How Do You Choose to Spend Your Energy?
Have you ever heard of spoon theory? I just learned about it recently. The young woman who created spoon theory has lupus, and she was hanging out with her friend in a diner when her friend asked what it was like for her to live with this disease. She used the tools at hand, a stack of spoons, to try to explain it. The basic idea is that folks with chronic illness and/or other disabilities wake up with a certain amount of energy, exemplified by the handful of spoons, and each activity they participate in throughout the day costs them a spoon or two -- therefore, they have to make a lot of careful choices so that they don’t run out.
Do you want to get work done for your deadline coming up, or take a walk outside for some fresh air and exercise? Both necessary, both cost a spoon. Should you cook dinner and save some money (cooking + doing dishes = two spoons), or get takeout (costs money, but not spoons) and then still have energy left to do your laundry?
A healthy person may feel like they have limitless energy and wouldn’t even contemplate these choices, but for a person whose system is in distress, even just thinking about these decisions can cost a spoon.
And guess what, healthy person -- you have spoons too. Maybe you wake up with a bigger stack, but none of us has infinite amounts of energy. So how can you use spoon theory to take care of yourself? How do you decide how to spend your energy?
And are you even aware that you get to choose?
Let’s talk for a minute about energy, and what we spend it on.
We all know that it takes energy to do physical activities, like going for a bike ride, working in the garden, running errands, etc.
Sometimes other people can take a lot of energy. Have you noticed yourself feeling drained after spending time with a person who gets under your skin? Or after hanging out with a friend who is going through a tough time? Or being in a crowd, like at a concert or fair?
You can even feel depleted after just sitting with your own thoughts, especially if those thoughts are really intense. Worry takes up a lot of energy, and so do shame and regret. Sadness, anger, frustration, these things will deplete you for sure. Even joy and excitement don’t always come for free! They may be energizing in the moment, but don’t be surprised if you need to rest and replenish later.
To preserve your spoons, you can avoid some energy-taking activities -- for example, saying “no thank you” to a frenemy who asks for your time, or limiting social media use -- but others are unavoidable.
Sometimes you might choose to do something even though you know it may be draining, like spending time with a friend who needs a shoulder to cry on.
And then there are those energy choices that don’t feel like choices, but seem like obligations instead. Maybe you have a habit of saying “yes” every time someone asks you for help, even though you’re secretly overwhelmed with what’s on your plate already. Maybe you’ve become the go-to get-it-done person in your family or friend group or at work, and everyone relies on you so much that saying “no” doesn’t even seem like an option anymore.
So how can you make sure that, with all of these ways to spend your energy, you don’t run out of spoons by the end of the day?
Step one is mindfulness.
Step two is recognizing when you have a choice.
And step three is making that choice.
If you know me at all, you’ve probably heard me advocate for mindful awareness as a regular part of life -- meditation, slow yoga, tai chi, meditative walking, etc. When we do these practices, we are paying attention to the moment we’re in -- right here, right now.
I hear you -- you're thinking "Mindfulness is great for relaxing, Jennie, but I have a busy life! I can't just spend all my time meditating! What does this have to do with having enough energy to do ALL OF THE THINGS???" I get it, and here's the secret... The more you pay attention to the moment you're in during yoga class or your morning meditation, the more you will start paying attention to your other moments too.
Cultivating mindful awareness is the first step to using your spoons wisely, because it will help you notice when you are presented with a choice about how to use your energy. What was once an automatic reaction (friend asks for a favor, you say yes) becomes a choice (friend asks for favor, you pause, think about it, then decide). That part, the "pause and think about it" part, that's mindfulness in action. Easy, right? (Ha ha, I know it’s not easy -- but remember, it’s called a mindfulness practice, not a mindfulness perfect!!)
Last thing -- it’s so important to remember that we all have the right to our own choices.
Here’s an example from a TV show I saw while I was in the process of writing this article. A couple comes back from an outing to find a ticket on their windshield. The man is outraged! He doesn’t think he deserved the ticket, and he resolves to take photos of the area, research the parking laws, and fight the ticket. His wife rolls her eyes -- all that research and fighting would be such a waste of her time, and she would rather just pay the ticket and then forget about it. For him, it’s worth his energy, but she has other things she would rather spend her energy on. And they’re both right -- for themselves! We all get to decide how many spoons we’re willing to spend, and on what.
If you do find yourself all out of spoons, be gentle with yourself. Get some rest, take a hot bath, eat nourishing foods, enjoy time in nature, make an appointment for a massage or reiki or acupuncture. Treat yourself with patience and compassion and get the rest you need -- and you'll wake up with a fresh set of spoons tomorrow :)
Here is the original essay on spoon theory by it’s creator, Christine Miserandino: https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/