What is the Spoon Theory?

The spoon theory is a disability metaphor widely used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for tasks other people often take for granted. “Spoons” are used as a visual representation of a finite unit of energy a person has on any given day. Every activity one does uses a certain number of spoons. The analogy is used to show how much planning and consideration people with a chronic illness or disability have to put into deciding how to use their energy, and where they need to conserve and replenish it for other tasks. The planning and rationing of energy-consuming tasks has been shown to be a major concern of people with chronic fatigue-related diseases, illnesses and conditions. The spoon theory is mostly used to illustrate the difference between those with limited energy reserves, and those without. Because healthy people are typically not concerned with the energy expended during ordinary tasks such as getting dressed or showering, this theory helps them to realise how much energy is expended throughout the day by those with a disability or illness.

Where does the theory come from? 

The idea originated in 2003 when the term ‘spoons’ was coined by now award winning writer, blogger, public speaker and lupus patient advocate, Christine Misanderino. Christine wrote an article for her website ‘But you don’t look sick’ about a conversation she had with her friend about how living with Lupus affects her life day to day. She collected spoons from nearby tables of the diner they were sitting in to use as a visual aid. She handed them to her friend and asked her to describe her typical day, taking spoons away for each activity. In this way she demonstrated how energy had to be rationed to avoid running out before the end of the day, and how things most people wouldn’t even think about cost her energy that can’t be regained.

Can you borrow spoons from tomorrow? 

In theory, yes, you can borrow spoons from the next day but this is a risky business. One has to be mindful of the fact that this will mean they have less energy for tomorrow, and you never know when you may need it. If you have a bad night’s sleep, or wake up with a cold, you won’t have as much energy to battle it as you otherwise would. If one uses up more spoons than they realistically have, you can end up going into what many people call ‘spoon deficit’. In other words, you crash. What this crash looks like varies from spoonie to spoonie. If one suffers from ME (also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) then this crash may result in a flare up, meaning they have to stay in bed for three days with flue like symptoms no energy and weakness. If one suffers from a mental illness it could result in a meltdown, causing panic attacks. Such crash landings are often avoidable but this is why so many people with chronic health issues adhere to the spoon theory. To avoid such crashes they have to ration their energy in ways that those who are healthy do not often think about.