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Do you know what the spoon theory is? It is a metaphor that explains how chronic illness affects people with autoimmune diseases. We often think chronic illnesses of as something that can be “fixed” by taking one or more medications, but this is not always the case. The Spoon Theory was created to illustrate how those who suffer from chronic illness feel when they are sick and have to do things like go grocery shopping, take care of their children, or work a full-time job.

The spoon is the only tool that you have to do everything in your life. No matter what it takes, there are only so many spoonfuls of time and energy available per day (and usually less than you need). This means that if one spoon (or more) goes towards coping with your disability, then there will be fewer spoonfuls left over for other activities.

Chronic illness can be hard to understand if you've never experienced it yourself. The spoon theory is a way to help people understand what it's like by comparing it to everyday activities. This analogy has helped many people living with chronic illnesses feel understood and not so alone.

What is the spoon theory?

Those with chronic illnesses, such as lupus or chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), know how to live an “invisible” life where we often have to set boundaries for ourselves in order to do things like work a full-time job or take care of our children on any day.

The Spoon Theory illustrates what it feels like when you have chronic illness symptoms: your energy becomes mental spoons which are used up as one doe’s everyday tasks from grocery shopping to working at their desk all day long. 

Those who struggle with chronic illness understand this concept well because they deal with being chronically ill every single day.

stack of spoons

What is a spoonie?

Spoonie is a term coined by Christine Miserandino for those who live with an invisible illness. It can refer to anyone living with any type of chronic illness or disability, but it has reclaimed most commonly the word as what chronically ill people call themselves.

Christine Miserandino established The “spoon theory” in 2007 after she experienced what it would feel like to have no spoons left every day because of her own disabilities and illnesses. She wanted other visible and nonvisible disabled people alike to know that they're not alone—everyone feels this way sometimes, whether you're visibly sick. And just because there are some days when we don't want to get out of bed?

I live with many chronic invisible illnesses. I do not leave the house very often because of them. To make matters worse, I live in an apartment on the 3rd floor with no elevator. There are days I am napping longer than I am awake.

Young woman suffering from sleep deprivation in bedroom

How to get more spoons

Sometimes the best way to get more spoons is by taking care of yourself. This can be anything from getting an extra hour or two of sleep, treating your body well with food and water, and engaging in activities that you enjoy. It is also important to remember how you got sick before so as not to go down a similar path again.

People may have different strategies for managing how they use their limited energy each day, but there are some general rules:

They limit how much work they do during the day; how often these people will push themselves over time; how many projects they take on at one time; and how long any task takes them.

The rest I try to get is not fully restful though. I toss and turn in my sleep a lot because of my pain level. This makes me feel unrested when I wake up no matter how much sleep I get.

Spoons Disability

The spoon theory can apply to how people live with an invisible illness, such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), fibromyalgia, or any other disease that limits how much energy a person has each day. The more you know about how your body works and what different activities require of it, the better equipped you will be in deciding how best to manage resources for living well with this condition.


What are some examples of having limited spoons?

  • limited time to recover from an illness
  • limited money for therapy, transportation, or medication
  • limited energy available 

Some people may have more spoons than others, depending on their ability. When they spend all of their spoons in one area, it can negatively affect other areas such as relationships and family life. 

The Spoon Theory is not only helpful to those living with chronic illnesses but also to anyone who has limited resources because of financial, physical, or mental health challenges.

What to do when you are out of spoons?

If you are out of spoons, it's hard to do anything. For many people with invisible illnesses such as chronic illness or mental health problems, managing their condition is exhausting at the best of times and if they have a lot going on in their lives, this may lead them to run out of energy quickly. It can feel like there’s nothing left inside because everything has been used up by trying to keep things together for too long.

For most people, when you are out of spoons for the day, they can do nothing else. It is not a matter of being lazy, which is what those with an invisible illness are called often. It is a matter of our bodies literally can not do anymore for the day. Getting up to go to the bathroom will take all the strength we can muster.

Do you know someone that has an invisible illness?

If you have someone in your life that has an invisible illness, then you have probably seen them on a bad day. Compassion goes a long way even if you do not totally understand what they are going through.

My sister has never understood, and just tells me “You never feel good” when I simply tell her “I don't feel good today.”

There are things you can do to help them.

The first thing is not to make them feel guilty if they have to cancel plans with you. Even if it is last minute. We feel guilty enough as it is. We never know how we will feel day to day or even hour to hour some days.

Depending on your level of friendship or relation with them, you can help by cooking them some food. You can also do some light housework like the dishes. Standing in the kitchen to do the dishes takes just about everything out of me. I need to rest afterward like I just ran a marathon.

You can also simply ask them what you can do for them. Sometimes just having someone listen to us without judgment goes a long way. Perhaps you can just sit with them and talk, or watch a movie to get their mind off of their pain levels for a while.

It’s important to remember that not everyone will see the invisible illness. The Spoon Theory is a helpful way of understanding how someone with an invisible illness can feel after they have been diagnosed and are living day-to-day. Still, it doesn’t account for those who suffer from mental illnesses or chronic pain. With this in mind, try some of these approaches when helping your friend with their ailment: take care of yourself first; set realistic expectations (don't expect them to do what they're physically unable to); offer help without being asked; don't pressure them into doing anything; let them know you still love and support them even if they aren't feeling well on any day.

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