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Acknowledging the “Spoon Theory” & Accepting Your Limitations

In case you haven’t heard of the “Spoon Theory” before (and even if you have), please take the time to read Christine Miserandino’s account of how she began to discuss living with chronic illness in terms of having utensils.

In essence, the Spoon Theory is a metaphor that sets up health like a bank account (to use another analogy). For most people, sleep and food act like daily direct deposits into this health bank account, so that you can draw out energy as you need it. Proper sleep and diet = an ever-refilling health account! However, for some people, this account does not refill the way it is supposed to every day. For others, it may never fill up all the way, leaving them consistently below the “health poverty” line. As Miserandino puts it, you may start out with 12 spoons, but just the act of getting out of bed might take away one of them. Taking a shower might take another one, getting dressed another, and so on so that by the time you’re ready to walk out the door there are only six spoons left to make it through the rest of your day!

When you have a chronic illness or disability, you may not know each morning when you wake up just how many “spoons” or “energy units” will be available for you to withdraw that day. But you get up anyway and see what you can get done.

I would like to point out that this is not limited to physical illness and disability, but is also true for mental illness. During my bouts of depression, there are days when it is all I can do just to get out of bed. There are other times when my anxiety has me up at all hours of the night. The constant drag of mental illness can be just as energy-sucking as a physical impairment.

A major problem with American society has long been that we don’t recognize many physical and mental ailments as real reasons for limitation. We push workers to get in early and stay late, chugging caffeine in spite of its health detriments. We encourage people to “play through the pain” and scoff at sick days. This culture of go-go-go is likely a major contributor to the autoimmune epidemic growing in the Western developed world! Even very healthy people need sleep and proper nutrition to stay healthy and live a full life span. No matter how many or few spoons you have, you need to acknowledge that they aren’t infinite.

Accepting Your Limitations – And Learning to Work Around Them

This is a tough one. After acknowledging that time and energy are finite resources, you need to start accepting that as a human being (healthy or otherwise – and especially otherwise) you have limitations. So after accepting that you have limitations, here are a few ways to help you deal with them going forward and make the most out of what energy you do have.

  1. Take note of how you feel. Take some time to think through your regular schedule. When do you feel most energized? What makes you feel lousy or tired? Are there any triggers that make you feel like giving up? These can be keys to pointing out where you can make changes.
  2. Write down your physical limitations. Think through everything that keeps you from functioning at 100% and the problems that can create. For me, my eyesight is a major limitation. I read slower, have poor peripheral vision, and lack depth perception (I’m blind in my right eye). My morning routine requires medication and a detailed eye care routine, as does my evening routine. This takes up time in my day. Furthermore, my problems with sleep mean that I don’t always know if I’m going to wake up in the morning. Some days I sleep through all my alarms until early afternoon, which means it’s difficult to make morning appointments.
  3. Write down your mental limitations. Just like with physical limitations, mental illness can lead to disruptive thoughts and behaviors. As you write down these limitations, also write down actions that you have taken in the past that have successfully combated or eased those issues. For example, when going through the worst parts of depression, I may have debilitating thoughts that keep me from functioning. When I have those thoughts, I reach out to someone close to my – usually my sister or best friend. The simple act of talking through my dark thoughts and having them reassure me or distract me can be enough to shorten my recovery time significantly.
  4. Examine your notes & find patterns. Often, our limitations have patterns that we can track. During my second year of grad school, I noticed that I regularly had 2-3 doctor’s appointments per week and often needed to go to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions. This was time I hadn’t accounted for when making my study schedules. Similarly, once my sleep disorder turned from rarely sleeping to sleeping 12-14 hours per day, it took me six months before I finally accepted that it was not going to change back anytime soon. When you begin to recognize patterns like these, you can also begin to plan for them. Accepting your limitations also means making plans to work around them.
  5. Build extra time into your schedule. You can’t always predict your low spoon count days, but you can add cushion time to your schedule. It wasn’t until my fourth year of grad school that I started building in 10 hours for sleep plus an hour to get ready in the morning and another hour to get ready for bed. This was incredibly frustrating at first, but doing this forced me to make the most of the hours I would be available. I stopped packing my days with 10 hours of work when I really only had about 6-8 hours of energy in me. Being realistic about my time and my limitations meant that I could give other people more accurate deadlines, and I cancelled on friends and colleagues far less.
  6. Build relaxation and self-care into your schedule. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are, you still need down time! Whether it’s yoga, running, meditation, washing the dishes mindfully, watching a movie, writing in a journal, or what have you build time into your schedule each week (even each day) just for you. This may seem unproductive at first, but trust me, it will help you be so much more productive and happier in the long run.
  7. Remember that acceptance is positive! Understanding that you have limitations is only the first step toward acceptance. Acceptance implies that you are okay with your limitations and that you can think positively of your life, which includes those limitations. This might be the toughest piece yet!

Learning to understand and accept your physical and mental limitations is a process, not a switch. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself fighting internally about what is and isn’t a limitation or how to deal with it. Moreover, don’t berate yourself for not being at the finish line yet when you’ve only just begun the journey. In reality, learning about and accepting our limitations is a lifelong process that will continue to change as you age. Accept the process for what it is, and know that everyone – even the healthiest of us – must go through it!

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