Spoon Theory for Beginners

Learning about Spoon Theory is a rite of passage for everyone who struggles with chronic illness. Developed in 2003 by writer Christine Miserandino as she was attempting to explain to a friend what it is like for her to live with lupus, Spoon Theory helps people with chronic illness explain to others what it is to survive each day when your ability to move through the world is so severely impacted by your health issues.

A Mainstay for People with Chronic Illness

While I strongly encourage everyone to read Christine’s original blog post about Spoon Theory, in summary, Spoon Theory posits that people with chronic illness or chronic pain start each day with a set number of proverbial spoons, each one representing the physical and mental energy it takes to complete a daily task or activity. Smaller tasks, like showering or getting dressed, may cost only one spoon, while larger tasks, like cooking or vacuuming, may take three or four spoons. On days with increased pain or fatigue, even smaller tasks may require multiple spoons.

Now, Spoon Theory has become a mainstay for people with chronic illness as a tool for them to both better understand their own struggles and to communicate effectively what they are experiencing to other people.

When I learned About Spoon Theory

I remember when I first learned about Spoon Theory. I developed and was diagnosed with a chronic illness after my first semester in college, and, of course, my entire world instantly turned upside-down. I was struggling to understand my own body, which no longer worked the way it always had, I was struggling to grief what I had lost and figure out how I could possibly move forward, and through all of that, I was trying – and failing – to communicate what I was going through to the people who loved me, and who wanted to support me, but didn’t know how. For almost a year, while trying to tend to my physical health, my mental and emotional health rapidly declined as I felt more isolated, misunderstood, and lonely than I ever had in my life.

Spoon Theory Support Group

And then, as people on the chronic illness journey are wont to do, I found my people. Through my doctor, I found a support group for people like me. I was welcomed with open arms into a space where people knew me better than I knew myself. People who had been dealing with chronic illness longer than I’d been alive scooped me up like a tiny baby bird, fed me wisdom, support, and community. They helped me learn how to fly (even though my wings didn’t work the way they once did). It was in that support group that I first learned about Spoon Theory. It fundamentally changed my life because it helped me understand myself in a new way. It helped me communicate to those that loved me what I was experiencing and how they could best support me.

Spoon Theory with Clients

What I wasn’t expecting (and what might get me in trouble with the chronic illness gods for saying) is how, as a counselor, I have realized that Spoon Theory can resonate with almost every one of my clients. Living in this increasingly distressing world is exhausting for everyone, all the time. Using Spoon Theory to check in with our emotional and mental energy can be an incredibly useful tool for all. Some days, we wake up with all the spoons we need to be able to achieve what we want to achieve:

  • We drink enough water
  • We meditate
  • We journal
  • We exercise
  • We intentionally connect with our partners.
  • We do meaningful work.
  • We engage with our community

…and some days we only have enough spoons to exist and do so grumpily. Reframing that not as a failure, but as a reasonable and normal response to the work of being human, goes a long way in striving toward authentic self-care.

Everyone Could Use Some Spoon Theory

In fact, I find that most of the lessons that I have learned in living with chronic illness can apply to everyone.

  • Your worth is not measured by your productivity.
  • Let yourself be angry or sad, even, and especially when there’s a voice in your head telling you that your feelings aren’t valid.
  • Accept your body as it is.
  • Accept that there’s a piece of you that is never going to be able to do that.

Join the Spoon Theory Group

As a counselor, I work with a lot of people who have chronic illnesses, and we often talk about Spoon Theory in our work together. Being able to share a common language is such an important piece of feeling validated and understood, and I appreciate the opportunity to work in this space as a professional.

It is my great joy to be in a place where I can offer a space for people to do this work, as individuals, in relationships, and in groups. Specifically, starting on August 17, I am launching a Chronic Illness Support Group. We will meet every Wednesday at 7PM. Those who are interested in learning more can click here or email me directly at samantha.steinfeld@imagocenterdc.com. I am so excited to have the opportunity to run this group. I look forward to building a community in which we can connect with, learn from, and grow alongside each other.