Mental health

On Spoon Theory

The spoon theory of chronic illness is a metaphor that I wish was ubiquitously understood. Like I’m dying to see you or we’re on the same page. It makes such perfect sense when considering people with disabilities, especially ‘invisible’ ones, who might look fine. I’m talking about disorders like fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, lupus, endometriosis, narcolepsy, and chronic fatigue syndrome. And mental illness, as well.

Imagine that each day, you are given twenty spoons. I mean actual metal spoons laid out in front of you.


Expending energy to do things is no longer something you can do without thinking. Those spoons are the way you “pay” for expending energy in a given day.

You have twenty spoons for that day, so you’ve got to be careful how you spend them.

  • Getting out of bed and having a shower? That’s a spoon.
  • Having breakfast? Another spoon. (If you have a chronic illness that involves your digestive system, it might cost two spoons to prepare and eat a healthy breakfast. Taking medication may require another spoon on top).
  • Travelling to work? Another spoon.

Using a spoon means literally taking away one of the spoons from the pile.

You have twenty spoons when you wake, and at this point you’ve arrived at work, but you’re three or four spoons down. That means you’ve already expended 15-20% of the energy that you have in the tank for the whole day. And who knows what the workday might present you with.

Different activities require different amounts of spoons for different people. Someone with narcolepsy might be fine about carrying a load up some stairs, but someone with joint problems would see it as a huge, costly challenge.

Important. When you’re running out of spoons, you’re running out of spoons. That pile on the table is getting smaller, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re giving your spoons away, so you have fewer in reserve.

What if you run out, or run low, of your daily spoons? Ideally, you’d rest: rest is the only way to regain spoons.

Or, you can borrow spoons — from tomorrow. It’s like the metaphor that getting drunk is borrowing happiness from the following day. You can take tomorrow’s spoons in order to make today’s activities possible. But tomorrow, you’ll have fewer spoons.

The number of spoons you have depends on your condition. Someone with mild symptoms might be given a surfeit of spoons. Someone very severely ill might just have one or two.

I read a book recently where a man, bedbound with a terminal illness, spent the majority of his energy each day just getting dressed. Despite it taking him hours, and despite him not being able to leave his bed. But every day he got dressed, and then got undressed at the end of the day. That is what his spoons enabled him to do, and that is what he chose to spend them on.

I have read that a lot of people say “spoonies” — i.e. people to whom this spoon metaphor applies — should only be people with chronic physical illness. I disagree: I think that like any metaphor, spoon theory can be used for anyone.

I have a mental illness, and I think about spoon theory and how it can explain my illness every single day.

“Oh, I want to do this, but do I have the spoons?”

“I can’t do that this evening. I’ve had a really bad day, and I’m completely out of spoons.”

The metaphor still works perfectly — but for someone with a mental illness, different things cost spoons.

Cycling to work doesn’t cost a spoon. But travelling on the Tube, with people close to me, definitely does.

Meeting people for drinks? Three spoons.

A party where I only know one or two people? A dozen spoons. Easily.

Each time these things present themselves, I have to consider how many spoons I have; i.e. how bad my mental illness is at that point. And I have to consider if I’ve spent few enough spoons that day to ‘afford’ the evening activities. If it isn’t, but I go anyway, I feel lousy the following day. Wrung out, like a rag. And at least I don’t have physical symptoms of illness, as so many people have.

If you find this theory useful to describe how you approach life, then by all means, use it. I refuse to believe that it should be restricted to people with physical illness — or any illness. If you think you’re a ‘spoonie’, then start using it. It has certainly helped me.