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If you or someone in your circles have lived with chronic pain or illness, you may have heard about the Spoon Theory. It’s a phrase I’ve used throughout The Tending Year posts and newsletters in reference to my chronic pain, but recently I’ve started a new treatment protocol to address chronic illness, too. This means I talk about “spoons” a lot, and according to an Instagram poll I did a couple weeks ago, 46% of respondents were unaware what spoon theory is. So, I decided to dedicate a post to it!
I have two intentions for this post: 1) to provide readers with chronic pain and/or illness a method for communicating their experience to people who don’t experience chronic health issues, and 2) to educate people without chronic pain or illness so they may have more awareness and be a better ally to people with chronic health issues. I’m repurposing and updating some of the language from my post 1:30: Managing Energy Expenditure for this post, but this post’s takeaway is entirely new.
What Is Spoon Theory?
Christine Miserandino developed this metaphor to explain the daily experience of having chronic illness to someone who does not share the same experience (see a PDF of the Spoon Theory here). By giving her “healthy” friend (her language) 12 spoons and taking away spoons to represent energy expenditure on tasks such as preparing for work, traveling, cooking, and dealing with emergencies, Miserandino “explained that the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.” The Spoon Theory thus serves as a metaphor to show that people expend energy differently.
Responses to the Spoon Theory
The Spoon Theory is a teaching tool, and as such can be both critiqued and altered by individuals to meet their interests and needs. Below, I share a few adaptations of the Spoon Theory and a couple critiques, as well.
Cell Phone Battery Theory
Michelle L. adapts the Spoon Theory to what she calls a Cell Phone Theory in her article for The Mighty, “The Energy Metaphor I Find Easier to Explain Than the Spoon Theory.” She describes energy expenditure in terms of a faulty cell phone battery: no matter how much you charge it, it never quite gets to 100%. She hopes that her metaphor will encourage people to see the difference between the experience of people with a battery that can charge to 100% (or people who do not have chronic pain or illness) and people whose battery cannot work the same way. Her critique is as follows:
“There are always those people who insist that, even though they’re not ill, they count spoons (or battery percentages). There’s only so many hours in a day and so much energy, after all. Since everyone has experienced a tech glitch – or running low on flatware – it’s sometimes difficult to make someone understand that this is different. This is constant, and there’s no replacing the phone.”
Light Bulb Theory
My friend Renske de Leeuw, a PhD candidate in inclusive education, shared two new metaphors with me: “A friend of mine inspired me to use the terms light bulbs and batteries. Her son didn’t understand the spoon metaphor to explain her chronic pain and energy problems. I use the metaphor of old batteries that are unpredictable in how long they provide energy, run out soon and take a lot of time to recharge to give an insight into my experience of living with fibromyalgia.” In regard to the lightbulb metaphor, she said “…if you put too much energy for a long time ‘through’ a light bulb it burns out an important part and it cannot be replaced. So it is very important not to put too much energy (pressure to do stuff by others or yourself) on the light bulb. Otherwise you have a light bulb less to use.”
Critique of The Spoon Theory
The author of the blog It Was Lupus offers a critique of the Spoon theory here. She critiques both Miserandino’s Theory as well as what she calls “the whole ‘But you don’t look sick’ trademark[, which] is based on the idea that we need everyone to know we have Lupus so that they can treat us differently, give us more leeway and essentially feel bad for us.” Just as people both praise and challenge the Spoon Theory, readers both praised and challenged It Was Lupus’s critique. I think that serves as a good reminder that everyone experiences chronic pain or chronic illness differently.
Similarly, Emily Davis of Chronically Healthy (an online community for people with invisible illnesses) writes in “Fork It; We’re Modifying The Spoon Theory” that “If you start the day with negative intention, already deciding before you get out of bed that it will be bad, then your day probably won’t be as good as it could have been.” She includes a great video in the linked article where she proposes that one should “Respect your limitations…but focus on your goals.”
Kate’s Take on the Spoon Theory
I think the Spoon Theory is a great teaching tool to educate people about chronic pain or chronic illness if they are new to the topic. I also think it should not be used as a strict rule and that it should be open to change and context.
I’ll use myself as an example. There are certain chores that I find exhausting when I do them (1) at night, and (2) when my pain is high. These include cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and changing my bed sheets. Additionally, when I’m experiencing brain fog or feeling lethargic due to side effects, it is difficult for me to research or write my dissertation. For that reason, I really related to Miserandino’s description to her friend about choosing how to spend energy at the end of the day:
“When we got to the end of her pretend day, she said she was hungry. I summarized that she had to eat dinner but she only had one spoon left. If she cooked, she wouldn’t have enough energy to clean the pots. If she went out for dinner, she might be too tired to drive home safely. Then I also explained, that I didn’t even bother to add into this game, that she was so nauseous, that cooking was probably out of the question anyway. So she decided to make soup, it was easy. I then said it is only 7pm, you have the rest of the night but maybe end up with one spoon, so you can do something fun, or clean your apartment, or do chores, but you can’t do it all.”
