‘I can’t today. I’m running low on spoons.’ It’s not the typical excuse when a friend cancels your plans last-minute, but it says more than you might realise about how they’re feeling – physically and mentally

For many of us, our energy levels and stamina don’t even come into question.
Sure, you might have the odd day where you don’t feel like cooking dinner, but what if you had to monitor your energy levels so closely that you had to choose between taking a shower or washing the dishes? What if you worried that each hard choice could lead to someone thinking you were ‘just being lazy’? This is where spoon theory comes in.

Spoon theory has been a popular metaphor for more than a decade among numerous disability communities. The theory uses spoons as a visual way to explain how much energy someone has throughout the day; we all start the day with the same number of spoons. Each action causes us to hand some spoons over in payment.

For most people, they can rest and recover, with a seemingly unlimited supply of spoons. However, there are others who only have a set number to last them the whole day, and once your spoons are gone, they’re gone.


How does spoon theory work?

Someone who is sick might start the day off with 10 spoons. Sounds great! But it’s a cold morning, and you didn’t get enough sleep last night – you’ve woken up stiff and in pain. It’s going to cost you a spoon just to get out of bed, another two to make it through a shower, and two more to get yourself breakfast. That’s five spoons down before you’ve even left the house.

You’ve already used half your energy, so you’ll need to be careful choosing how to spend your spoons if you don’t want to risk exhausting yourself and being unable to make it home safely, or pushing too hard and having even fewer spoons to work with tomorrow.

This is the reality for many people who face fatigue-related illnesses or conditions. Unlike simply speaking about energy levels, spoon theory is a way for those who don’t experience fatigue-related or mental illnesses, to understand what others are going through.

Where does spoon theory come from?

Originally used by groups with autoimmune and chronic illnesses, it has become more widely used in online mental health and non-neurotypical communities. The number of spoons you have can vary from day to day, as can how much even simple activities will cost to complete.

But why spoons? Originally created by Christine Miserandino in 2003 as she tried to come up with a way to explain how lupus (an autoimmune condition) makes her feel to a long-time friend at dinner, she tried using spoons from tables around them as props. She discovered that they were a quirky, easy to understand way of explaining the little things that can actually be huge hurdles for those who struggle with their energy levels.

woman sleeping

Who uses it?

If you’re on social media and you’ve ever searched through common mental health or disability tags, you might have come across ‘spoonies’ (those who use spoon theory), or the phrase ‘running low on spoons’ (running low on energy).

Spoonies most commonly are people living with a chronic physical illness, though it has become more widely used amongst those experiencing chronic mental illnesses as well. Spoonies use spoon theory to help explain their struggles most commonly in energy or pain management, but may also use it to describe their anxiety levels, ability to deal with outside stimuli or crowds, as well as a number of challenges they may face.


Why is spoon theory so popular?

We may all feel tired from time to time, but when it comes to comparing our levels of tiredness to the sheer exhaustion someone with a chronic illness feels, we may as well be saying we understand the pain of a broken arm when what we really know is what it feels like to get a splinter.

Spoon theory not only helps get this across but, for many, adds an extra layer to help separate what they want to do from what they can do. It’s not only a way to explain to others about how their condition affects them, but it helps them to remind themselves that they aren’t being lazy, flaky, or unreliable for changing plans last-minute, or not getting everything done. They’re listening to their bodies and putting their own wellbeing first.


Practice compassion and understanding

Nobody likes to be ‘that person’ – the one who’s always cancelling last-minute, who’s hard to pin down for an evening out or even just a catch-up. It’s a luxury many of us don’t even realise we have; the energy, physically and mentally, to just do things when we want. In our excitement, we might not even realise others don’t have the same reserves we do.

As much as it can be annoying to have ‘that one friend’, try to remember: no one enjoys being the one who seems like a flake. If someone says they are running low on spoons and just can’t make it, the chances are, they’ve weighed things up carefully before making the decision about what to spend the last of their spoons on. Don’t take it personally. And if you stop to think about it, that really makes every moment with our spoonie friends that much more of a gift.

If you're finding it tough to cope with chronic illness, you're not alone. If you want to speak to a professional, visit Counselling Directory.

Originally posted: 8 March 2019
Article updated: 17 February 2020