Spoon theory is a metaphor describing the amount of physical or mental energy that a person has available for daily activities and tasks, and how it can become limited. The term was coined in a 2003 essay by American writer Christine Miserandino. In the essay, Miserandino describes her experience with chronic illness, using a handful of spoons as a metaphor for units of energy available to perform everyday actions. The metaphor has since been used to describe a wide range of disabilities, mental health issues, forms of marginalization, and other factors that might place unseen burdens on individuals.

Spoons are used as a metaphor and visual representation for energy rationing.



In her 2003 essay "The Spoon Theory", American writer Christine Miserandino tells a story about a time she told a friend about her experience with lupus. As they were at a restaurant, Miserandino grabbed spoons and gave them to her friend. Miserandino used the spoons to demonstrate that people with chronic illness often start their days off with limited quantities of energy. The number of spoons represented how much energy she had to spend throughout the day. As Miserandino's friend stated the different tasks she completed throughout the day, Miserandino took away a spoon for each activity. The exercise demonstrated how people with chronic illness may plan their actions in advance in order to conserve their energy.[1]

Chronic illness and spoon theory


Those with chronic illness or pain have reported feelings of difference and division between themselves and people without disabilities.[2] This theory and the claiming of the term spoonie is utilized to build communities for those with chronic illness that can support each other.[3]

Spoons are a visual representation used as a unit of measure to visualize the mental and physical energy a person has available for activities of living and productive tasks throughout a given amount of time (e.g. a day or week). Each activity can be thought of as requiring some number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person "recharges" through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished. This is not to say that rest is certain to give a person more spoons. For many people with chronic illness, sleep does not perform its normal function of restoring energy. Also, many people with disabilities may have sleep difficulties, resulting in a continued (chronic) low supply of energy.

Because of this, many people with chronic illness have to plan around and ration their energy and activities throughout the day. Ordinary activities must often be curtailed or avoided, because they carry an invisible cost in terms of spoons available later for other things. This has been described as being a major concern of people with a (fatigue-related) disability or chronic condition/illness/disease because people without these disabilities are not typically concerned with the energy expended during ordinary tasks such as bathing and getting dressed. The theory explains the difference and facilitates discussion between those with limited energy reserves and those with (seemingly) limitless energy reserves.[1]

Other uses


Spoon theory has since spread throughout the disability community and even to marginalized groups to describe the exhaustion that may characterize their specific situations. It is most commonly used to refer to the experience of having an invisible disability, because people with no outward symptoms or symbols of their condition are often perceived as lazy, inconsistent or having poor time management skills by those who have no first-hand knowledge of living with a chronic illness or disability.[4] Naomi Chainey has described how the term has also spread to use by some in the wider disability community, and eventually the non-disabled community tried to appropriate it for other uses, to refer to non-chronic forms of fatigue and mental exhaustion – which she attributes to people with invisible disabilities being a sometimes marginalized group even within the disability community.[5]

Those with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression may similarly find it challenging to go about seemingly simple tasks throughout the day, or to deal with a crisis.[6][7] Spoon theory could even be used to show the exhaustion of having a newborn baby, as this situation often leads to a chronic lack of sleep on the part of the baby's caregiver(s).[8]

See also





  1. ^ a b Miserandino, Christine (2003). "The Spoon Theory". But You Don't Look Sick. Archived from the original on 17 November 2019. Retrieved 5 July 2017.
  2. ^ Pashby, Kate (2018). ""Today is a Four": How Students Talk About their Chronic Pain". Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography. 8 (1): 69–83. doi:10.15273/jue.v8i1.8621. ISSN 2369-8721. Archived from the original on 8 March 2021. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  3. ^ Alhaboby, Zhraa A.; Barnes, James; Evans, Hala; Short, Emma (31 May 2017). "Challenges facing online research: Experiences from research concerning cyber-victimisation of people with disabilities". Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 11 (1). doi:10.5817/CP2017-1-8. hdl:10547/622987. ISSN 1802-7962. Archived from the original on 30 December 2020. Retrieved 13 December 2020.
  4. ^ "Explaining low stamina levels - with spoons". BBC News. 21 June 2013. Archived from the original on 2 April 2018. Retrieved 13 December 2020.
  5. ^ Chainey, Naomi (13 January 2016). "Stop appropriating the language that explains my condition". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on 25 July 2019. Retrieved 25 July 2019.
  6. ^ "How 'The Spoon Theory' Can Help Us Put a Fork in Poor Communication and Self-Care – Family and Child Therapy". Archived from the original on 14 September 2021. Retrieved 14 September 2021.
  7. ^ as_simpleasthis (24 February 2019). "Using the Spoon Theory to Explain Depression". as Simple as This. Archived from the original on 14 September 2021. Retrieved 14 September 2021.
  8. ^ Hampton, Jameson (2017). "Confreaks TV | Understanding 'Spoon Theory' and Preventing Burnout - RailsConf 2017". confreaks.tv. Archived from the original on 7 January 2021. Retrieved 14 December 2020.



Further reading