Are Emotional Spoon Shortages Driving Your Exhaustion?

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by Brad Dell |

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I’m beginning to rethink the sources of my fatigue. Yes, sickness and physical activity are still real sources of exhaustion, but I’m realizing I’ve neglected a deeper flavor of struggle.  

Many of us sick folk are familiar with the “spoon theory.” The analogy goes like this: We start the day with a particular number of spoons, and each spoon represents an amount of energy expenditure. Showering might cost one spoon, exercising might cost five. Once we use up our spoons, fatigue smacks us silly. 

I’ve only heard the spoon theory applied to physical activity. What about emotional output and input? 

To illustrate, revisit a memory of returning home from a clinic and realizing you’ve been worn out simply by sitting in waiting rooms and blasting through a five-minute talk with the doc. Upon collapsing on the sofa, you check the time: “Was that really only two hours?” The loss of energy often isn’t explained by hours or the effort of driving; rather, the tiredness draws from drinking a brutal blend of dread and disappointment.

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As a church pastor in various positions of mentorship and shepherding, I’ve been tackled repeatedly by the confusing reality that a rather bare schedule doesn’t necessarily translate to low energy expenditure. Situations involving emotional and spiritual heavy-lifting can demand as much a toll as crowded schedules or labor. 

In my last column, I observed that many with diseases run themselves ragged trying to pour from an empty cup. Those of us who suffer will naturally grow in empathy, so many turn to us for emotional support. This produces a dilemma: Already exhausted by our own troubles, we find ourselves also bearing others’. This dilemma, tied with poor boundary-guarding by people fearful of abandonment or being a burden, is a recipe for fatigue with a side of resentment. If we really want to help others, we must recognize those two dishes corrupt our ability to give freely and lovingly.

Bodily fatigue can knock me out for a few days, but compassion fatigue and the exhaustion of dealing with my own complex emotions can knock me out for weeks — I become a bit of a hermit, fearful to interact with those who eat more from my starved soul. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lied about being too busy to hang with a person just because I can’t bear the shame of saying I’m too overwhelmed to be present to their problems. I’ve been hiding instead of being honest about being limited, like all people are.

When I’ve been honest, though, most people have extended grace and care. Funny how that works.

We can’t take on everyone’s problems while also wrestling our own titans. No one can be everything to everyone. And as much as I love disabilities empowerment, there comes a point when we need to realize that we may be even more limited than healthy people. Infections terrorize, side effects crush us, insurance fights toss us, ableism cuts.

Serving as the subject of inspiration porn or shouldering the annoyance of toxic positivity can be especially wearisome, when our jaws hurt from smiling through our pain. And as fellow columnist Nicole Kohr reminds us in a wonderful column, “grief has a gravity, it pulls me down.” I’d say we deserve breaks.

I don’t mean to sound bitter. I’m glad people with medical problems are valued in our ability to empathize, and I know many of us simply love to help others. But I’m hoping to wake others like me to the reality that if we take on too much atop our health challenges, things fall apart. All that emotional energy we’re mopping up can drown — swiftly, abruptly. We must learn to say no before burnout, and hey, sometimes we don’t even need to say why we’re saying no.

It’s OK to lick our own wounds in a season of self-care. It’s wise to take a critical look at what types of emotional burdens suck out the most energy from us, and then ask how much we can healthily carry.

Besides, I’m realizing that it’s more powerful to go deep with two or three people than to skirt shallowly with a dozen — that’s the stuff of lasting impact. These days, I’m taking a closer look at the internal drivers of my exhaustion, pondering who needs my care most, where my giftings and contexts are most uniquely suited to help, when to (and how to) say no, and when to say yes. This feels selfish at times and requires uncomfortable conversations, but I’m continually recentering myself in knowing I can’t help anyone at all — much less myself — if I haven’t any spoons to spare.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, Bionews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Paul avatar


If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of others, because:
1. you simply lack the energy,
2. you set a wrong example.
Thinking and emotions are much more exhausting than physical work, because the brain uses 70% of our energy supply when we are not at sleep. And when we think and feel constantly when awake, we get drained.
The solution is to be aware without thinking or emotionally connecting. You can listen and be compassionate without logging on to the emotions or thoughts. It's called observing. From this, we keep our energy level up and are much helpful and compassionate then when we suffer with the other. And when we are alone, we should avoid personalizing and self referential thoughts as much as possible. In meditation we can learn this. Watch the silence between the thoughts and with practice, learn to expand this silence. It will become second nature. Or even first nature.


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