How the ‘Spoon’ and ‘Fork’ Theories Can Make You More Compassionate to Yourself (and Others)

How the ‘Spoon’ and ‘Fork’ Theories Can Make You More Compassionate to Yourself (and Others)

A theory that’s been around for many years to describe a person’s capacity for tangible and emotional tasks, called the spoon theory, began as a tool for people with chronic illness to communicate with those who are not chronically ill. A newer theory, called the fork theory, uses a different piece of cutlery to symbolize how outside stressors might affect different people more intensely than others. Both utensil theories can be applied to anyone, especially those of us who are nearing or are in burnout. 

What are the spoon and fork theories?

The spoon theory originated in a diner: In an essay by Christine Miserandino, the writer, who has lupus, explained to a friend that having a chronic illness like lupus can make doing everyday tasks harder because “the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to. The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted.” Each “unit of energy” is represented by a spoon. Some people have more spoons than others. If you have hundreds of spoons, taking a shower, going grocery shopping, replying to your outstanding emails, and making dinner still leaves you with spoons (aka, energy) for hanging out with friends later in the day. If you only have five spoons, though, something’s gotta give. 

The fork theory comes from Jen Rosenburg, who wrote about it on her blog. She says, “Fork theory is that one has a Fork Limit, that is, you can probably cope OK with one fork stuck in you, maybe two or three, but at some point you will lose your shit if one more fork happens.” Forks here are external stressors, such as traffic, hunger, or a conflict with a loved one. Some forks are bigger than others, but at some point, too many forks can bring you down. If you already have a chronic illness fork, a smaller fork such as hunger might be enough to vanquish your resolve, whereas for someone without the big fork in there already, the discomfort from hunger is not such a big deal. 

Use spoon theory to gain self-compassion

Applying spoon theory to your life is an exercise in self-compassion. “Everyone has limited spoons to some extent, and everyone has a limit,” says Dr. Devon Price, social psychologist, professor, and the author of Laziness Does Not Exist. He says, “Spoon theory’s greatest utility, I think, is in asking us to identify which tasks in our lives take up energy, and how much energy they consume.” Giving yourself the compassion that it’s OK that you have only so much energy (so many spoons), however, is harder than counting spoons. 

As a first step, Price suggests, “Keep track of your daily activities every single day for a week or so, as well as your energy levels, and really take note of what is draining for you. Which goals do you put on your to-do list over and over again, yet never get around to? At what point in the day do you become exhausted, and what did you just complete before hitting that wall?” Once you know your own patterns, you can begin to prioritize the tasks that matter most to you and say goodbye to those that can be draining and aren’t necessary. An important spoon to jettison is the idea that you MUST do all these tasks. Regarding both oneself and others, Price says, “Your expectations are in need of some serious revision.” 

Use fork theory to recognize your biggest stressors

Fork theory is best applied, at least at first, as a retrospective analysis of where things have gone wrong. Price says, “Look at the moments where we have truly lost our capacity to function—when we are having a meltdown or exploding from stress, and then (try) to reverse engineer the circumstances that brought us to that point. What were we doing? What was the environment like, stimuli wise? What obligations had we been carrying all week prior to that breakdown?” Sometimes, he says, these stressors are in the background. Examples would be a chronic illness, a temporary stressor like worrying about a sick loved one, or a mental illness such as depression. Sometimes they’re obvious in the moment, like if you’re in a fender bender or are battling a migraine. Spoons often come from within and represent energy from you going toward an external task. Forks attack from without and represent obstacles.  

Again, to really make your life better with these theories, you need self-compassion. If you’re already dealing with a depressive episode, of course it feels hard to get your taxes done this year. Instead of comparing yourself to others or even to yourself in the past, fork theory helps visualize a tangible reason to give yourself a break. 

How spoon and fork theories can help you understand others

Learning about spoon and fork theory can help you empathize with loved ones going through something, too—especially regarding people with disabilities. Price says, “You have to do a lot of inner work to unpack any prejudices you might have when your loved one fails to meet your expectations.” The point of his book, Laziness Does Not Exist, is that someone disabled is not lazy—they simply don’t have enough spoons or they have too many forks in their back. 

Price says, “Whenever you see a person failing to complete a task or being met with disappointment, that isn’t caused by some personal failing on their part; it’s because they’re hitting up against barriers that are invisible to others.” For example, someone with depression cannot do chores because “you cannot see the massive exhaustion and the pain of daily existence that is holding the depressed person down.” If you visualize the chore as a spoon and the pain as a fork, perhaps you can imagine what they’re feeling and will better understand them or feel more up for providing support. When it comes to yourself and others, Price says, “By being gentler with yourself and more careful in observing your limits, you can better understand how things are for your spoonie loved one.” Hopefully, this compassion leads to less illness, overwhelm, and burnout.

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