Have you ever heard someone say, “I just don’t have enough spoons to do this today”? Or, I just used my last ‘spoon’ and I don’t have any left to do anything else?
The metaphor of the ‘spoons’ was first used by Christine Miserandino in her blogsite www.butyoudontlooksick.com. She used the example to try to explain to a friend what it was like living with the chronic illness of Lupus. The example as explained by Ms. Miserandino went like this. Each spoon represents the amount of energy that is required to complete a task. Many people have an infinite number of ‘spoons’ (or energy) to use at the beginning of each day. They wake up and have infinite energy to take on whatever comes up in the day. They have freedom to pursue any and all activities that come their way from the necessary tasks like getting up and having a shower, to going to work, to cooking dinner and cleaning up afterwards, to spending some quality time at the end of the day with spouse, children or friends. Because of the energy at their disposal, they also have the freedom to add in a quick fun shopping trip here, and a spontaneous fun walk or hike with their pet there.
Those who experience chronic illness, whether that is chronic physical illness, chronic disability or mental health issues (like anxiety, depression or trauma), often have a finite number of spoons each day. With those spoons, they have to navigate all of the tasks of the day, planning things out carefully to ensure they can get through the day with the spoons they have at their disposal. As Ms. Miserandino puts it, just getting out of bed and brushing one’s hair and teeth, perhaps taking a shower can easily use up 2 or 3 spoons before one even gets to breakfast in the morning (never mind getting out the door). This leaves a limited number of spoons with which to navigate the rest of the activities of the day.
When I first read about ‘spoons’, it struck me that this metaphorcould be a powerful ‘aha’ moment for anyone struggling with chronic illness or mental health issues of any sort. It is a way to understand and gain insight into the often confusing and frustrating situations that you deal with on a day to day basis. This metaphor can also help you to put into words your experience so that those around you can gain some insight into your reality.
When life feels so overwhelming that just accomplishing the mundane yet necessary tasks (like just getting up in the morning) is difficult, people more often than not, are left with a variety of emotions and self-judgements that are heaped on top of everything else. For example, it is easy to be left feeling guilty for not being able to act or accomplish tasks that others around you (or that you) expect; sad, because it feels thatyou are missing out on so many things that are important; misunderstood, because you can’t find a way to really explain to friends and loved ones, why you just can’t do certain things, even things that seem fun and relaxing like going out for coffee, taking a walk with the dog or even just making dinner.Remembering past times when you had an infinite number of ‘spoons’, can also be bittersweet. Battling the perceptions of others who simply have always experienced health and boundless energy is also hard. It can be difficult for people to conceive of what it means to lack the fundamental energy to complete a task as straight forward as washing the dishes or taking a shower. Sometimes this can be perceived as laziness or lack of a will to ‘try’.
The good news is that understanding the spoon metaphor can not only be a way of understanding your own struggles, it can also be a way to bridge the gap with others in your life who struggle to understand your challenges.
From the perspective of healing and finding ways to move forward, the spoon metaphor can be a great place to begin. If we reframe it a bit, rather than seeing the ‘deficit’ in the spoons we have at our disposal each day, we can begin to recognize that while we may not have an infinite number of spoons we do still have some. Those spoons that we do have are precious commodities that we can budget and strategize with, each day. Accepting the fact that, for now at least, this is the reality that you live with can be very difficult. However, it can also be freeing. Is it ideal? No. However, by beginning to positively recognize your own limits and that you have a finite number of spoons each day gives you the opportunity to practice making conscious and intentional choices about how to spend your time and energy. It can also allow for you to creatively look for solutions that ‘save’ spoons. A friend of mine determined for example, that it is well worth the small cost of using a grocery delivery service to order and deliver her groceries. This saves a tremendous amount of energy (spoons) for her that she can put to use in other ways. It can mean making very conscious and intentional choices about work-life balance and the type of work you choose to do. For some people it may be possible to choose to work in a less stressful job or choose to work fewer hours sacrificing some income in order to gain a better quality of life. While this is not possible for everyone, it is worth putting serious thought into the choices that can be made.
This metaphor can also help us to acknowledge and accept the times when we are out of spoons and need to just stop. Giving ourselves permission to just ‘stop’ is one of the most difficult things!My own experience shows me that when I push myself beyond the spoons I have, I crash or meltdown in ways that are not helpful for me or those around me. That’s the point at which it’s important to recognize that recharging through sleep or rest is incredibly important.
People who are struggling with chronic conditions often feel as if they have lost their power and their ability to make meaningful choices. Discovering a way to envision that choices are possible and may be found in the midst of even the most difficult situations, can be empowering and freeing!
Written by Registered Psychotherapist Jennifer Ackford.