The Spoon Theory to the Full Silverware Drawer

Christine Miserandino became famous for her explanation of the difficulties of living with chronic illness. Living life, she explained to her friend in an NYC diner, was like having a handful of spoons at the beginning of each day and with each activity action on her part one or more spoons were used. So if dressing and preparing to leave home took three spoons from a total of 12 spoons for a day it was very easy to see a person with chronic illness would have to carefully plan for each expenditure of energy. To a healthy person this can be a shocking revelation but to anyone struggling with illness, it is a basic reality of life.

In economic terms, this concept is called opportunity cost. That is defined when there is an expenditure in one area, there cannot be another expenditure in any other area or the budget becomes overdrawn. For the chronic sufferer would that mean the next day begins in a deficit when their budget is overdrawn on a particular day or is it?

What “The Spoon Theory” illustrates well is the ideahumans have a standing operating procedure (SOP) whether they know it or not Click To TweetOften it is suggested that it is healthy to have a morning ritual. I’m going to go much further than that because everyone has a standard operating procedure (SOP) habits – they perform without thought. It is, in fact, necessary not to think about breathing for example or we would become overwhelmed. For those suffering with chronic illness of any sort, it is imperative to understand how they operate.

Overwhelm steps in when humans overdo. It is easier not to notice “burning the candle on two ends” in teens and twenties. But with time our limitations become apparent. To those who are chronically in pain or ill these limits can seem to be a prison. Yet we do not have to overwhelm ourselves because we can learn to change the way we operate. In illness, we have an opportunity to decide what is really important in life and what is less so. Perhaps attendance at every meeting is not so imperative nor is spending an hour to dress daily.

It is not just what one does, it is how and when and whether that action is within particular limits. Moderation is a concept much ignored or even maligned. But in life it allows us to not make mistakes. The chronically ill begin to understand they can’t press beyond certain limits at a certain point in their life.

It is the same for everyone, even athletes. A sprinter understands that all of a sudden he cannot run a marathon – the same rules of the body apply. The same rules mean we live within limits. We all need to have water, oxygen, food, movement and lots of other environmentally and social needs. It would be difficult to survive at the bottom of the ocean or in an oven at 350 degrees even though it can feel like that when we are ill.  The great thing is we can use time to our advantage: just like a runner, the ill person can strengthen Click To Tweet. There are forks and knives to use not just spoons.

Instead of a handful of spoons that never changes, humans continually change. There is not a  zero-sum game of energy. Major shifts in energy levels happen over time. With some very simple techniques, we can all do more. Human energy is more like a big box of popcorn with refills. We just need to learn to grab another fork to continue our day’s activities. Those table settings can go on forever. We can notice how we waste our energy and when we need to grab a fork and knife too.

Just recognizing we waste emotional and psychological time is vital. When we focus on our anger for feeling “This Way” whatever that way happens to be, that action is taking energy that could allow us to play a game or the piano or something else we love. Or thinking how much worse can our situation become or how people dislike us because we can’t do what they can do easily or just spending all our time complaining about how bad we feel. All these are useless energy drains that make it hard to grab a grapefruit spoon or orange spoon and Gumbo or Chowder spoon.

No matter how bad we feel in the moment if we reach out and ask for help and receive that help we are connecting. The act of connecting is energizing. It is much easier to use our salad fork and a steak knife.

Even sick people can find things that calm and soothe them. A soft blanket, beautiful photograph, wonderful smell. In using more than our visual senses to experience the world, we can grab an iced tea, a parfait and a sugar spoon plus a fondue fork.

Simply noticing how we feel throughout the day and not overdoing on one day means we can start to observe the patterns of energy drains in our lives.

It is possible to slowly increase the minutes that we can stand each day or number of tasks we do or even how much laughter and touch is in our lives. Train just like an athlete, because athletes grab a fish knife and barbecue fork daily. Find unique ways to use every piece in our drawer, a bit more each day, and soon we will be running our marathon.


The spoon theory

Wikipedia spoon theory

The Guardian spoon theory

Why it may not fit

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