Have you heard of Spoon Theory?
If you haven’t, I highly suggest you go read the article on Spoon Theory before you continue. As a general summary, Spoon Theory is a highly effective way of describing the finite mental and physical resources that people with a disability or chronic illness have at their disposal on a given day. These limited resources transform each mundane activity an average person takes for granted into one that requires careful evaluation and decision making. It is a poignant narrative that had a huge impact on my worldview, and helped to develop my sense of empathy towards the unseen struggles my fellow humans might be dealing with on any given day.
Everyone’s resources are finite (some, more than others)
While the point of Spoon Theory is to emphasize the unique struggle of dealing with energy reserves that are much lower than normal due to a chronic or ongoing condition (and therefore I am not trying to minimize its importance by any means) the fact is that everyone has a finite set of mental and physical resources available to them. There are plenty of studies on the limits to willpower, as an example, and how continuously exercising restraint in small ways leads to a difficulty resisting something later due to eroding your “reserve.” Bodies get exhausted, minds get filled, stressors take their toll. Pain, loss, exhaustion, sadness, or worry deplete us of our usual resources, and our normal tasks “cost” us more of what we have left than they otherwise would.
Owning my humanity
In order to explain what I mean, I’m going to have to talk about myself for a bit. This isn’t here for me to complain, but for me to give you context and remember exactly how human all of us really are.
I am generally a privileged, able-bodied, middle-class woman who, through a combination of luck and hard work, is fortunate enough to be able to live a fairly flexible lifestyle doing work I enjoy which also pays my bills, lets me travel, and has generally changed my life. On good days, this makes me really happy and optimistic. I approach my work enthusiastically and want to build up my business.
I also have chronic back pain that has not gone away since it appeared in 2009, due to overwork and bad posture. I usually joke that I have no idea anymore what “not being in pain” feels like, but it’s not really far from the truth. On a decent day, it’s there like a sore muscle from a workout, and I can still manage a relatively normal schedule. On a bad day, or with too many days in a row where I sit or stand too long in one place working, it’s a throbbing pain that brings me to tears, and keeps me up until late at night tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep.
Because of this, I no longer have the choice to put long days and nights into projects and working on my business without serious physical consequences. In fact, my pain usually gets worse if I spend more than 6-7 hours at my desk each day for a week, which limits my future job prospects (I probably could not work a traditional 9-5 job ever again, regardless of who wants to hire me). Even sitting at conferences, traveling on airplanes, or visiting restaurants/bars with friends will have some nasty effects that often affect my productivity the next day. And I have to spend a decent amount of money and time every week on treatments (physical therapy, massage, and chiropractic, in addition to an exercise routine) just to feel relatively “normal.”
I also have some pretty regular (read: cyclical) episodes where I just get irrationally sad. They last for about 1-3 days, and during this time it’s like all optimism is gone and everything is impossibly hard. Often I just start crying for no reason, and usually I just want to sleep a lot. Being creative feels like running a marathon through molasses, being around other people sounds horrifying, and I know that the only things I’ll be able to tolerate are simple, small tasks, or methodical, distracting problem solving… once I get the energy to finally sit ay my computer.
Owning my weakness
On top of this are money worries, life worries, health worries, and any number of typical human issues, all fighting to use up my resources. And yet, life still goes on, doesn’t it? A day where I wake up with pain, or with sadness, or with worry, is still a day where I have clients, and projects, and responsibilities that I need to address. Not completing work could mean a missed deadline at the worst, or a communicated and extended deadline at best, but either way it’s a loss of billable hours, which could exacerbate money worries even as I’m trying to prioritize my health.
How do you deal with a deadline if you’re in too much pain to sit and work? How do you conduct yourself in a meeting or networking event if you just want to curl up and cry? How do you give yourself unplanned time off when every hour is money you don’t make? And how do you accept your limitations while knowing other people have it so much worse? How do I deal with setbacks when I’m using all of my energy just to show up?
Do I choose to keep my meetings on schedule, using up my limited physical or mental resources on those rather than completing billable work? Do I choose to work on a smaller or less important task that I know I can get done, even though a larger task is due sooner? Do I choose to let myself sleep, or try to work through exhaustion? Do I borrow against tomorrow and try to push through today, hoping that I can finish what I need to do before I crash? Do I try to work up the mental energy to communicate with my clients and try to extend deadlines, or isolate myself and try to work in short bursts to keep them?
In pursuit of acceptance (of myself)
As much as I try to practice self-love and self-care, it is hard to reconcile it with a culture of “hustle” and a desire to keep bettering myself. How do you accept yourself for who you are, including your limitations, weaknesses, and flaws? How do you not turn your feelings outward, feeling jealous or resentful towards your peers for seeming to have it easier than you? How do you not turn your feelings inward, feeling broken, ashamed, or guilty about not being able to overcome your problems?
I am imperfect, and I fail at all of these things constantly, and retreat to my nest once more to feel tired, scared, and overwhelmed. But when I crawl out from my nest after a while and blink in the daylight, I try to remember that empathy should extend not only to everyone else, but yourself, and I give myself permission tomorrow to try again.