What it means to be "out of spoons"

October 23, 2019

Low on Spoons Card


So you want to get together with your friend, but they say "I'm sorry I can't, I'm out of spoons."  Or maybe you're exhausted after a particularly bad depression flare up, and someone says "I wish I could lend you some of my spoons." Do you know anyone who identifies as a "spoonie"? Or have you seen icons of spoons popping up when people talk about chronic conditions or mental health? WHAT'S WITH ALL THE SPOONS? 

So glad you asked.

The origins of spoon theory

Spoons, used in all these ways, references spoon theory.  The theory originated with Christine Miserandino, who was trying to explain to her friend what living with lupus felt like, and reached for a handful of literal spoons to illustrate her point.  She started using a spoon to represent a unit of mental or physical energy.

The framework acknowledges that energy and resources are finite, and that we are all working with different baselines. Everyone needs to expend spoons to get through the day.  Some of us have so many we don't even think about it, but if you start with fewer spoons, you are going to get depleted quicker.

The beauty of the spoon metaphor is that it explains something that is highly individual, is not readily visible, but is extremely real. If you are dealing with chronic pain, daily tasks are going to require more spoons than they would otherwise.  Some days you spend all of your spoons just making lunch and getting to work; some days even that is far beyond your capabilities. There is a calculation that happens. If you know that going to an event will take a ton of your energy, you need to make sure 1) not to deplete your energy beforehand and 2) to make sure you have a low key recovery day planned.

We all make these calculations to some extent, but with many chronic conditions that calculation is even more crucial. While it can be an additional mental load, that calculation is ignored only to great detriment.

How spoons are used as a metaphor today

After Christine posted about her conversation with the spoons, the metaphor took off. 

You may hear people with chronic conditions refer to themself as a "spoonie", indicating that this energy calculation is an immense part of their day to day. It’s still centered in the realm of chronic physical conditions, but it’s also used heavily in relation to mental illness (which is also arguably a physical condition, just as “physical” conditions clearly have an emotional component. But that’s a whole other essay).

At least in my circles, saying “I don’t have the spoons” became a short-hand for “I have overextended myself” or “things are taking a lot out of me right now”. It allowed even the most people-pleasing among us to communicate situational boundaries, without worrying that we will NEVER BE INVITED TO ANYTHING AGAIN, or that “if I say no to, they will think I just hate them!”.  It’s also (ideally) a way to ask for help without quite so much shame.

And of course, as an artist, I love having a visual shorthand for all of this. Symbols have so much power, especially when marginalized people use them to create a sense of solidarity and support.  Additionally, the cards I make are intended to help you extend a helping hand and offer you a compassionate way of accepting your own limitations.  Being able to visualize this support and everything it means in an image of a spoon? In a card that you can physically hand to someone? That's incredible to me.

How using spoons as a metaphor can (and cannot) help.

Even with this framework to help us accept our limitations, offer loved ones support, and encouraging us to build in recovery time, living with chronic conditions isn’t easy. It's tempting to think that understanding or accepting something will make it ok. But really, this is all just saying that it's ok to not be ok - and not being ok still sucks. It's exhausting.

I’m tired of dealing with cycles of depression, tired of those unexpected rushes of anxiety, tired of feeling physically sick at the thought of another person looking at me too closely. I’m tired of grief, and I’m tired of needing rest, and I’m just. So. tired. 


I also believe in the power of community and self-compassion. Even when it’s frustrating and difficult, it’s important to at least try to accept that we all have different thresholds and abilities. Maybe taking away that top layer of shame will make the other challenges more manageable.

If we can look at our energy reserves at any given time not as indicative of our worth, but rather as value-neutral realities (tools, even!), maybe we can foster a little more softness in our relationships with others and with ourselves. 

It's ok to be low on spoons


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