What is the spoon theory and is it really about spoons?

I became familiar with the spoon theory when I became chronically ill. It’s a handy diagnostic tool that helps someone with a long-term illness express in simple terms how much energy they have on any given day.

It was developed by Christine Miserandino in 2003, when a friend asked her to describe what it was like to have lupus. She gathered spoons from throughout the diner where they were eating. She explained that each spoon represented a unit of energy.

She used this metaphor to explain how a person with chronic illness must carefully plan their day, because they start each day with limited spoons, and once the spoons are gone, they have nothing left to give.

The Spoon Theory is essentially this…

Let’s say we all start the day with 10 spoons.

A fully-functional, healthy person might use one spoon in the course of waking up, showering, getting ready for the day, making her family breakfast, getting the kids off to school, and driving herself to work.

When this fully-functional, healthy person sits down at her desk to begin her daily tasks, she’s still got nine spoons left for the day. She’ll use maybe one spoon during work in the morning, and another in the afternoon.

Maybe the end of the workday is exhausting. She has to rush to the daycare, pick up the kids, run to the grocery store with the kids in tow, hurry home to get dinner together, and then rush off to baseball practice.

By the time she sits down on the sideline at baseball practice, she feels zapped. That hour and a half between work and practice took a full two spoons. In all, she’s used five spoons for the day.

She’s getting tired, but she still has plenty of energy to cheer for her son at practice, wrestle with her toddler on the sidelines, get home, have a quick workout, get the kids washed up and ready for bed, read a story or two, tuck the kids in, and collapse on the couch for some TV binge-watching.

But what about those who aren’t so healthy?

The reason the spoon theory is so useful is because it provides the chronically ill a method to express their struggle at any given moment. My friend with ovarian cancer used to text me now and then and say, “It’s a one-spoon day today.” I knew instantly what this meant.

It meant that the simple act of brushing her teeth was enough to send her back to bed.

It meant that there would be no non-essential talking. No laughing out loud. No preparing a meal.

It meant that the simple act of breathing, in and out, was all she could muster for the day.

I knew this, because I’ve been there. Thankfully, my struggle has not been cancer. I’m one of the millions of people worldwide who suffer from several of the mysterious illnesses under the umbrella of autoimmune disease.

This all seems really sad, and I suppose in some ways it is.

But there is beauty beneath the ashes of chronic illness.

I can honestly say I am a better person since I began battling this disease. I am more compassionate. More patient. More intentional. And I have far better boundaries.

When simply performing the basic tasks of life takes everything you have, you no longer have the option to waste time on activities that are not the utmost priority. There are no spoons for toxic relationships. You must carefully examine each and every action to determine whether it is truly worth expending your precious energy.

Suddenly, everything comes into very clear focus.

When you are chronically ill, you learn that every second of every day is a precious gift, and tomorrow is not guaranteed. Will volunteering for this fundraiser give me an opportunity to spend time with my kids and model the value of service to others? Or will I end up resenting it because it exhausts me and takes away valuable moments with those I love?

There are no more wasted moments. Even time spent in front of the TV must be carefully considered. What will I watch? Can my body handle the emotional stress of a suspenseful thriller? Or should I just watch HGTV?

What show will the whole family enjoy, so I can get in some quality time while staring mindlessly at the moving-picture box?

Does this Bible study (or support group, or coffee group, or bowling league, or whatever) leave me feeling inspired and energized, or does it drain me? Am I here because it contributes to my character development, entertains me, or in some other way adds value to my life?

Or am I here because my friends will be disappointed if I don’t show up? Or it sure looks good to other people and it strokes my ego? Or it makes me feel superior to others who are less involved? Or it gives me an opportunity to gossip?

When even the simplest actions cost you precious spoons, you learn to live with intention.

“Live with intention!” That sounds great, but what does it really mean? Intention is one of those buzzy words that gets overused these days.

When you have a chronic illness, intentional decision-making is not simply a pretty mantra to hang on your wall. You have no other choice.

Those of us with chronic illness wake up every single day, and before even getting out of bed, we do an inventory. How much pain am I in today? How many spoons do I have?

The answers to those questions will determine – moment to moment – the next task on your to-do list. There is no time or energy for gossip. No time or energy for anger. No time or energy for stubborn pride or even fear.

Does this mean I never gossip, never get angry, never suffer pride or fear?

Of course not. But I’ve learned to recognize these negative choices and emotions, to greet them, say hello, honor their existence, and then choose a different course. It’s a quick, efficient process, not because I’m of superior character, but because I simply do not have the spoons to approach life any other way.

I surround myself only with those who inspire me, energize me, feed my soul, because I know that life can change in the blink of an eye, and I know that there are simply not enough spoons to give to anything that doesn’t nurture me and those I love, or make the world a better place.

The next time you see someone struggling, before you judge, ask them how many spoons they have. If they don’t understand what that means, explain it to them. Then ask again.

The spoon theory is about grace.

Grace for ourselves, and grace for others. It is about respecting other people’s physical limits and personal boundaries. And it’s about being accountable to yourself and those who matter most.

The spoon theory gives us courage to say no to the things that are destructive or in the end don’t really matter, and yes to those things that truly do.

How many spoons do you have today?

Related Links:
How do I redefine love?
The Health Connection

Published December 14, 2020

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