How many spoons do you have today? | The Open College of the Arts
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How many spoons do you have today?

“I’m tired” Elin* said, “I’ve completely ran out of spoons” she continued as she lay down on the couch on the film set we’d all agreed to help out on all day under searing lights during a hot summer-day in Malmö last May. “Spoons?” I queried, as I looked on bemused. She explained. You see Elin has a degenerative illness and uses a wheelchair to get around every day, regular activities that you and I who are able-bodied might take for granted, can be challenging and that is on top of coping with the tiredness that is symptom of her illness and the demotivation that can come from the everyday difficulties she faces.
So, what is spoon theory? The BBC explains it as a “a quirky and easy to understand way of explaining how much energy you have left.” Coined by Christine Miserandino in her 2003 essay “The Spoon Theory”, it is used by a growing number of people with stamina difficulties due to a variety of conditions. It has often been used by those with debilitating physical conditions such as ME, fibromyalgia and Ehlers Danlos syndrome to name but a few – but increasingly is being used by those with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In summary, it is a way of quantifying how much people feel able to do during any given day, breaking down things into individual “spoons”. Some days you might have ten spoons, other days you may only have 1-2 – in either case it is a useful way of thinking and managing your own expectations of how much you can achieve in any given day. As Miserandino explains “Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people,”. She continues “When you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of ‘spoons.’” But people suffering from chronic illness or pain don’t have an unlimited number. They might know they only have ten “spoons” and that it will take three to shower, eat, and get dressed in the morning and that is before they have really begun their day.  
The OCA has a diverse student body, many with a variety of challenges. As a tutor I frequently support students with difficulties with their course as a result of their condition – demotivation is probably the biggest symptom of this I see. Spoon theory is an incredibly powerful tool that can help manage this. Often when people are not feeling OK, they are their own worst critic. Spoon theory helps you manage your time by planning realistically for what you personally can do within a given space, adjusting and managing your own expectations. It avoids feelings of guilt and shame for what you might normally see as having achieved very little, by acknowledging that you have a good reason for not doing so. It also helps you feel empowered by a sense of achievement by understanding that everything you have done in a day was no mean feat. So next time you wake up and don’t feel ok, write down your activities and how many spoons they might take and ask yourself how many spoons do you have to use today?
*Name changed to protect identity.

Posted by author: Ash Ahmed
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5 thoughts on “How many spoons do you have today?

  • Table spoons or tea spoons? And that’s not meant to be facetious. Because when you are low on energy, then thinking in teaspoons rather than tablespoons might just keep you going. On the other hand, coffee spoons have a bad press ever since T.S. Eliot’s admission in the voice of his character, Alfred J. Prufrock: “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” But I reckon if the spoon theory is going to help you, then choose the size of spoon that suits you.

    • As a “spoonie” (it’s a known term) who suffers chronic fatigue through MS, it is a challenge to do this but it does work and is a really popular way of managing fatigue. What does work better for me personally though is thinking of myself having a rechargeable battery containing enough energy for my day (but one that is smaller and harder to re-charge than a “normal” energy person). I’ve been really lucky to have some understanding tutors who get it

  • Who is taking what for granted here? ‘. You see Elin has a degenerative illness and uses a wheelchair to get around every day, regular activities that you and I who are able-bodied might take for granted, ’.
    We already know that many OCA students have dis/abilities. Why not assume they are reading this article too? I know this piece is well intended, but who, exactly, is the intended audience?
    I think this piece somewhat suffers from ‘’Does he take sugar? ‘ syndrome’.

  • It’s an interesting analogy. I don’t have a disability or illness but I definitely only have a certain amount of energy and time each day. I think committing to using a portion of this time and energy to achieve goals which are really important to me – such as working on my OCA course – leads to a more fulfilling life. Kudos to Erin for even thinking of helping out on a film set for a whole day in the searing heat but it is a good idea to say no to stuff or to time limit it (“I can help out for an hour”) rather than push yourself so hard you hit a wall then can’t function for days.

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