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Spoon Theory

And Other Ways to Conceptualize Capacity Limitations

Spoon theory was written by Christine Miserandino, who has lupus, an illness which causes symptoms that create pain, fatigue, and low energy. Spoon theory is used to describe the capacity limits people with chronic illness face. It posits that each person wakes up in the morning with a certain amount of "spoons" (energy capacity) and they must choose how to use them. A person with chronic illness has less spoons to work with than a healthy person, so they must decide what to use their remaining spoons on. 

 

No One Has Endless Capacity

Capacity Limits and Prioritization

Spoon theory is not just applicable to chronic illness. Every person has a unique capacity for completing tasks and makes daily decisions about what to accomplish. The difference is most young and healthy individuals have more than enough capacity to complete daily care tasks and only have to prioritize which "fun" or "extra" things they want to accomplish that day. I may have no issue waking, showering, dressing, doing laundry, feeding myself, answering some emails, and then grocery shopping with energy and time to space. So the question of "should I go to the beach or see a movie?" is a luxury one. However, when mental, emotional, social, or physical factors make it so that getting out of bed, feeding oneself, and showering take up a large portion of of one's energy and time, they must then prioritize how to use the remaining time. This is difficult because such a person is not deciding between the beach or the movies but between laundry and dishes, two necessary tasks.  The task that does not get picked will still be there tomorrow and now there is a longer list but the same amount of limited capacity. Things build up quickly. Those looking in who take their generous capacity for granted may judge such a person for the dishes piled in the sink. "How lazy" they might think, "How can dishes be overwhelming?" What they do not comprehend is that it is limited capacity, not laziness, that leave dishes piled in the sink. 

"If you can't even accomplish basic care tasks how do you function or go to work?" is a question once asked on a video I made about tackling overwhelming dishes. What this person failed to understand is that a person might be using every ounce of their physical and mental capacity to perform at work, only to come home running on fumes unable to function any longer.

 

It is not always a decreased capacity that creates this issue. Sometimes it isn't internal barriers to functioning that are the issue but  seasons of life in which the load of care tasks has begin to overwhelm a person of even "normal" capacity. Every postpartum mother knows what it is like to have to decide between eating and showering. Newborn care tasks have laid claim to all but the last 1% of their time and energy and now they are forced to decide between two basic care tasks. Mothers of children of all ages often find themselves drowning in a sea of care tasks that seem impossible to complete in conjunction with their jobs, relationships, and other responsibilities. Working two or three jobs and trying to parent or participate in a relationship can take up so many spoons that care tasks become overwhelming. 

If your load outweighs your capacity, then you must learn to prioritize which tasks to complete, find easier and more accessible ways of completing them, and and still allow yourself time to be "off."

 

Things that Limit Capacity

An inexhaustive list

  • Mental illness

  • Neurodivergence

  • Sensory issues

  • Physical disability

  • Chronic illness/pain

  • Postpartum

  • Single parent households

  • Grief and loss

  • Trauma

  • Emotional disorders

  • Caring for small children

  • Caring for special needs individuals

  • Financial distress

  • Abusive relationships

  • Systematic racism & oppression

  • Living through a pandemic