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How the Spoon Theory Relates to Mental Health and Social Interactions

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By this point, a lot of people have heard of the spoon theory. I hate to reiterate it endlessly, but most often, when people talk about the spoon theory, they only bring up the physical activities and leave out mental exertions, particularly where social interactions are involved. So I want to reach out and help talk through the mental exhaustion that comes when depression and social interactions clash.

The spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay “The Spoon Theory,” which attempted to describe some of the hidden impacts that lupus had on her life and specifically on her energy levels. The theory has been expanded for use in mental health situations as well and has been widely acclaimed for its simplicity and accuracy. The basic premise is this: every day, an individual wakes up with a certain number of spoons they can spend on the activities in their lives. Nearly every action costs at least one spoon, but most people don’t notice because they have a large, seemingly endless number of spoons to spend. Wake up, take a spoon. Get in the shower, take a spoon. So on and so on, with some activities costing more. Those with mental or physical disabilities or health problems simply wake up with fewer spoons. With a thousand spoons, it may not matter that waking up costs a spoon. With ten, twenty, or even fifty, it certainly does. Once a person’s spoons are spent, they lack the energy to do other activities, blocking their productivity and potentially their ability to take care of themselves properly. Sometimes, relaxation activities or sleep can help a person regain a few spoons, but it’s not a guarantee.

Let me get personal about this for a minute here. I’ve been battling anxiety and depression for all of my life. It has been around two years since my last serious depression, and for a while, it seemed like my spoons were endless. I was thriving in my classes, in my social sphere and in my career. But for the last few weeks, I’ve suddenly become aware that my spoons are limited again. And some days they seem almost nonexistent. I’m at a time in my life when I need all of the energy I can get, but some days it just isn’t there. All too often, I try to get my work done, just to realize I have run out of spoons.

But a serious place where this hits me is in my social interactions, an application of the spoon theory I haven’t seen people talk about much. When my spoons were endless, I could have five-hour conversations with people without exhaustion. Lately, any form of communication or emotional interaction is exceptionally draining. Every text I send costs a spoon and any semblance of a conversation costs more. If there’s emotional impact behind it, it tends to be even worse. And it’s awful because I want to talk to the people I care about, especially when they are struggling. But some days, it just costs way too many spoons. So, when I have things that need to get done and a limited number of spoons, I tend to isolate myself.

Finishing my grad school applications costs a lot of spoons, and I need to conserve them. I can’t afford to throw them away on conversations, and I’ve been getting irrationally upset when people try to talk to me and do things with me. Can’t they see that simple conversation is draining me to the point where I can’t do anything productive? But of course they don’t, because it’s confusing and I’ve struggled to communicate that feeling properly. A month ago, I had the spoons to spare. Now I don’t, and I can’t afford the conversation needed to explain this.

So I’m writing this for two reasons. One, to show the other people out there struggling with this that you aren’t alone, and that it’s OK for you to conserve your spoons when you notice a shortage. Two, so that those of us living with this can share this article with those around us instead of having to go through the conversation again and again. I don’t know that I have the energy to explain this more than once, and it’s my hope that this helps somebody out there to share how they’re feeling with those around them.

To those of you who are struggling with a spoon scarcity:

It’s OK. You’re OK. I know it doesn’t feel like it, and you’re struggling. It doesn’t make any sense that a few months ago you could do anything and today you struggle to do basic tasks. It’s exhausting, talking to people you used to love talking to, and it’s even worse to even try to explain why that is.

And if you’re anything like me, you probably feel guilty for it. Because telling somebody you don’t want to talk to them or that they are draining to talk to is hurtful, and you hate to do that to the people you care about. But you need to take care of yourself, and some days that means telling people you need to be alone and they can’t keep pushing. Even if they’re trying to help, if it’s doing more harm than good; you need to take care of yourself.

You’re going to feel like yourself again some day. It might be a really long time away, but you will. This is temporary, and you need to do what it takes to function until that time comes. Do what you can to safely conserve your spoons, and know there are people rooting you on, knowing you can get through this. And if you need to be alone but don’t know how to explain why, send this to the people who need to know. Hopefully, it will be enough.

To those of you who received this article from someone you care about:

Lately, things have probably been difficult for your friend. It’s not necessarily because anything specific went wrong in their lives, and it’s not necessarily anything you can help with. But the person you care about has had a shortage of spoons, and they need you to understand: If they tell you they can’t hang out with you, it’s because it costs too much. If they stop talking to you as often, it’s because it costs too much. And that’s not in comparison to other fun activities but in comparison to getting necessary work done and taking care of their basic needs.

Listen to them. If they tell you something helps them regain their spoons and it’s safe, don’t impede it. If they tell you there is something you can do to help them regain spoons, do what you can. Know they are doing what they can. It’s not simple, and it’s not fair, but they are doing what they can to get done what must be done.

If someone in your life is running out of spoons and still makes sure to spend time and energy on you, be grateful. If they don’t, do not take it personally. They’ll get back to you when they have the spoons to spare. It can be hard to watch them struggle with it but know they sent you this article to help you understand. Let them know it’s OK if they need to be alone, but you are there if they need you. It’s a difficult line, but they will appreciate you for understanding and for trying.

Photo by SwapnIl Dwivedi on Unsplash

Originally published: January 5, 2019
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