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Spoon theory: what it is and why it's helpful

Updated on December 14, 2015

Defining spoon theory

According to Wikipedia, spoon theory is defined as:

“…[A]n analogy used by some people with a disability and people with chronic illness to describe their everyday living experience when their disability or illness (physical or mental) presents in a reduced amount of energy available for productive tasks. Spoons are an intangible unit of measurement used to track how much energy a person has throughout a given day. Each activity "costs" a certain number of spoons, which will only slowly be replaced as the person "recharges" through rest or other activities that do not require (or even refill) spoons.”

You may see the phrase “spoonie” used upon the social media profiles of individuals. This means that the individual has either a chronic physical illness, physical disability, mental health condition, or any combination of these three.

I fall into this category. I have numerous chronic diseases (GERD, IBS, hypothyroidism) as well as mental health or brain disorders (OCD, anxiety, PTSD, SPD, SAD, misophonia). As such, I include the word “spoonie” in Twitter and Tumblr descriptions.

SPD: sensory processing disorder

As a person with an illness or disability, giving a title to oneself is very liberating. It exists outside of the endless parade of doctors, specialists, and therapists, and it is something that (for the most part) only others with such conditions understand.

So how is it used?

When I first encountered someone using the phrase “I don’t have the spoons for this,” I assumed it was a gender-neutral way of saying “balls” (as in hutzpah). I decided to look into it so I could be “hip” with the social justice lingo and was very happy to discover spoon theory.

If someone has a chronic illness (e.g. COPD), they have less capacity for having the energy to get through a very busy, taxing day. If one has trouble breathing, going to work, going grocery shopping, and making dinner might wear someone out prematurely. They might have to eliminate either necessary tasks or planned leisure activities as they are simply too tired to continue. Corresponding to this, someone with a mental health condition or neurological disorder (e.g. depression) might use up their spoons related to social interaction and might have to go home and unwind.

If this sounds like a secret code that avoids giving an in-depth explanation for why you missed the party, that’s exactly what it’s intended for. Christine Miserandino, on her website But You Don’t Look Sick, coined spoon theory originally in a conversation with a friend about Lupus. As you go about your day, you get spoons taken away. You had best “conserve” your spoons if you want to get everything done. It’s not making an excuse if you leave work early from a case of the flu, so why should it be if you’re disassociating, are too tired, or have horrible stomach pains?

Like with most things repugnant trolls (online and in the mainstream media alike) have seized upon to mock, spoon theory is something created by disabled people for disabled people. The larger neurotypical, able-bodied society and culture seems to think that if it’s not an overt accessibility aid, like a wheelchair, then it doesn’t deserve proper respect. But spoons and trigger warnings alike are also accessibility aids.

Accessibility aid
What it is
Why it's needed
Mobility device (wheelchair or cane)
Helps a physically impaired/disabled person with ambulation or other forms of movement
Example: someone with scoliosis needs a cane to support them as they walk
Trigger warnings/content warnings
A warning for people to either brace themselves for a topic or avoid it altogether
Example: a rape survivor sees a trigger warning for rape and thus avoids the post or video
Spoon theory
A theoretical concept using spoons to represent the energy levels a person may possess on a given day
Example: someone with chronic fatigue may need to conserve "spoons" in order to work a full day and cook dinner

As a social work professional and as a spoonie myself, I advocate for the usage of spoon theory and trigger warnings and put them in very high esteem. I wish that they were viewed as less of a “sjw” thing discussed only on Tumblr and became more apart of mainstream knowledge.

For more information, I encourage you to Youtube search spoon theory and watch as many videos as you can. They are frequently filled with the voices and first hand experiences of individuals with chronic health problems.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to restock my spoons with some cat videos.

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