bipolar parent

How to Stop Shoulding on Yourself

Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

This post was featured on the International Bipolar Foundation website, here.

When you’re depressed, forget about thriving – you’re in survival mode.

Which means you need to be especially gentle with yourself.

If you’re telling yourself that you should get everything done on your impossibly long to-do list today, a trap that a lot of us in capitalistic societies fall into, you’re shoulding on yourself.

Shoulding on yourself is a terrible habit. Saying “I should do this,” or “I should do that,” is just piling guilt on yourself and zapping the motivation to do anything. Believe me, when I’m drowning under a wave of self-imposed shoulds, especially when I’m depressed, I go back to bed.

If you’re shoulding on yourself when you’re depressed, you’re being unkind to yourself when you’re in survival mode. You don’t have the “spoons” to do most of the tasks you think you should and you definitely don’t have the spoons to fret about it.

The Spoon Theory, a concept popularized in a personal essay by the same name by Christine Miserandino, explains the idea of energy in short supply due to chronic illness using “spoons” as units of energy.

If you’re low on spoons, an easy state to be in when you’re depressed and don’t start with many, shoulding on yourself is the last thing you need. Worry about what you should do will just exhaust you.

Don’t think, “I should do this and after that I should do this.”

Think, “I have one task to do. What would be the most effective use of my spoons? How crucial is this spoon usage? Will I be forced to do it later when I may have even fewer spoons?”

If you answer “I can do x because it will be effective,” or “this is very crucial,” and “yes,” then do the task.

The ONE task.

One task at a time. Don’t even worry about the others until that one task is done.

If you’re worried about all the tasks you have to do after the first–take a shower, prepare that quarterly report, clean out the storage unit–you’ll never finish even the first task. You’ll end up paralyzing yourself by how much you should get done.

Instead, prioritize. Think, “What is my most effective/crucial task?”

Many tasks aren’t as crucial as we believe they are. Crucial tasks are things like “feed the five-year-old.” Strip your to-do list down to its very basics, things you need for survival or for your dependents’ survival.

It’s time to choose your most effective/crucial task. And only one. When you’re in survival mode, you only have the spoons to do one or two, and especially one at a time.

You can only do one task at a time well, so choose the one that will get you the most bang for your buck. What is pressing on you the most? What do you want to do the least later?

You can conquer that task. You are smart and capable and able to conquer anything on your to-do list, one at a time.

I wish you well in your journey.

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bipolar parent

How Does Spoon Theory Relate to Mental Illness?

A picture of a pile of silver spoons on a black background. Credit to user liz west. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes those of us with chronic illnesses, ranging from physical diseases like multiple sclerosis to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, are unable to keep up with the demands of the day. Especially if we’re suffering from depression, which is the most common symptom of chronic illness.

The Spoon Theory, a concept popularized in a personal essay by the same name by Christine Miserandino, explains the idea of energy in short supply due to chronic illness using “spoons” as units of energy.

Miserandino lives with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease which causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells. To her surprise, her friend, while sitting with her in a café, asks Miserandino what it’s like to be sick. Miserandino answers with the need to take pills, and her friend presses her: What is it really like to be sick?

“How do I explain every detail of every day being affected, and give the emotions a sick person goes through with clarity,” Miserandino writes. “I could have given up, cracked a joke like I usually do, and changed the subject, but I remember thinking if I don’t try to explain this, how could I ever expect her to understand. If I can’t explain this to my best friend, how could I explain my world to anyone else? I had to at least try.”

Miserandino gathers up spoons from the nearby tables, so many that it seems excessive. She hands the twelve utensils to her friend, and tells her that she always has to be conscious of how many she has, and can’t have any more. Then Miserandino asks her to spell out her day.

Her friend says she gets out of bed, and Miserandino takes a spoon. Her friend says she takes a shower, and Miserandino takes a spoon. She explains that getting dressed is a trial: if her hands hurt, she can’t use buttons; if she has bruises, she has to wear long sleeves, and that dressing takes two hours. Eventually, her friend realizes that Miserandino’s “spoons,” her time and energy, are severely limited by stress and pain–and breaks down crying. “Christine,” she says, “how do you do it? Do you really do this everyday?”

Miserandino probably had no idea that so many people would connect with her theory. For people living with chronic illnesses, spoon theory is a perfect way to explain to healthy people how diseases impact their lives. Some of those people call themselves “Spoonies.” In 2013, Dawn Gibson, a woman who suffers from spondylitis and food allergies, created #SpoonieChat on Twitter. It’s a chat held on Wednesday nights from 8 to 9:30pm Eastern time, where people can share their experiences as Spoonies. Dawn also runs a Spoonie Chat community on Facebook, for those of you looking to connect with other Spoonies.

But how does Spoon Theory relate to mental illness? Easily. If you’re suffering from bipolar mania, you might spend all of your spoons all at once in the morning. Mania and hypomania inflate your sense of your spoons and borrow them against future days, whereas depression puts a limit on the spoons you start out with.

Someone afflicted by panic attacks will drop their spoons trying to manage their disorder. Substance abusers are generally replacing their spoons with chemicals that do ridiculous amounts of damage to their bodies. And someone with schizophrenia might not be aware of how many spoons they have at any given time.

Your spoons are precious. Try to keep them, and try to manage them better. Sleep well if you can, eat healthily, and practice mindfulness, and hopefully you will be able to combat the days when you spend your spoons too soon.

Good luck.