How Many Spoons Do You Have?

“Do you know about the spoons? Because you should.” These are the sentences that start my favorite excerpt from Jenny Lawson’s book Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things that have helped me better understand the emotional energy through the Spoon Theory.

If you haven’t read the book or any of Jenny’s other writing (she has one other book and is a prolific blogger), here’s a quick summary: Jenny suffers from multiple mental and physical illnesses, but that’s not what defines her; instead, she’s an incredibly funny, quick-witted, and empathetic writer who weaves her experiences with illness into her stories. One of the most powerful messages from Jenny in her writing is how mental illness can be a barrier, but also how it doesn’t have to define a person.

The gist of the theory is that often when we are young and healthy, we have a virtually unlimited number of spoons. We are youthful and spry and can fold the laundry, call our mom, run a meeting at work, and plan an anniversary dinner. Jenny explains The Spoons in the chapter “We’re Better than Galileo because He’s Dead” in which she uses the Spoon Theory (which was originally written about by Christine Miserandino) as a metaphor for the emotional energy we have to live our lives: a currency we spend throughout the day as we run errands, take care of our families, work, clean the house, take care of ourselves–you get it. The gist of the theory is that often when we are young and healthy, we have a virtually unlimited number of spoons. We are youthful and spry and can fold the laundry, call our mom, run a meeting at work, and plan an anniversary dinner. Chronic illness (in Jenny’s case) or other factors like elder care, chronic pain, parenthood, and even financial issues, however, can limit the number of Spoons we have available to spend. If I’m living with a chronic illness, my emotional energy–my spoons–may be limited and some of them may be spent on handling my illness, leaving fewer for other emotional tasks.

As I read Jenny’s explanation of the Spoon Theory, I was surprised by how much I identified with what I’ll call spoon scarcity. I have seen the Spoon Theory in action with the people I love who have so much going on that they struggle to get everything done in a day. As someone who generally has many, many spoons at my disposal (I’m a type-A perfectionist without many responsibilities beyond myself, my husband, and our puppy), I sometimes get frustrated when the surrounding people aren’t able to spend the same amount of emotional energy as I am on things like projects at work or friendship. The Spoon Theory has helped me conceptualize–and better appreciate–the struggles someone might have got through the day, that sometimes people have spoon scarcity. It has made something abstract–the emotional energy and emotional work we have available–more concrete. It has helped me understand that spoons are not infinite.

This fact–that spoons aren’t infinite–is key. As Jenny explains, “You try to make spoons out of caffeine and willpower but that never really works. The only thing that does work is realizing that your lack of spoons is not your fault, and to remind yourself of that fact over and over as you compare your fucked-up life to everyone else’s just-as-fucked-up-but-not-as-noticeably-to-outsiders lives” (241-242). This is exactly what the Spoon Theory helps me do! While I’ve never been a mother, I can empathize with my friend who is using all her spoons on being a new mom; she has only so many spoons, so when she says she simply didn’t have the energy to call me, I get it.

We all have spoons; it’s just that we might have a different number, and we may need to spend them differently depending on our circumstances: there’s spoon scarcity.

Just as emotional work is unseen, emotional energy can seem limitless in its invisibility, but it’s no different than physical energy, and we need to do a better job of acknowledging this fact in our lives in general, but also the workplace.

And that’s the power of the Spoon Theory. It gives us a common framework for conceptualizing each person’s emotional capacity. Just as emotional work is unseen, emotional energy can seem limitless in its invisibility, but it’s no different than physical energy, and we need to do a better job of acknowledging this fact in our lives in general, but also the workplace.

Often workplace management of workload and assignments centers around time: How much time does someone have to complete this? Additionally, workplace policies and discussions about life events–births, deaths, illness, or upheavals–also center around time: How much time does someone need away from work?

What we all need to do better is acknowledge each other’s limitations, understanding that there are only so many spoons, and considering these questions: How many spoons does this person have to spend? How can we help this person best spend those spoons?

Is the Spoon Theory useful to you? How do you see it playing out in your own life or work? How many spoons do you have and what do you spend your spoons on?

Malyshevskaya Lyudmila

Success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.

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