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  • Writer's pictureCoach Elizabeth Brink

All Out of Spoons

It's too much

There's a lot of wisdom in "Spoon Theory" for mothers. Many of us have (or will) wonder how others manage life, work, kids, house, etc. There are plenty of research and opinion pieces verifying that we're spread too thin and what's expected of us is unreasonable.

So, what can we do about it?

How do you know when your energy is reaching burnout levels?

For me, it's usually intense fatigue and sometimes illness. My body will force me to stop. In the last year, I've found ways to notice before things are dire, but it is still a challenge.

My spoons don't feel like they're mine to spend.

Do you feel that way? It's part of why I enjoy working full-time. I get to call the shots on my day and be independent of my family. Sometimes I feel bad about that and sometimes I don't.

I'm trying to reserve a couple of spoons just for me each day. I'd like them to be soup spoons, but usually, they're appetizer size. It matters even when it's small.

Do you save any spoons for yourself? How do you like to use them?

Your energy funds are dwindling

Spoon Theory was formed during a conversation Christine Miserandino (she/her) had with a friend. She was trying to help her friend understand what it's like to manage life with chronic illness (Lupus), limited energy, and a body that requires more for less output than the average person.

She walked her friend through a day in her friend's life using the spoons to represent reserves of energy.

As she took away the spoons, this concept showed her friend she wouldn't be able to do as much as she wanted because of limited reserves due to the ongoing impact of Lupus. That day spoon theory was born and gave language and connection for those with and without chronic conditions to understand our limited reserves of energy.

It is important to state that if you live with chronic illness, we are not comparing our experience with ADHD to your challenges. This is a helpful framework for anyone to grasp the concept of estimating and managing energy, but should not be used to rate suffering.

Each individual experiences suffering uniquely. There is no need to compare to feel justified in our pain or to deny it.

I heard someone once talk about energy in financial management terms, and it stuck with me. We all have an energy account, but our starting and daily balances are different. Someone who is an energy millionaire won't feel the pinch of spending $100 like someone who is overdrawn.

Those with the most energy are not necessarily working smarter and have cracked the code on how to manage their energy by sheer determination. They have larger accounts because of genetics, generational wealth, self-trust, education, and a load of other factors they can't control.

Do we gain energy by taking care of ourselves? Well, that depends. If we're taking care of ourselves to meet an unrealistic expectation of intelligence, competence, or beauty, then it could backfire and still deplete the account.

Using Spoon Theory, we could say people start with a different number of spoons and the spoons vary in quality, size, and value.

Elizabeth Simon-Lewis (she/her) talks about different kinds of energy - emotional, physical, mental. Depending on what's needed we need unique calculations for the cost.

There are different kinds of energy, but only one account.

If you're spending emotional, mental, or physical energy, you are depleting the same account. Our bodies and minds are not separate.

Many ADHD folks struggle to reliably predict what their energy purchases will cost. Part of the challenge is with our memory. We don't remember what it cost last time, so we tend to over-estimate, which can cause us to avoid/freeze, or under-estimate, producing panic.

I keep reminding us that the world wasn't set up with our needs in mind, it's an important context influencing our energy spend. In a recent Enclave Question of The Week, one of the members shared,

"The things that give quick, easy dopamine hits deplete energy to a greater degree. Things that give a slow increase in energy and decrease anxiety are often less appealing because they require more commitment and effort."

Society knows we're drawn to the easy boost, so they surrounded us with "free" access to things that function like a dopamine IV drip.

How great! We can get all this good feeling flowing without paying a dime from our depleted account. Better yet – these things are free and making a DEPOSIT into my account! How could anything be better?

Many of us overspend on our energy accounts with things we mistakenly believe are free or replenishing.

Things like "a few minutes" to do a favor, food, mind-altering substances, social media, Google, Netflix.

These things are not free, but many people are functioning without accounting for them in their daily spending. Some of us may use them to keep our jobs and houses.

When clients run through responsibilities with me, they often don't mention their needs or a load of other things they do to care for others. They want to add in something, like personal creative endeavors, but they've overdrawn their account by 2:00 PM every day. The lie we want to believe is that we can just buy a couple more spoons or find lost ones in an old purse so we can do that *one* last thing.

Maybe you've come to think of your energy spending like a loan to a pawn shop -- you can get it back for the full value if you change your mind soon enough.

We do not have unlimited energy nor can we replenish it by sheer willpower.

The daily mental gymnastics to figure out what you can afford is costly, too!

In our discussion, we noted the majority of things that we think are free or beneficial end up being high ticket luxury items, like self-care.

Our sensory sensitivities and life circumstances make some methods of taking care of yourself unrealistic or draining. One of the members called this, "relaxing in theory."

We wondered, "If we resist a task, does that indicate a miscalculated cost or one we're not willing/able to invest in?"

If you're struggling to manage your energy, you are not alone. Learning to budget energy requires patience and a lot of math. The calculations vary each day, so we also get a chance to practice flexibility. This is hard work!


Feel free to share reactions or reflections in the comments!

  1. What things are you spending energy on you thought were free or paying you?

  2. What things do you think give you energy, but they don't?

  3. What do you need in order to build an energy budget?

  4. What do you say when you get a request that you know you cannot fulfill without going into debt?

  5. What needs to change in your life to live more within your energy means?

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