Do You Have the Spoons?

set of black teaspoons on beige surface

By Dr. Julie Caplan

Have you ever found yourself needing to accomplish something, yet you have zero motivation even to begin? You’re not alone! The reason behind why we’re being asked to do something can be any number of things. From the shorter-term – we need to get out of bed and go to work because there will be consequences if we don’t. To the longer-term – we need to meet this schoolwork deadline because if we don’t our eventual grade will likely be negatively impacted. Generally, human beings are motivated by things that interest us and not motivated by boring or non-preferred things. Similarly, we like engaging in tasks and activities that we enjoy, and we don’t enjoy engaging in things we don’t like. It seems pretty simple, right? But what happens when we are faced with day-to-day tasks that we *know* we must accomplish and yet cannot muster the energy? It seems as if there is always something we need to do, and when you have a neurodivergent brain, even the simplest of things can feel utterly impossible at times. 

It’s in the Wiring

The reward pathway for a neurodivergent brain is different than for a neurotypical brain. This means that it takes a lot more of the things we like for us to feel satiated, while being asked to do non-preferred or challenging things is tantamount to asking us to do our taxes all day, every day. I realize that might sound just a touch dramatic, but I cannot emphasize enough how true it is. My ADHD brain knows very well that checking my mailbox regularly is a very important thing to do. And yet, I procrastinate the act until my mailperson ends up putting my mail in a rubber-banded stack on my welcome mat. To me, mail is an anathema. The thought of having to go through each piece of mail to sort it into categories (e.g., trash, shred, keep, important, personal) makes me want to move to a desert island where mail does not exist. In my mind, I have no use for it, as I have tried to streamline everything important to work with my tried and true digital systems, and yet…the mail still comes.

What Does This Have to do With Spoons?

Have you heard about the concept of spoons as it refers to mental and physical energy or in the context of neurodivergence, chronic illness, and/or “invisible” disability? This concept is known as the “Spoon Theory,” which was created by the writer Christine Miserandino back in 2003. Basically, when you struggle to explain to someone why you might not have the energy to do something, it’s often easier for them (and for ourselves!) to visualize the energy as objects. Hence, spoons! Each person figures out what works for them in terms of the quantity of spoons and the frequency in which they are replenished. The energy level necessary to get up out of bed, get dressed, eat breakfast, and get ready to leave the house is different for different people. When you are a healthy neurotypical person, your spoon count might be infinitely higher, or even unlimited. Simple basic tasks often can be accomplished without a second thought. However, this is not the case for everyone, particularly those of us who need to be mindful and deliberate about where our energy goes.  

So, if you have 25 (total arbitrary number) spoons allotted to a single day, how many spoons can you spare to do any given thing at any given time? For me, using the 25 spoons example, opening and sorting through my mail would likely take way more spoons than I have available. So, what happens when there aren’t enough spoons? We break down the challenging tasks to itty bitty steps. I can probably spare one or two spoons for a specific mail activity, such as shredding a couple pieces of paper or recycling a few unnecessary envelopes. The hope is that by taking baby steps and not using up too many of your spoons each day, eventually the undesirable task is accomplished. Small victories can lead to big ones, and this means that maybe someday my house will be mail free.  

Another example of this that I see frequently is found in online forums or chats. There are so many amazing and knowledgeable people in the world who take the time and energy (i.e., spoons!) to educate us about their lived experiences. These interactions, particularly when they involve constructive criticism or a different way of thinking or viewing the world, should be celebrated. It can take a lot of spoons for someone to put in the emotional labor of explaining, educating, and/or correcting us, and as such, being open-minded, non-judgmental, and tolerant should be the bare minimum. When someone says they do not have the spoons to engage or to explain further, the kind thing to do is to acknowledge it, leave the communication pathway open, and circle back around if and when everyone’s spoons align. 

Don’t Spend It All in One Place

Those of us who utilize spoon theory have to be very mindful about what we invest our energy in lest we use up our spoons on things that should have been prioritized differently. Additionally, spoon allocation can look different from day to day. My weekday spoons are not the same as my weekend spoons, and I’m able to balance out my energy because of this. For example, on the days that I work from home or on the weekends, I don’t have to utilize as many spoons to figure out what I’m going to wear. Similarly, I might order in on a Saturday night rather than cook. These choices mean I should have an extra one or two spoons to put towards taking my son to the park, going out for frozen yogurt, or having a meaningful chat with a close friend. Ultimately, each of us gets to decide how many spoons we have each day, how we use them, and how we balance our time and energy.

Where Can I Get More of These Spoons?

It’s also up to you to decide if your daily allotted spoons ever increase. Each of us will have a different barometer to measure what makes sense for us and what feels right. I know that I have way more spoons now than I did when I was younger, and I attribute this to time, maturation, therapy, and wanting to prioritize the people and things I love and what makes me happy. Some people find that daily exercise increases their spoon count, while others try embedding rewards in their day or things like mindfulness meditation to reset and recharge. I also give myself grace for the harder days, and I hope you would do the same for yourself. It all goes back to balance. Today I have a couple spoons available to check my mail and throw away some envelopes. Tomorrow I might not, and that’s okay.

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