What is Spoon Theory?

From time to time, you may encounter the term “Spoon Theory” or just someone not having enough “spoons” for something. I love the concept so I wanted to talk about it, explain what it means, explain other metaphors, and talk a bit about something that sparked this prompt.

Spoon Theory is a term coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay “The Spoon Theory”. According to this Wikipedia article, Miserandino was asked by a friend what’s it like to have lupus. To answer the question, she gave her friend a bunch of spoons and listed activities that she needed to participate in or things she needed to do, removing one spoon per activity/thing. After having only one spoon left, her friend stated that she was hungry – and cooking would require one more spoon given that Christine would need one to feed herself. The theory is often used to describe how you have to carefully plan your day out when you live with a disability, chronic disease or a mental health problem. 

In essence, it’s a metaphor that makes it easier to explain things to others. “I don’t have enough spoons for this” essentially means that someone doesn’t have the energy or capacity to deal with something, often because of their disability or other factors. 

Metaphors like this help others that are unaffected by something to understand how one’s situation works. Not having enough spoons or social capacity or whatever is often a lot easier than explaining what’s going on in detail. Others may be able to understand better and by spreading the word about these metaphors, we can help others that are unaffected better understand our situation. I suffer from anxiety issues, depressed episodes, and chronic headaches, on top of maybe being autistic (according to my therapist at least), so I find that these metaphors often help explain stuff a lot faster than to list why my head is like this.

Before I stumbled across “spoon theory”, I used to talk about “social capacity” a lot, which is essentially the same thing as the coin metaphor. We use metaphors to create images that are easy to understand when explained to another. The coin metaphor describes how we all start with ten coins at the beginning of the day and an introvert uses one coin on every social interaction. An extrovert gains one coin after every social interaction. At the end of the day, the extrovert feels enriched by social interactions while an introvert feels drained and exhausted. Hence, even someone like me that seems outgoing is an introvert, despite appearances. I used to be friends with someone who gaslit me by saying that “people like [me] cause problems for ‘real introverts’ like [her]”. I am quite outgoing and enjoy meeting people but at the end of the day I still end up feeling drained by it and sometimes talking to strangers causes severe anxiety issues – that luckily have gotten better. It’s a struggle but if you feel like you’re introverted, the coin metaphor might be able to help you explain it to others to prevent gaslighting. The “Social Capacity” thing, on the other hand, is more about how much energy you can allocate to different friends. Some people are more social than others, after all, and they can talk to many different people and have a lot of close friends. Meanwhile, I (for example) get overwhelmed when I talk to too many people. Hence, I try to only have five very close friends offline, including my girlfriend, and the rest of that energy is spent on taking care of my own needs. If I spend some of that energy on a sixth person, I may not end up being able to take care of myself, at the end of the day, causing me issues.

So, all of these metaphors, no matter if you’re talking about spoons, coins, points, screws, social capacity, energy, or whatever all have in common that they explain a complex topic somewhat easily to others. Yes, originally, the spoon theory was used to explain how “spoonies” have to carefully plan out their days, but as time went on, more people have started to use it in a Mental Health context or for other topics, which works quite well in my opinion.

At last, this prompt was brought to you by a shitty take on Twitter: I originally wanted to make a whole post about it, but I scratched that and then had to procrastinate a lot and struggle to come up with a post for today instead and then I was bedridden all day. Either way, this post was prompted by someone saying that people are “making excuses” when they’re never ready to support different movements. “We all go through stuff all the time”, she said, “stop making excuses”. It’s a very bad take that I wanted to invalidate with a post. Instead of that, I decided to instead turn this around and talk about something more important. Hope you enjoyed this. Thanks a lot to Jaedia for checking if anything here sounded wrong or offensive! She’s great. Check her out sometime!

This post was first published on Indiecator by Dan Indiecator aka MagiWasTaken. If you like what you see here and want to see more, you can check me out on Twitch and YouTube as well. If you find this post on a website other than Indiecator.org, please write an e-mail to me. Thank you!

9 thoughts on “What is Spoon Theory?

Add yours

  1. In my personal life, I found the coin metaphor to be too limiting; some social situations/people cost more than others. So I expanded to a money metaphor. Dealing with a difficult family members costs $100. Leaving a comment on a blog post costs $1.

    Even people in my life who don’t think about mental health a lot understand when I say that some days I can budget more than others. When I tell my wife that I’m mentally bankrupt until the next pay day, she knows I need some space for the rest of the night.

    A lot of my friends have talked about it in terms of “mental bandwidth”. Some days there mental internet is just slow.

    I find it fascinating how different people describe their experiences inside their own head. I had never heard of the spoon theory before. I wonder what were popular ways to describe this sort of stuff before 2003.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Often, it comes down to preference, I’d say. The coin metaphor can feel limiting or just right for some people based on what they prefer. I know that the coin metaphor that I mentioned is really just there to describe a concept. The values don’t matter there. Meanwhile, for you, the values do matter because of how you use it. Point is, it’s a very personal thing and I see the Spoon Theory being used by a lot of people and figured it’d be nice to explain it.

      Mental bandwidth is a fun one!

      It would be interesting to hear about theories from before 2003 although I’m sure that a quick google search could help with that. Not that I have the spoons for it right now but maybe at another time? :)


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