the goal is to complete what’s necessary without burning through your energy reserves.

Taking breaks, saying no to unnecessary tasks, and asking for help are all valid strategies to preserve spoons. While it can feel defeating to have to count every spoon, it’s better than burning out and finding yourself unable to do the things that truly matter. It’s OK to prioritize your health and well-being over external expectations.

For people who need not count their spoons, the theory prompts a consideration of how they might take their energy for granted. It’s easy to waste spoons on trivial things without much thought. This is a privilege not everyone has, and recognizing it can lead to a greater sense of gratitude and responsibility. If you have friends or family members with limited spoons, consider asking them what you can do to help them save theirs. Whether it’s offering a ride, picking up groceries on your way home, or taking on a task they can’t manage—even a small gesture could make a significant difference.

Finally, know that if you are close to someone with few spoons, your relationship is cherished. As Miserandino professed to her friend, “I don’t have room for wasted time, or wasted ‘spoons,’ and I chose to spend this time with you.”

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