“You can’t pour from an empty cup”

How many times have you heard “you can’t pour from an empty cup?”. What does this phrase mean to you? In The Cup Theory, we discuss the cup being the metaphorical vessel for your emotional, social, spiritual, and physical energy. If your cup is empty you have no energy to help other people or even yourself.

My inspiration for this theory comes from my love of the Spoon Theory by Christine Miserandino. In this essay Christine writes about what it is like to live life with a chronic illness. Christine states that everyday she starts out with a certain amount of spoons, throughout the day certain tasks require a certain amount of spoons. For example: You have six spoons. You wake up; you lose a spoon. Take a shower; you may lose two spoons depending on if you washed your hair or shaved your legs. Now you only have 3 or 4 spoons for the whole rest of the day and you have to decide how and if to use them. If you have not read this essay do yourself a favor and read it here. It is the best way for someone to understand what it is like to live with chronic illness.

More and more recently, I have heard this theory to describe the lives of people living with anxiety, depression, and even substance use disorder. While I love that this can help a person explain how these conditions feel. I think this theory does not do enough to empower and help a person grow.

The Cup Theory

When working with clients struggling with anxiety, depression, and substance use, (or even my own life, if I’m being honest) I instruct them to visualize a cup with water in it. I ask them to imagine walking through life and experiencing the challenges life can bring. With each challenge, you take a slip from the cup. Some challenges you take little sips and others you take big gulps.

A big gulp may be you lost your job, your cat passed away, or you’re getting a divorce. A small sip can be anything from going into a store or choosing what your family will eat for dinner. Only you know how big of a sip you will need for each task. For some people going to a party is a small sip, but for other people it is a big gulp.

So, you are going along, taking sips from your cup… eventually the water is going to run out. When the cup is empty, you have no water left to sip, you are officially in distress.

Think back to a time where you have been super stressed. Lets say you just had a baby. You have been up all night feeding and changing the baby (big gulp from cup), your trying to clean the house (big sip from cup), baby’s crying (also, big sip from cup), your partner gets home from work and asks you why you haven’t taken a shower (you go to gulp from the cup and there is nothing left). What are you going to do? You are going to bite their head off, cry, or whatever you do when you reach your limit.

Fill up your cup

How does the water get into the cup? You have to actively put the water in the cup. Self care and healthy actives fill up the cup. Times when you are mindful and in the moment are especially cup filling.

  • Meditation
  • Taking a walk
  • Cooking dinner
  • Putting your phone away and talking to your partner
  • Petting your cat
  • Dancing around the living room
  • Going to a support group
  • Taking an exercise class

You have to keep filling it. You have to continue to find ways to fill up your cup. If you wake up in the morning and feel like your cup is empty what do you do?

A quick and easy morning activity:

  1. Notice your breath: is it fast, slow, shallow, deep? Just notice it, don’t judge it or try to change it
  2. Spend about a minute just noticing your breath
  3. Take a deep breath: In through the nose and out through the mouth, slow and steady, fill up your lungs all the way down to your stomach
  4. Repeat as many times as you feel is needed or as time allows

This may not fill up your cup entirely, but it will give you just enough water in reserve to get up and face the day.

Anxiety, depression, and Addiction

Some people’s cups are bigger than others, but with time and practice the cup can grow. When a person diagnosed with anxiety, depression, or addiction they have a smaller cup and they are taking bigger sips.

For example someone struggling with addiction: In early recovery the cup is VERY VERY tiny. They do not have much in reserve to drink from, so they have to continually fill up the cup.

This explains why, if you are an alcoholic, just going to one AA meeting a week will not work. We also, cannot expect the person in early recovery to be able to go to detox and come straight out, hold down a job, pay bills, and take care of their families. This equals too many gulp/sips, not enough fill ups.

In AA they say to begin each day on your knees asking the higher power to take away the desire to use or drink. This is one way to start each day with a water reserve, but remember the cup is still small. If you hit traffic on the way to work, you have already emptied your cup. You have no water in reserve. The addict in early recovery must ALWAYS be doing something for the benefit of their goal of living in sobriety.

When they have more time in sobriety, more tools and more of a recovery network, the person living with addiction now has a bigger cup. The traffic on the way to work is not as distressing, because the person has a bigger cup of water to drink from. This does not mean that they stop working on their recovery, remember just because the cup is bigger doesn’t mean it never needs to be filled.

When struggling with anxiety and depression the same theory applies. When in an acute state of depression and anxiety, you have a smaller cup. You must continuously work to keep the cup full. As you start to get stronger (medication adjustments kick in, start seeing a therapist, find a self care routine) your cup grows and you can handle more and more of daily life.


Remember you control what goes into your cup. The more you do for self care/growth the more you have in your cup and the more your cup grows. The cup is placed in your hands.

You will have days that your cup feels empty and you will want to stay in bed, lash out on a loved one, or stare off into space at work. Try not to judge yourself on those days. Those are the days when you are either running on empty or your cup is too small. Take care of yourself, eat well, wear comfy clothes, and do something you love. Tomorrow your cup will feel different.

Please comment below, how you fill up your cup.


Published by psychkatlife

Katherine Carter is a licensed mental health counselor practicing in Massachusetts. Katherine is the former Director of a residential program for women working towards recovery from drugs and alcohol. Katherine is currently working in private practice assisting individuals, couples and families meet their goals. Katherine's clinical interests include Addiction, Empowerment, LGBTQ and gender issues, mindfulness and chronic illness.

Join the Conversation


  1. I generally take a break. It’s something l believe most people do: change to comfortable clothes, get something nice to eat and lay in bed and watch some silly movies or some of the YouTubers I like. I might also have a pampering session: take a long bath, take extra time taking care of my skin and hair. Sometimes I contemplate doing something else that interests me (like making DIY jewellery or clothes etc.) but this is not something I do often – most of the time because I take the time to fill my cup when I’m already to exhausted to have the energy to do anything else, or because doing something else than just resting makes me feel guilty. It’s like an inner voice would be telling me: “You weren’t that tired after all, were you, if you have the energy to do this, then you could have just as well carried out with your work.” I know it’s not about feeling tired, but I guess, just like me, most people see “being tired” as the acceptable limit, the time when you are allowed to stop. Thank you for your post. It gave me an opportunity to reflect more on how I manage my power to go on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! You’re right about people seeing “being tired” as a reason to rest. Even I need a reminder sometimes to take care of myself in a healthy way before it even gets to that point. And to give myself permission to do so.

      Liked by 1 person

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