I just finished reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a book written ahead of its time and with emphasis on a widely misunderstood facet of depression. Esther, the book’s protagonist, reflects upon her state of mind, “Because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” A bell jar is a bell-shaped glass cover used for various reasons: to protect and display delicate objects, to cover scientific apparatus or to contain gases. Turning her attention inwardly, Esther uses the bell jar to describe her feeling of being cut off from the outside world. Yet, from an outside perspective, the details of Esther’s numerous accomplishments paint a happy picture of her life. She does extremely well in school, earns numerous scholarships and is awarded an amazing opportunity to work in New York City. Yet, the storyline of Esther’s life has a distinct, inverse relationship: as Esther achieves more, her mental health becomes weaker. Thus, shining a light on the very real possibility of someone struggling with depression while otherwise living a “good” or “accomplished” life.
In my own life and clinical practice, I have found metaphors to be powerful agents of clarity and healing. As another example, Christine Miserandino impacted the lives of many when she gave birth to Spoon Theory. Miserandino quantified one spoon as one unit of energy and used that metaphor to convey the limited amount of energy available to those with chronic illnesses such as lupus. According to Miserandino, people with chronic illnesses have a lower daily spoon allowance and thus, less available energy. Further, her blog post about the topic leaves the impression that there is no way to get more “spoons.” While that may be true in some cases, I believe people have more control over their available energy than Miserandino suggests. I respect Miseradino’s experience and really admire her metaphor. However, I believe in the power of people and their ability to reclaim spoons. In fact, I believe there may even be a way to get more spoons.
First, let me expand upon how I use Spoon Theory when working with clients who have mood disorders. To introduce the idea, I ask my clients how many hours of sleep they need a night. Some say 6, some say 8. Everyone requires different amounts of sleep to feel refreshed in the morning, just like everyone is allotted a different amount of spoons per day. Similar to lupus, I believe that when experienced as chronic, anxiety and depression can impact a person’s daily spoon allowance. But, let’s not concentrate on the limitations.
For someone who struggles with anxiety, a significant amount of their spoons may be expended on managing racing thoughts. What if this person allowed space for their anxiety, but intentionally limited the number of spoons they spend feeding their anxious thoughts? This allows said person to reclaim spoons. Then, what if this same person redirected some spoon usage to completing an act of self-care? Self-care can take many forms: from cleaning out your email inbox to calling an old friend to reconnect. Accomplishing a task, small or big, is often motivating, or described in a similar way, energizing. This may mean that redirecting spoons to self-care actually allows a person to increase their overall spoon count.
To add the cherry on top, prioritizing self-care has immense benefits to overall well-being. I believe that well-being can be understood as the culmination of physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health. Importantly, there seems to be an interconnectedness amongst these four elements. There seems to be a connection between mind and body. Cleaning out your email inbox can strengthen your psychological health because decreasing clutter is proven to positively influence your mental state. It is my belief that an act of strengthening psychological health positively influences the other three types of health related to well-being. Following this line of thinking, an act of psychological self-care could positively impact physical health and thus increase available energy.
With all of this in mind, I began having conversations with clients, friends, family, and colleagues about self-care. These conversations helped me create a self-care challenge, which I often give to clients after introducing the idea of Spoon Theory. As a result, I have witnessed my clients become more intentional about how they spend their energy. Further, I have witnessed my clients put more spoons toward building themselves up, instead of allowing anxiety or depression to spiral them downwards.
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