A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me that not everyone is familiar with spoon theory, or the concept of being low on, or “out of spoons.”
This is a phrase common within the disability community, but may be unfamiliar to those outside of it.
What is a Spoon?
The use of “spoons” as an energy metaphor was popularized by this blog post by Christine Miserandino, who was attempting to explain her experience with Lupus to a friend.
The theory is now commonly used not only by those with chronic illness or chronic pain, but also to describe the experience of living with other chronic conditions, such as major depression, PTSD, autism, etc.
The gist of “spoon theory” is that each person has a quantity of energy at the start of the day to use to complete tasks. This energy is broken into quantities called “spoons” only because that is what it was easiest for Miserandino to reach for in the restaurant.
It isn’t logical! Don’t overthink it.
The use of “spoons” to describe energy can throw some people off, because the metaphor isn’t intuitive. For that reason, some people who play RPG have started referring to having “spell slots” instead of “spoons.”
How Spoon Theory Works
The basic idea is that every task you might complete in a day (getting out of bed, getting dressed, taking a shower, eating breakfast, etc.) takes a certain amount of energy.
People who are able-bodied might easily be able to complete all necessary tasks for the day, and still have plenty of energy left over.
As a result, they might never think about this concept until they are stuck in bed with a bad cold or the flu.
But those navigating instances of acute or chronic illness and disability often need to carefully manage energy. We are accustomed to monitoring our energy reserves throughout the day and prioritizing tasks accordingly.
This requires being able to recognize how many spoons I have at any given moment in time. Otherwise, we run the risk of being “out of spoons.”
A Day in the Life with Spoon Theory
All of this can still feel kind of vague and confusing. So let’s get really specific.
Just for example, say I start the day with 15 “spoons.”
Getting out of bed might take 3 spoons, getting dressed 2 more. Eating breakfast might cost 4 spoons because I am out of cereal and have to scramble some eggs.
Note that I’ve already used half my spoons for the day. I may have only been up for an hour!
This is why it is so important for disabled and chronically ill people to understand both how much energy we have, and how much energy a task might take.
The use of “out of spoons” caught on so quickly because it was an easy shorthand to reference an experience disabled people are very familiar with.
The Spoon Theory metaphor communicates that lack of interest or desire isn’t the reason for not engaging in a certain task. Or explains why a boundary exists that might otherwise not be intuitive.
Different Types of Spoons
Keep in mind that different tasks may cost different amounts of spoons for different people.
Or, the same task might cost more or less spoons depending on the day. It isn’t static.
Some people also find it useful to describe different categories of spoons. So, you might have physical, cognitive, and emotional spoons.
You could also think about big spoons vs. little spoons, just like you might have teaspoons, tablespoons, and serving spoons in your kitchen.
Some tasks also give back spoons, as well as costing spoons. So, going to coffee might cost me 5 physical spoons in getting dressed and riding the bus there. But in exchange, I may get back 3 social spoons from seeing a friend.
Now, let’s say my friend doesn’t show up! Now not only am I out 5 physical spoons, the disappointment and rejection might also cost me 2 emotional spoons.
If all this math feels overwhelming, imagine how it feels to be doing this in your head *ALL THE TIME.*
What Spoon Theory is NOT
The differences between types of spoons can help explain why a person can do one task (having coffee with a friend) but not another (doing the dishes).
Able-bodied people often see these differences as laziness. (They are NOT!)
There might equally be a day when I’m out of social spoons, but can easily manage to clean and reorganize my closet.
Whether someone has spoons isn’t directly correlated to how much they enjoy a given task.
Also, what might seem like one task on the surface (do the dishes) is often in reality a dozen or more discreet tasks (turn on the water, put dish soap on a sponge, pick up a plate, wash off the plate, rinse the plate, put the plate in the dish drainer, etc.).
People who need to carefully manage their spoons become masters of understanding exactly what is involved in a given task, and how much effort and energy are required to do it.
If someone tells you they are “out of spoons” it isn’t laziness, and it isn’t an excuse. It means that person has run out of the type of energy necessary to complete that task.
Other Related Theories
Inspired by Spoon Theory, others have come up with similar theories to describe related concepts.
“Fork Theory” was coined by Jen Rose. A “fork” is a metaphor used to describe a stressor. This might range from spilling a glass of water to getting a flat tire to having a negative performance review at work. The more “forks” someone is dealing with, the less spoons they will have available.
And just like with spoons, there can be big forks and small forks. I might be able to handle 5 small forks, but only 2 big ones at any given time.
Again, this is something anyone might experience situationally. It is that “this is the last straw” moment of being overwhelmed and dysregulated by a seemingly minor stressor (like that glass of water) because of all the other stress we’re coping with.
Individuals navigating trauma triggers, sensory issues, or other challenges with self-regulation may be more impacted by “forks” than others.
The Knife Hypothesis
Terry Masson came up with the “Knife Hypothesis.” In this metaphor, even if someone is “out of spoons,” they can borrow against tomorrow’s spoons by using a “knife” instead.
But, beware! Knives are sharp. This strategy might stab you in the back.
Borrowing against tomorrow’s spoons can sometimes be necessary. But, it also puts someone even deeper into a spoon deficit. Which makes them more likely to resort to knives again. This creates a vicious cycle.
I can’t magically create more spoons. And unlike spell slots, I don’t have a guarantee of regenerating a specific quantity of spoons the following day. Plus sometimes, as explained above, even if I think or expect a task to provide me with a certain number of spoons, it might not.
Just like with spoons and forks, an able-bodied person might have situational experience of using knives. Maybe it was finals week in college, and you pulled an all-nighter to finish a paper for class. Or, you decided to work overtime for a month straight at work to pay down your credit card.
Using too many knives can land someone in the hospital, so it isn’t a strategy that it is wise to use often. But, because we live in an ableist society, many disabled people are forced to rely on knives to get their needs met.
Who Can Use Spoon Theory?
There is much debate within the disability community about whether able-bodied people ought to reference spoons.
I don’t speak for all disabled people (obviously).
From my perspective, if this metaphor speaks to you, use it in situations where you are truly out of spoons. This normalizes the metaphor and puts less demand on disabled people to explain the concept.
If you use this terminology, however, it is important to note that being out of spoons is more than being tired at the end of a long day or a long week. It is more than not wanting to do something. Being out of spoons doesn’t mean I am choosing to not do something because I’d rather rest.
Being out of spoons means I literally *cannot* do the thing, whether because of physical limitations, pain, executive dysfunction, panic attack, brain fog, etc.
Again, imagine you are lying in bed with a bad case of the flu. It also happens to be the day you signed up to run the Boston Marathon. You literally *cannot* complete this task in your present condition. THAT is what it means to be out of spoons.
Look at it this way. It isn’t okay to say, “I’m so ADHD!” or “I’m so OCD!” or “I’m so Bipolar!” if you don’t actually have that lived experience. Using that diagnosis as a joke to perpetuate negative stereotypes is deeply ableist and harmful to those who do have that experience.
In the same way, saying, “I’m out of spoons,” if you just don’t feel like doing something because you’re kind of tired and not feeling it perpetuates the idea that disabled people are lazy or faking our symptoms. So don’t!
But if you are really out of spoons, I think it is okay to say that.
There are plenty of situations which might cause even an able-bodied person to run out of spoons (like, I don’t know, the third year of a global pandemic).
I hope you feel empowered to know when, how, and IF to use Spoon, Fork, or Knife Theory in your life.
And that now it will be easier to understand what someone means if they say, “I am out of spoons.”
If you have any questions, or another metaphor you’d like to share, hop in the comments!