Spoon theory[a] is a metaphor that is used to describe the amount of mental or physical energy a person has available for daily activities and tasks. The theory was developed by Christine Miserandino as a way to express how it felt to have lupus. She used spoons to provide a visual representation of units of energy that a person might have and how chronic illness forces her to plan out her days and actions in advance, so as not to run out of energy, or spoons, before the end of the day.
The term spoons was coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay "The Spoon Theory." While out to eat with a friend, Miserandino’s friend began watching her as she took her medication and suddenly asked what it was like to have lupus. Miserandino grabbed spoons from around the diner where they sat and gave her friend the handful of spoons she had gathered. The spoons helped Miserandino to show the way that people with chronic illness often start their days off with limited degrees of energy. The number of spoons her friend had was how much energy she had to spend throughout the day.
As Miserandino’s friend stated the different tasks she completes throughout the day, Miserandino took away a spoon for each activity. She took spoon after spoon until her friend only had one spoon left. Her friend then stated that she was hungry. To which Miserandino replied that eating would use another spoon. If she were to cook, a spoon would be needed for cooking. She would have to select her next move wisely to conserve her energy for the rest of the night.
Chronic illness and spoon theory
Those with chronic illness or pain have reported feelings of difference and division between themselves and people without disabilities. This theory and the claiming of the term spoonie is utilized to build communities for those with chronic illness that can support each other.
Spoons are a visual representation used as a unit of measure to quantify the amount of mental and physical energy a person has available for activities of living and productive tasks throughout a given amount of time (e.g. a day or week). Each activity requires a number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person "recharges" through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished. This is not to say that rest is certain to give a person more spoons. Many disabled individuals may have sleep difficulties, resulting in a continued low supply of energy.
Because of this, many people with chronic illness have to plan around and ration their energy throughout the day. This has been described as being a major concern of people with a (fatigue-related) disability or chronic condition/illness/disease because people without these disabilities are not typically concerned with the energy expended during ordinary tasks such as bathing and getting dressed. The theory explains the difference and facilitates discussion between those with limited energy reserves and those with (seemingly) limitless energy reserves.
Other uses for spoon theory
Spoon theory has since spread throughout the disability community and even to marginalized groups to describe the exhaustion that may attribute their specific situation. It is most commonly used to refer to the experience of having an invisible disability, because people with no outward symptoms or symbols of their condition are often perceived as lazy, inconsistent or having poor time management skills by those who have no first-hand knowledge of living with a chronic illness or disability. Naomi Chainey has described how the term has also spread to use by some in the wider disability community, and eventually the able-bodied community, to refer to non-chronic forms of fatigue and mental exhaustion – which she attributes to people with invisible disabilities being a sometimes marginalized group even within the disability community.
Those with mental health issues may find it challenging to go about seemingly simple tasks throughout the day and become more exhausted if they have a panic attack. A transgender individual may also find it exhausting to go about daily life being misgendered, and dealing with aspects of gender dysphoria. Spoon theory could even be used to show the exhaustion of having a new born baby as this time may lead to a lack of sleep. When spoon theory is expanded to other uses, it is important to note the privileges a person may or may not have, such as passing as non disabled or cisgender, or having a nanny to help with a new born baby.
- It is not a theory in the scientific or mathematical sense, but this is what the concept has been known as since its origin.
- Miserandino, Christine (2003). "The Spoon Theory". But You Don't Look Sick. Archived from the original on 17 November 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2017.
- Pashby, Kate (2018). ""Today is a Four": How Students Talk About their Chronic Pain". Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography. 8 (1): 69–83. doi:10.15273/jue.v8i1.8621. ISSN 2369-8721.
- Alhaboby, Zhraa A.; Barnes, James; Evans, Hala; Short, Emma (31 May 2017). "Challenges facing online research: Experiences from research concerning cyber-victimisation of people with disabilities". Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 11 (1). doi:10.5817/CP2017-1-8. ISSN 1802-7962.
- "Explaining low stamina levels - with spoons". BBC News. 21 June 2013. Retrieved 13 December 2020.
- Chainey, Naomi (13 January 2016). "Stop appropriating the language that explains my condition". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
- Hampton, Jameson (2017). "Confreaks TV | Understanding 'Spoon Theory' and Preventing Burnout - RailsConf 2017". confreaks.tv. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
- Alhaboby, Zhraa A.; Barnes, James; Evans, Hala; Short, Emma (2017). "Challenges Facing Online Research: Experiences from Research Concerning Cyber-Victimisation of People with Disabilities". Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 11 (1). Art. 8. doi:10.5817/CP2017-1-8. ISSN 1802-7962.
- ——— (2018). "Disability and Cyber-Victimization". In Schatz, J. L.; George, Amber E. (eds.). The Image of Disability: Essays on Media Representations. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 167ff. ISBN 978-1-4766-6945-8.
- Conrad, Sarah (2017). "Consider the Spoons: An Embodied Relational Approach to Incorporating Those with Persistent Fatigue into Eco-Activism". In Nocella, Anthony J.; George, Amber E.; Schatz, J. L. (eds.). The Intersectionality of Critical Animal, Disability, and Environmental Studies: Toward Eco-Ability, Justice, and Liberation. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. pp. 79–97. ISBN 978-1-4985-3443-7.
- Gonzalez-Polledo, Elena (2016). "Chronic Media Worlds: Social Media and the Problem of Pain Communication on Tumblr". Social Media + Society. 2 (1): 205630511662888. doi:10.1177/2056305116628887. ISSN 2056-3051.
- Gonzalez-Polledo, Elena; Tarr, Jen (2016). "The Thing About Pain: The Remaking of Illness Narratives in Chronic Pain Expressions on Social Media". New Media & Society. 18 (8): 1455–1472. doi:10.1177/1461444814560126. ISSN 1461-7315. Retrieved 10 November 2018.