We write a lot about “having the spoons” to complete a task, or about what you can do to make yourself feel better (or more glam) when you don’t have the spoons to spare on the task. If you’re not a person who lives with chronic illness, the terminology might be strange to you, and you might not even totally understand it. That’s fine! That’s why we’re here to help.
What is spoon theory?
It’s a bit of a misnomer really; it’s not a scientific or mathematical theory, but it’s certainly a very good metaphor for understanding chronic illness, and explaining chronic illness to people who might not necessarily understand it. Taking spoons out of the metaphor, spoon theory explains the basic concept that people who live with chronic illness may have a very limited pool of energy from which to draw in order to complete their daily tasks. It’s very closely related to the concept of ego depletion if you’re into psychology: ego depletion is an idea which explains that people get tired over the course of decision making because that’s a process that takes energy. Into that, spoon theory adds the existence of fatigue, chronic pain, and so much more, all of which contribute to wearing down people with chronic illness.
Who created spoon theory?
The writer Christine Miserandino is credited with creating the theory. She wrote about spoon theory for the first time in her blog But You Don’t Look Sick in 2003. She was in a café with her friend when they asked her if she could explain to them what living with chronic illness is like. Christine, who lives with the chronic autoimmune disease lupus, was thrown off by the question, realising that if she couldn’t explain it to her best friend, she’d struggle to explain it to anyone. She grabbed 12 spoons and handed them to her friend, explaining that the spoons represented the energy she has when she wakes up in the morning. Christine explained that every time she performed an activity – getting up, putting on clothes, cooking food – she would remove a spoon, or a unit of energy, noting that sometimes she would have to ration her energy in order to complete larger or more complex tasks, which came at the detriment of other aspects of her life. You could go over your limit of spoons, she explained, but that would have a knock-on effect which may make life difficult in the future. That became the basis of spoon theory.
How is spoon theory helpful?
People who don’t live with chronic illness don’t understand what it’s like to struggle in completing what are seen to be the basic activities of daily living. Some people even perceive chronically ill people as “lazy” which is extremely unhelpful, and very ignorant of their conditions. Spoon theory was created by chronically ill people – who now refer to themselves as “spoonies” because of it – for chronically ill people. There’s no medical jargon, and it’s nice and easy for everyone to understand. It gives chronically ill people the vocabulary they need to easily explain how they’re feeling to everyone, from doctors to friends, and not only that, it’s an effective visual way to show how they’re feeling. People tend to understand problems they don’t have personal experience of a lot better if they can visualise them, and that’s what spoon theory does.
Can you show me an example?
Yes, of course. As graphic design is indeed our passion, we’ve created this handy visual aid to help you understand spoon theory!