A few years ago, I was scrolling through my social media feed when I came across spoon theory. Intrigued, I read through the post and thought immediately, “That explains me!” As a neurodivergent disabled individual, I would often find myself frustrated as to why going about my daily life seemed truly exhausting. Tried as I might, I could not compete with neurotypical and/or able-bodied people. My energy would seemingly deplete quickly before others, and yet, I would relentlessly push through, forgoing necessary rest periods. Only to then eventually succumb to an illness- my body signaling me to slow down, take it easy and replenish my energy levels. Upon discovering spoon theory, it allowed me to better abstractly understand myself through its simple, yet effective, metaphor.
Spoon theory arose to popularity when Christine Miserandino wrote a blog titled “The Spoon Theory”. Miserandino, an individual with lupus, was sitting at a diner when her friend inquired what it was like to live with a chronic illness. Determined to explain in a comprehensible manner, Miserandino handed her friend 12 spoons, with each spoon representing a finite unit of energy. She then asked her friend to describe her typical daily activities. Every time her friend would list an activity, such as showering, Miserandino would take one spoon away. As her friend’s hypothetical day went on, her spoon collection quickly dwindled. Eventually, before her friend’s hypothetical day even ended, there were no spoons leftover, leaving some daily activities left undone, such as doing errands.
Through this demonstration, the spoons metaphorically symbolized how for individuals with chronic illness, energy is limited and dependent on multiple factors, such as stress and pain. While able-bodied people can fulfill daily activities with seemingly enough spoons, individuals with chronic illness can only get a handful of spoons each day to expend. Depending on their illness and factors, some individuals have less spoons some days, and more spoons on other days. Likewise, a certain task can take up less spoons some days, and more spoons on other days. Consequently, individuals with chronic illness have to carefully plan their day to ensure that their energy does not dissipate quickly. If they attempt to use more spoons than allocated, they can experience worsened symptoms, an illness and/or fewer spoons the next day. In essence, it allows individuals to estimate how many spoons each task requires, visualize their available energy levels and select which tasks to prioritize within their means.
Spoon theory was originally created with individuals with chronic illness in mind. However, due to its applicability, it has since then been adapted and expanded to also include neurodiversity and disabilities, such as mental health conditions. For individuals with below conditions, spoon theory can pertain:
- Autoimmune diseases (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis)
- Autonomic dysfunction [e.g. postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)]
- Chronic migraines
- Chronic pain (e.g. fibromyalgia)
- Mental health conditions
- Neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. ADHD)
- Post-viral and post-bacterial illnesses (e.g. long COVID)
Viewing neurodiversity and mental health conditions through the lens of spoon theory can help individuals explain to others their limits and boundaries, increase self-awareness on how their spoons fluctuate daily and better navigate their energy levels. For instance,
- With autism, facing sensory overload while shopping can use up the majority of spoons available, leaving little to no spoon leftover
- With depression, the task of getting out bed can feel like a couple of spoons, already reducing the day’s energy reserves
- With anxiety, experiencing a racing heart can be draining, depleting a few spoons
With each example, it demonstrates how applying spoon theory can be valuable for gaining insights on what an individual with neurodiversity and/or mental health conditions endure.
For individuals with chronic illness, neurodiversity and/or disabilities, including mental health conditions, the following are ways that spoon theory can be practiced:
- Building community
- Anyone coping with a chronic illness, neurodivergent condition and/or disability can self-identify as a “spoonie”. Through this, individuals can join the spoonie community and find others with similar conditions. For example, they can follow social media hashtags (e.g. #Spoonie, #SpoonieSupport and #SpoonieLife) to find information and commonality. Or they can join spoonie circles through blog posts, chat groups and social events specifically for spoonies. Lastly but not least, they can buy spoonie-themed merchandise to bring humor and sentiment on tough days.
- For spoonies, spoon theory can be used as a way to pace. Pacing is the practice of spacing out activities and resting between them, as well as reserving energy for prioritized tasks. Some of the ways to practice pacing would be doing less of an activity (while still being able to enjoy it), or breaking larger projects into smaller tasks to accomplish over the course of a few days. For spoonies in particular, spoon theory can be used for self-pacing by first calculating the number of spoons they have on an average day, and then gauging how many spoons each task takes. Through this, spoonies can determine how to schedule tasks, ration spoons and avoid exhaustion. Not only that but on high-symptom days, pacing allows spoonies to practice self-compassion and recognize that resting and recharging are a necessity for replenishing spoons.
- For spoonies, attempting to explain the shifts in fatigue to able-bodied and/or neurotypical individuals can be difficult. With spoon theory, it can be used as a shorthand, metaphorical way to better express their limitations. For example, the following statements can be used: “I don’t have enough spoons to prioritize that today,” “Can you help me with this? It’ll save me some spoons I can use for later,” “I used too many spoons yesterday, and will have to cancel our plans for today” and “I pushed too hard and ran out of spoons today”.
Living with a chronic illness, neurodivergent condition and/or disability can be frankly isolating. With spoon theory, there is a community of spoonies out there ready to offer humor, emotional support and camaraderie. If you are a spoonie, you are not alone.
Staff Blogger: Jennifer Wendell
Jennifer Wendell (she/they) is a recent cum laude graduate from University of Delaware with dual degrees in Human Services- Clinical Concentration and Sociology. She is currently the Community Educator I at The Mental Health Association in Delaware. She is passionate about advocacy, social issues and human rights, especially for the LGBTQ+ community and disability community. In her free time, she likes to be creative, go on adventures and explore nature.