A common issue complicating life for people who come to therapy is a relative lack of energy. This could come from many sources. Some people have decreased energy levels because their brain’s reward network is not functioning in an optimal way resulting in a loss of motivation and a requirement of more effort for starting tasks or staying engaged in those tasks, others may have symptoms that impair sleep, and still others may have environmental factors that both contribute to distress and limit sleep (e.g. having to work two jobs, being a single parent, etc.). One metaphor has been developed that has gained a lot of traction lately has been Spoon Theory. Which states that everyone starts the day with a certain number of “spoons” and activities that many of us take for granted cost a number of spoons that are scarcer for some than others. This metaphor is great, and I hope you explore it. I prefer to use the following exercise, which I don’t think I came up with – but I cannot find reference to anywhere. If you developed it, let me know and I’ll credit you!
The Dollar Store Exercise
Prior to this activity, I work with my clients to better understand what their values are. I’ll post more about values later, but for the sake of this post let’s just say that values are the ways of living that make you feel more alive – like you’re living the life that you most want to live. These are best stated as a verb and an adverb. Some of my personal values include Relating Lovingly, Counseling Compassionately, Engaging Humorously, Eating Healthfully, and Exercising Regularly. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always living up to those values, especially the last two.
We then identify behaviors that are associated with those values, answering the question “If there was a fly on the wall watching you, how would it know you value those things.” In my examples, I may live out my value of Relating Lovingly by not shying away from vocalizing my feelings for my family or being affectionate with them through hugs, kisses, play, etc. It may also be by taking the time to listening to the people around me and offering them genuine responses, or any number of other activities I relate to that value. Once we look at our main identified values and develop a list of behaviors to go with them, we rate those behaviors in terms of the energy they take up on a scale of $1.00 to $15.00. Those numbers are a bit arbitrary, but I’ve found they work well for the exercise.
Once the behaviors are “priced” I have them imagine that every day they have $15.00 to spend on value-based behaviors and instruct them to go through and decide what behaviors and values are most important for them to live out today with that budget. Every day they get to change the price of those behaviors, recognizing that different days different behaviors may be more or less taxing. The cost of behaviors is influenced by the physical demands of the behavior compared to how you are functioning that day (i.e. horse-play with my toddler when I slept in the wrong position for my back pain), how confident you are that you will be successful in the activity, or your mental and physical energy levels of the day. Think of the last one as the value of your dollar shrinking or growing. If the value of your dollar increases and you have more energy – the relative price of the behavior goes down, but if the value of the dollar decreases and you have less energy – the relative price of the behavior goes up.
After I introduce this concept to my clients, I have them track their value driven behaviors over the following weeks, the relative costs of the behaviors, and how they felt after the week about the way they were living their lives. If there’s an element of this exercise that isn’t working, we change it or shift to something new.
Let me know what you think of this activity by commenting or sending an email through the Contact tab. As always, please don’t take any blog post as therapy. If you’d like to schedule a session, feel free to reach out. If I’m not able to help you, I will try to offer resources to help guide you towards someone who can.
Marvin Bellows, LPC, CRC