Spoon Theory: How Many Spoons Do You Have?

How Cancer Patients, People Living with a Chronic Disease Can Effectively Utilize Their Daily Energy

Author: Jasmine Brown

Spoon Theory


“It’s good to keep in mind that you can’t pour from an empty cup."


Diagnosis of a chronic illness can lead to anxiety, depression, and physical exhaustion. Just going to treatments or taking certain medications can put you in one of those states. So, how do you communicate your inability to do certain tasks or activities with family and friends – activities that you would normally do had you not had treatment today, or needed to clean up the kitchen which took all of your energy?

Christine Miserandino is known for creating the spoon theory. On the But You Don’t Look Sick website, Christine explains her battle with lupus and how she used spoons to help her friend understand what it is like to live with lupus. As her friend named off tasks and activities she would like to do during the day, Christine took away one of the 12 spoons she gave her friend and explained the amount of energy that task takes for someone with lupus to complete. She explained that someone who is sick has a limited amount of energy each day, but a healthy individual would usually have more spoons to use.

“The spoon theory makes sense in terms of energy and motivation—people have a limited amount of energy to output per day,” said Yousef John Kayyali, PsyD, MA, LLP, postdoctoral clinical health psychology fellow at Karmanos Cancer Institute at McLaren Flint.

“For people with chronic diseases, like cancer or lupus, this theory can be empowering, but it doesn’t only apply to those populations. It is true of anyone who may be struggling, or people who are experiencing anxiety or depression – which is extremely taxing psychologically and can affect cognitions, emotions, behaviors, sleep, appetite, and other aspects of functioning that are necessary for supporting balance and wellness.”

How Many Spoons Do I Have?

Determining how many spoons you have and how many spoons it may take to complete each task is up to you. You are the only one who knows how much energy you have each day. Sometimes, you may even find yourself borrowing spoons from the next day, making you short on spoons when tomorrow arrives.

Mapping out your schedule may also help in understanding how many spoons you truly have on a given day. It can help you be more selective with what you will use your spoons for, and what you may be willing to put off for the next day, or some other time.

“It’s good to keep in mind that you can’t pour from an empty cup,” said Dr. Kayyali. “We all must make choices and that can cause a lot of anxiety for people. When you map out your day with spoon theory, it can help you see the bigger picture:

‘Okay, today I don’t have enough energy for both grocery shopping and cleaning the house, so let me focus on the most important task for the day that will improve my health and wellbeing. I don’t necessarily want to do it, and it may take several spoons, but I’m going to feel a whole lot better after I complete the task.’

“You’ll notice that as you do these things, you’ll recharge yourself throughout the day because it feels good to accomplish things that we may not want to do when we’re in a cloud of depression, straining our ability to see past the immediacy of the pain. Accomplishing small tasks in gradual steps and celebrating these little victories can significantly improve our mental health, thereby increasing our energy to pursue our values and other aspects that make life worth living.”

Spoons to describe Spoon Theory

Dr. Kayyali says you can also look at your limited number of spoons as an opportunity to do activities you have always wanted to do by adjusting your spoons each day to be able to complete those activities.

 “It is important to pursue the things that give our life meaning. Doing so naturally illuminates our spontaneity, vitality, and subsequent enrichment of the soul.”

How to Get Even More Spoons

Search for activities that can help you refill your spoons, or even add more spoons to your daily collection. For example, developing a healthy lifelong nutrition plan, getting a good night’s rest regularly, engaging in activities that you enjoy, are all some options to make you feel better and increase your energy.

“Meditation – 15 or 20 minutes a day for two weeks can rewire the brain and make you more resilient to stress. Deep breathing relaxation training, muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and sleep hypnosis can substantially mitigate stress and improve quality of life,” states Dr. Kayyali.

There are multiple free meditation apps that can be downloaded on your phone, such as Insight Timer and Headspace. You may also search for videos online that can be helpful.

Dr. Kayyali also recommends joining a support group to help you see that you are not alone in your experiences battling medical conditions.

“Being in a safe, supportive, socially-empowering environment can cultivate a feeling of uplifting camaraderie conducive to experiential growth, healing, authenticity, togetherness, and wholeness. 

“Support groups, individual psychotherapy, and keeping the spoon theory in mind each day are great investments for your mental health,” explained Dr. Kayyali. “Being in connection, whether it’s a place of worship, a support group, or a meditation group, can help combat feelings of anxiety and depression, which people naturally experience when dealing with the stressors of chronic illnesses.

“Seeing a therapist and going to a support group can replenish your spoons, and help ensure your cup is overflowing. The most important connection and relationship you have in this world is the one that you have with yourself. In other words, if you’re not good company for yourself, how are you going to be good company for others? The way in which we make contact with ourselves directly impacts how we interact with others and our environment. By reaching out for help, you’re giving yourself permission to say, ‘I matter, I’m worth this investment, and I’m lovable.’”

Karmanos offers support groups for anyone touched by cancer. Visit karmanos.org/flintcancersupport to find out how to register for the next cancer support group, art therapy or music therapy session.