If my pain is really high, crawling across my bed to tuck in a fitted sheet might strain my muscles and pull on my tailbone. But, if I change my sheets in the morning, when my pain is usually very low or nonexistent, my muscles will be more relaxed and the task will be quite painless. Thus, changing sheets doesn’t always use the same amount of energy—and it requires no energy from me to ask my partner to change the sheets, which is generally what happens! Similarly, certain tasks that might be out of the question for me when I’m tired and in pain (cooking a meal or doing laundry) are doable if I have a friend there to help me. Sometimes I choose to do certain tasks when I have pain, and sometimes I choose not to. Sometimes a task requires me to spend spoons, and sometimes that same task takes very little energy. Thus, for me, the Spoon Theory is contextual.
My 1.30: Managing Energy Expenditure post includes a downloadable “Energy Expenditure Survey & Plan” with step-by-step instructions. This resource guides you through tracking when, where, and how you expend your energies. I remember feeling fascinated when I composed it. It took me hours and hours, and while it was incredibly illuminating and helpful (and, I hope, helpful to others), in hindsight I see that completing the survey and plan may itself require a large energy expenditure!
I recently listened to productivity researcher Chris Bailey’s interview with time management expert Laura Vanderkam. Vanderkam suggested that we predetermine options that we can choose to do during our down time. This action preps us to choose things like reading or doing a puzzle versus immediately reaching for our phone to scroll social media mindlessly. Last week, I was deep in the herxheimer reaction, which happens when your body has killed off bacteria or viruses but can’t clear out the toxins quickly enough. I felt spoonless: I was experiencing intermittent dizzy spells and I had brain fog that prevented me from working on my dissertation, and my limbs felt like they weighed a hundred pounds. My plans to visit an antique fair were squashed, and I was stuck in bed or on the couch. I felt lonely, sad, and disappointed, and so I turned to something that always helps me feel less alone.
If you’re currently lacking the spoons to complete a multi-step exercise like my Energy Expenditure Survey & Plan, I invite you to join me in something that I find incredibly meaningful when I’m low on spoons: finding support in social media. The following Instagram accounts inspire me and help me feel less alone as a “spoonie,” and I’ll share with you a few posts in particular that help me feel connected when I’m seeking comfort, validation, and community.
invalid__art: I want to highlight this account in particular. It’s new to me, but I am already incredibly on board with the messages. I’m navigating a new chronic illness and so I am particularly into this post:
[Image description comes directly from invalid__art’s post: black Block text on white background that reads “I’m still figuring out my access needs. Please be patient and accepting if they change as I unpick my internalised ableism and trauma.]
layladurrani_: This image came into my life at exactly the right time, when I admitted that my workaholism was making my chronic pain worse. Every time I see it, I am reminded that my body deserves my love.
[image description: green text above an image of pink peonies and a green dragon on a map of the stars. all caps text reads “It shouldn’t be such a surprise that after so long a time attacking myself, my body began to do the same to me.”]
morganharpernichols: Morgan Harper Nichols’s posts remind me to see the light and the grace and love in my life, and help me to feel spiritually held in my healing process. Even if you aren’t a spiritual or religious person, I bet you’ll feel calmed by her posts.
[image description: all caps bold black text with light brown shadow reads “Things will be different, but you will be okay, not perfect, but okay. You will be ok.”]
cantgoout_imsick: This image brought me to tears when I saw it. I wish I had known about this account back when I felt nervous and uncomfortable about bringing my pillow to meetings. Instead, I often skipped meetings and events, or went without the aid of my pillow, which meant I was in pain.
[image description comes directly from cantgoout_imsick’s post: a lilac background with a figure standing with her back facing. The figure is an imagined version of myself, white skin, slim with brown hair. She is wearing faded black jeans with a white t shirt. The back of the t shirt says ‘no longer afraid to use an aid’ the writing is purple. She is holding a purple/blue walking stick.]
traitspourtraits: I adore France Corbel’s art and her perspectives on productivity, self love, and healing. I need to get a sticker set of these coffee pot images!
frizzkidart: I love this artist’s feminist perspective on healing. This specific piece is perhaps most well known (people get tattoos of it!), but the rest of her feminist art is really inspiring, too.
[image description: a drawing of yellow, purple, white, and dark pink flowers composing a waveform with sharp peaks and valleys on a bright pink background, the black text above it reads “Healing is not linear” in all caps]
And, finally, here are some other accounts that I love to look at when I’m feeling out of spoons and looking for support. You might find a new perspective or inspiration in them, too: