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E36. Spoon Theory and ADHD

Today, we're going to talk about The Spoon Theory, what that is, and how it applies to ADHD. This idea of The Spoon Theory was created by Christine Mazarindino. She is someone who has lupus, and one of her friends once asked her, "What is it like to live with lupus?" They happened to be at a diner at the time, so she grabbed a handful of spoons to be able to explain this analogy of what her life was like with lupus.

She told her friend: suppose each day you have 12 spoons. These spoons represent the energy, effort, ability you have to spend each day, and to get everything done in a day. Everything that you do costs a certain amount of spoons.

Obviously, with lupus, some things take a lot more spoons than they would for somebody who does not have lupus. Things like dressing, getting ready, things that might cost someone else significantly less spoons, might cause someone with lupus more because of their energy and the pain that they're dealing with.

This analogy has resonated with a lot of people who live with chronic conditions. It has also resonated with a lot of people in the mental health community. This includes the idea of spoons, the Spoon Theory, and how much of our energy budget is spent doing things that may cost others a significantly less amount of energy.

Just getting out of bed can be a different demand for somebody who has rheumatoid arthritis or depression. Things that others might take for granted, that they're able to do without spending that energy budget, might actually spend quite a bit of your energy budget if you have a chronic health condition.

Let's look specifically with ADHD and apply the spoon theory to ADHD, and see how this shows up for us. Let's take a look at what this means for us. If you look at that group of executive functioning skills, that group of "get it done" skills that we talked about, you can see how something that might take someone else very few spoons, if you're somebody who struggles with executive functioning skills, might take you significantly more.

People say to me, "I'm surrounded by people who make this all look so easy", and they're very down on themselves."Why can't I get as much done in a day as this person, this neighbor, this friend, or everyone around me?" Sometimes that's us being hard on ourselves, that's a perception thing, but sometimes it really is the reality that if you're struggling in some of these areas, you are not able to get as much done.

And if you are able to get those things done, the energy cost is extreme. A lot of people with ADHD have this experience of: I'm on, I'm getting all the things done, I'm knocking it out and then they crash. Then they have maybe a whole day, maybe several days, where they're getting very little done or a lot less done.

Their energy is way low. They have to recover from this frenetic burn of their energy and their effort during the time they got things done, during the time they were being very productive when they were, "on."

I wanted to offer a few tips for how we can work with this idea of the Spoon Theory to create awareness,create an understanding of ourselves and our energy, and how we can work with this when it comes to ADHD. These tips can help us work with managing ADHD, managing your energy, etc., because managing your energy with ADHD is huge.

It's not something that people think about, because ADHD is lumped into this idea of hyperactivity and high energy. With ADHD, especially in adults with the inattentive variety of ADHD, we often deal with a lot of fatigue. We often deal with a lot of dysregulated energy.

The energy that we have is not predictable. We might have very high energy, very low energy, or sometimes it doesn't really seem to have a pattern. It's good to have awareness about this in ourselves. Of course, it's also good to have awareness of what things help set us up with more reliable energy.

I wanted to talk about some ideas for how we can work with our fluctuating energy, or unreliable energy, when we have ADHD. This is how we can work when we don't know what we're going to have each day when it comes to our energy, our attention, our motivation, or even to get things done.

Coaching Tips for Applying the Spoon Theory for ADHD Brains

Tip #1: Practice Self Compassion

My first tip, my first piece of advice, is practice self compassion.

I know I talk about this a lot, because it's so important. It's not fluffy, puffy, and extra. It is key for supporting yourself, supporting your brain, and supporting the reality that you live. If you wake up because you did not sleep, because of any other myriad of reasons, and you have few spoons you will have less energy, resources, and attention than you normally have.

You're actually going to spend spoons and spend energy with self criticism and with being hard on yourself. "I should be able to get this done. I should be able to jump out of bed easily without five snoozes. I should be able to do XYZ" does not help your energy, it tanks your energy.

Create this atmosphere of self compassion, this habit of self compassion with yourself where you notice things, and you do not judge them. You accept them and you offer kindness to yourself, and this can be humongous in helping you maintain and maximize your energy.

Self compassion is just recognizing the fact that for you, it may take five spoons to make dinner when it takes your mom two, or when it takes your sister three.

These things might cost you more because of the type of brain that you have. This is not a moral failure. There's not anything "wrong" with you, it is it is what it is. There's ways to support it. Accepting that and offering yourself the kindness that this one is harder for you, this does take more energy for you, is a good beginning in how to apply Spoon Theory to your life and managing your energy. What I didn't mention, because I do feel like I'm a broken record about this point, is that the noticing comes along with the self compassion.

You're noticing, "Hey, my energy's low here. Wow, this task that I didn't really think was a big deal drained my energy." I know for me; it's shopping. It drains my lifeforce. It's crazy because I grew up with a mom who loves shopping, and she gets really energized by shopping.

I never thought a lot about it. When I was younger, I would be beyond exhausted after shopping with her. I was a teenager, and she would have all this energy and feel great. I would feel almost physically ill.

I remember feeling badly about that, and just thinking of myself as somebody who was low energy or even fragile. Of course, I didn't know I had ADHD at that point. I remember this tying into that narrative of "I'm low energy, I'm lazy, I'm not motivated," or whatever because of what my body felt like after shopping.

Now that I look back at that, or I look at that currently in my life, I know exactly why shopping exhausts me.

It's full of decision making, it is full of sensory overload, it is full of a lot of things that are harder for me than they are for some other people. I know if I'm going shopping, especially certain kinds of shopping, that I'm not going to plan a lot of high energy or high demand things in a day when I have to shop. I'm just not going to have those resources.

I know that, and I don't feel bad about it. I understand that a lot more. I just accept that that's the reality. This first piece of advice is this combination of noticing what is true for you, and that self compassion when something does drain your energy.

You need to be recognizing that even if it doesn't drain the energy of everybody around you, it does for you.

That's okay, and you begin just adjusting what you're doing in the day. Sometimes that's hard, because we don't want to have to say no to other things because we said yes to something esle.

Recognizing what is true for you will help you be able to manage your energy in the long run and take more control over your day rather than just responding and reacting to what you're left with in terms of energy.

Tip #2 Create Menus for Different Spoon Days

The next piece of advice I have is creating menus. Now, don't think food menu here, we're talking about menu as in a selection of choices. A lot of times somebody who's working with me wants to make some changes in their lives. Let's say they want to practice more self care, they want to start moving more, having more exercise in their life, or they want to be cooking more meals at home and not eating out as much.

Anytime you're trying to make a change in your life, it's a really good idea to make a menu of what that could look like depending on the day and depending on the energy that you have.

What happens for a lot of us (I'm definitely guilty of this), is that we plan for only one version of ourselves. We plan for the version of ourselves that has plenty of energy, is well rested, every child made the bus that morning, and you have plenty of time.

We plan that there's no other emergency that's pulling you off into a different direction.

We plan for the most optimistic situation and setting. Although that's lovely and inspirational, you also have to plan for other versions of you, because that's reality. That's life.

You have to plan for the low energy version, or the low motivation version. If you only have one really rigid way that a change can look in order for you to be successful, you're going to get discouraged. It's not realistic.

It's this "all or nothing thinking" that we can really struggle with. A menu may look like this. Let's say that self care is important to me, and I want to add more self care to my days. Well, I want to imagine a menu of self care options that are going to take into account the different kinds of days I might be having.

One version of self care might actually just be lighting a good smelling candle and hanging out with my candle for a minute or two. Another version might be a yoga practice that's going to take me 40 minutes. Another might be a bath.

One might be a face massage, but there's a range, depending on who you are and what your life looks like. That bath might seem really passive to someone, but if you have a house full of children, that bath might only be possible when the stars align. That might be really hard to pull off.

Depending on your circumstances, imagine yourself, your life, and what would cost you the most energy. Imagine what would cost you the least energy, or different options for how to continue on with something if it's important to you. You want to have different options.

You can be successful. All the versions of you can be successful, because with ADHD, with depression, with anxiety, and with a lot of mental health diagnoses, your energy burn might be quite different day to day. You might have started out with less energy for lots of factors. You might have burned more energy in places you didn't even plan to burn energy.

We're making choices throughout our day to conserve our energy. We're making choices about where we want to spend our energy, but even if we've made those choices, we don't have control over all of that. We want ways to be successful, moving us towards our goals, that look different. We want ways that have different energy demand.

A lot of times when I'm working with someone, we come up with what they're going to do that week. I will say, "What could get in your way? What could keep this from happening?" This is not because I want to be a Debbie Downer. This is because I want to imagine, "What's the reality? What what might this look like? How can we prepare for this?

How can we create other strategies to help with that? How can we create other options, so you can still have success even if the day doesn't look ideal, or even if you don't have the energy reserves you were planning for to get this thing done?"

Before we close out, I'm going to give you one more example. We're going to make menus of one of those other goal areas, because I do think sometimes a practical application of this can jam people up. Let me give you one more example of what this could look like. We're going to take the example of, "I want to prepare more food and eat out less."

Let's make a menu of what that would look like. Well, first, you have to know what it looks like now. Now, let's say this person's taking out food a few nights a week and they want to do less of that. We're going to create a menu for what eating at home is going to look like. This is where a lot of us get jammed up, because enter perfectionism, enter maximizing.

Although our goal is creating more food at home, suddenly, it also needs to be organic, environmentally friendly, cost effective, time effective, and insert the blank.

A lot of times we're trying to make this change that we're not giving up and getting takeout. That matters to this person, they want to create more food, but then suddenly, they're layering on all these other demands onto this task.

Creating a menu is pretty tough when you're trying to check all those boxes. You want to limit your priorities here. There's that saying that if everything's a priority, nothing's a priority. That happens a lot and jams us up. When everything's a priority, we get overwhelmed. You can't make a menu when everything's a priority.

With the menu, there probably needs to be an option here of opening a can of soup. Use something similar to that that is cool with you. You need to have options that really account for "this is the low energy version," versus the "I am going to 'Pinterest' a new recipe that has XY and Z and make this big meal." Maybe that is how you want it to look, but that shouldn't be all four of your menu options. There should be an option, a "phone it in" option, that is still aligned with the change you want to make.

That wraps up our episode on The Spoon Theory, menus, and creating menus. If you wanted to take a look at Christine's original explanation on The Spoon Theory, I will link that in the show notes, so you can read that. It's a really good description, and gives some insight that can apply to a lot of us. That's it for today. Thank you so much for joining me.


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