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Spoon Theory

Spoon Theory

Are you familiar with Spoon Theory?

For many of us with chronic illness, this theory helps us explain things to people who don’t have the challenges that those of us with chronic illness face. Chronic illness is any illness that is simply there, not going away, sometimes under constant ‘management’ or treatment, but without ‘cure’ or resolution. A chronic condition is any condition that is persistent or long lasting in its effects.

Asthma, COPD, Lyme disease, diabetes, migraine, arthritis, anxiety, depression, and much more – anything lasting more than 3 months can be considered a ‘chronic’ condition. For many people a daily reality is dealing with a chronic condition. A ‘complication’ of a chronic condition can be invisibility. If you have diabetes, chances are others can’t see it. If you suffer from migraines or arthritis, these are beneath the skin and impossible to see. It can often feel like people are looking at you and not understanding what’s going on beneath the surface, thinking, “Well, she looks normal! She should be able to function normally!”

If you don’t live with some kind of chronic condition, the chances are high that you know someone who does. Spoon Theory is a great tool for understanding yourself if you cope with a chronic condition and for understanding those close to you who may even if you don’t.

The brilliant explanation of Spoon Theory comes from Christine Miserandino, who runs a website about and for people with chronic illnesses. She recounts that years ago a friend asked her about living with a chronic illness and what this was like. Because she was sitting in a café, she used the spoons from her table to demonstrate how energy ebbs and flows for all of us, but is fundamentally different for people who live with chronic conditions.

Each person starts out with so many “spoons” representing their reserve of energy. The number of spoons we have can be impacted by sleep, stress levels, life activities, projects, chronic conditions being coped with, etc. Each activity or event during the day requires spoons (energy) to get through, and just wanting to get something done or having it on the agenda for the day is no guarantee that you won’t run out of spoons to accomplish whatever is on your list. Some days having brunch with a friend will cost just one spoon; other days it may cost several. Some days attending a doctor’s appointment may cost a couple of spoons; others it may cost all of them.

Getting through each day and its events is something that many people take for granted. Looking at life and its tasks in terms of spoons needed and realizing that the number we start out with may change depending on how we’re feeling on a given day can be a helpful visual for those who don’t understand chronic conditions. For those of us who do, it can be a great way to help us remember to be mindful of the spoons we’re investing and where.

Everyone only has so many spoons to work with and everyone can have that number impacted by health, external factors outside their control, quality of sleep, amount of stressors they’re coping with (or not coping with!). Those with chronic conditions are likely to start out with fewer spoons on days when symptoms are higher.

For those who have considerations like high sensitivity personality trait or sensory processing sensitivity (HSP and SPS are the same thing!) we may use more spoons (and maybe use them faster) than the average person. Why? Because we’re picking up on more information (sensing the subtle), we are processing that information more deeply (depth of processing), because we are picking up and more and processing more, we can become overstimulated and require downtime or other forms of support (overstimulation), and because we’re picking up on more and processing it more deeply, we can also have more deeply felt emotions (emotional intensity) that require more energy to manage or navigate.

Some days we have lots of spoons to accomplish all the things we want to do in a day and others we struggle just to get through the day and the bottom line basics of self care. Being mindful of how many spoons we have each day can help us develop realistic expectations for what is reasonable to accomplish, and can help us prioritize our activities so that we don't waste our spoons on things that aren't as important if it's a day we're running low on spoons.

Pay some mindful attention each morning to yourself. How many spoons do you think you have to work with? What’s on your agenda that may require a lot of them because of circumstances beyond your control? What can wait from you list?

Be kind to yourself and others. We only have so many spoons.

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