In My Own Words: Spoon theory by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A friend and I were having a discussion about energy levels. She usually surprises me with the number of things she can accomplish in a day. My energy is far more limited. In fact, I’ve written before about how I understand that, for some people, getting up, getting dressed and sitting in a chair is a good day. As we continued talking, my friend asked if I’d ever heard of spoon theory. The term was unfamiliar even though I’ve read other material about chronic illness. After reading several articles about the theory online, I was not only impressed with the idea, but realized it resonated with me in different ways than I’d initially expected.

The original description of spoon theory was written by Christine Miserandino, a woman who has lupus and wanted to explain to a friend what her life was like. She sought to represent her energy level using spoons, with the number of spoons representing the amount of energy a person has to use during a day. For each activity, you use a certain number of spoons. Once they’re gone, you have no energy left to perform another task. Say, for example, you have 10 spoons of energy. If you need a spoon to get dressed, a spoon to make breakfast, a spoon to travel to work and five spoons to get through the day at work, the last two spoons have to be saved so you have enough energy to travel home and make dinner. That means you have no energy left to do anything else that day.

Plus, people who are ill not only have fewer spoons than those who are well, but often need more spoons per task for even the simplest activity. Think about how little energy a person has when he/she is sick with a cold or the flu. Imagine having only that little energy every day. Think about never knowing how much you will be able to accomplish on any given day, or whether you will accomplish anything.

When one article talked about using spoon theory in terms of mental energy, that spoke to me in a different way. When you don’t feel well, it’s harder to do things that seem simple to other people. For me, that can be making a phone call: for every easy phone call, there are three frustrating and/or irritating ones with everything from people hanging up on me, my having trouble with the menus that say which number to push, or people speaking so softly or indistinctly that my machine can’t type what they’re saying. Even when friends have volunteered to help me, the idea of adding one more thing to my to-do list seems overwhelming.

Someone I know used to offer some really interesting ideas about what I could do to improve my health. To explain my problem to her, I said something similar to spoon theory. What I told her was that I can do a certain number of things a day: if you add one more, then one of the others is going to have to fall away. Even now, there is a limit to just how much I can put on my schedule. Even if it would be helpful in the long run, I just don’t have the energy.
We should also think of this in terms of what it means to use up your energy for the basic aspects of life and not having any energy left for life’s pleasures. These can be as simple as spending time with a friend, enjoying a hobby or attending a religious service. Those things give meaning to our days. Unfortunately, some people don’t have enough spoons even for simple pleasures.

At one point in my life, I remember saying that I am sick and tired of being sick and tired. The comparison between my life then and my life now is amazing. Some people who knew me then find it hard to believe all I am able to accomplish now. What they are not aware of is how carefully I manage my spoons – about how I act as if I have enough spoons for the day even when I run out of energy before the day is over.

How many spoons do you have? How many do your family members and friends have? If you have a large number, then count your blessings. You are so lucky. If you have only a few, then be grateful if your friends and family understand your dilemma. If they don’t, it may be time to take some spoons out of the drawer and show them exactly what your life is like. 

Anyone interested in learning more about spoon theory may find these articles helpful:, and