I was at a birthday gathering with my husband’s family only a couple of weeks after going vegan. After several years as a vegetarian, a series of awakening experiences led me to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. But it was still new to me. I was still coming to terms internally with all that I was learning.
I found myself at a loss – how do I graciously decline the birthday cake, without making a big scene?
I was committed to this path, but I was still processing everything I had learned….about dairy cows, egg laying hens, and the cruelty inherent in the animal “products” we use in daily life. I didn’t feel ready to verbalize any of it – especially at a birthday party.
I had been vegetarian for 12 years for ethical reasons, and my decision to not eat animal flesh had been accepted by my loved ones. From early in my vegetarian journey, I limited dairy and eggs, primarily eating them only in social situations. But after opening my eyes and heart to the many forms of cruelty to animals, I committed to living as compassionately as possible in my choices of food, clothing, cosmetics, and household items.
And now, as I approached the birthday gathering, so soon after my vegan decision, I wondered how I would handle the inevitable cake made with eggs and dairy. Even though I was deeply committed to all that veganism represented, I couldn’t say the “V” word. I found the word “vegan” frozen on my lips.
I wondered why it was so hard to say it aloud to people in general, much less my loved ones. It seemed that it shouldn’t be so difficult. But, in reflecting, I realized that I was still overwhelmed by what I had learned:
- The lives of dairy cows, so far removed from the bucolic scenes shown on milk cartons
- The reality that cows don’t just “give” their milk—it’s meant for a baby calf, who is taken away soon after birth
- The crowded and cruel conditions for commercial egg-laying hens (even those advertised as “free range”)
- The slaughter process that is the end fate for all of these animals
All of these images still burned deeply in my mind.
I didn’t know what to say or how to explain it to others. I didn’t want to ruin the party. I didn’t want to stand out and be different. I didn’t want to make things difficult for others. I didn’t want to come across as judgmental. I didn’t want to be judged by others who didn’t understand veganism.
At that particular birthday party, I was not yet ready to speak up. With my husband’s support, I managed to avoid eating the cake, and no one else seemed to notice. However, while I succeeded in abstaining from the non-vegan cake and at the same time avoiding potential conflict with others, I became aware of an internal conflict…between the desire to live consistently with my values and the desire to fit in socially.
I realized that in order to successfully live a vegan lifestyle, I would need to develop a plan for handling social situations.
In those early weeks and months of being vegan, I found myself going through a process of ambivalence and re-commitment to my path. I would read something or watch a documentary, and be deeply distressed about what I was learning. But then, in social situations, I would be drawn to the path of least resistance, remaining silent.
Almost as if in a trance, I would fall back into old, familiar ways of thinking—and lose connection with my deep values and commitment. And yet, as I observed my inner struggle with compassion, ultimately I was able to stay committed to making this change. I realized that ambivalence and the desire to return to what feels familiar are often part of the process of lasting change.
For another social event, about a month later, I had time to prepare my approach. I spoke to the hostess ahead of time, and explained my decision to go vegan. I let her know that I would like to bring something vegan to the gathering. I was anxious initially, not sure how she would respond. But she was very supportive, and even expressed admiration about my lifestyle.
Through those early weeks and months, I learned to come to terms with my identity as a vegan. I committed to honoring my values, even when others didn’t see what I saw, even when I felt isolated or misunderstood, even when it was inconvenient. There was an internal transformation that was necessary before I found more ease in sharing my food and lifestyle choices with others.
Research suggests that I am not alone in my fears about challenging the status quo. Social stigma and negative perceptions from others are very real concerns among vegans. And yet, mastering these fears and learning to speak up with others are essential to thriving as a vegan.
Here are some tips for navigating the social waters:
- Stay connected to your reasons for going vegan. Most of us have been conditioned to eat animals and to view this as “natural, normal, and necessary”. It takes time to undo this conditioning, and it takes courage to walk a new path that others may not understand. Watching documentaries, reading books, checking out vegan websites, and connecting with other vegans will provide support and encouragement as you embark on this new way of living.
- Recognize that your needs matter. I had fears about being seen as difficult or demanding by eating in a way that was different than others. Gradually I realized that my personal needs and desires mattered, too. We help no one by negating our own well-being or deeper values.
- Identify the situations that are most challenging for you and develop an action plan. Social events, travel, and eating out can be difficult for new vegans. Rather than leaving it to chance, or figuring it out in the moment, be proactive in planning a strategy. For example, instead of hoping there will be something you can eat at that social event, bring delicious vegan food you can eat and share with others. When eating out, call ahead or take the waiter aside to ask about vegan options. When travelling, bring healthy snacks, just in case.
- Find the right time and place to share your veganism with others. Not everyone will be open to your discoveries about animal cruelty, or about the health or environmental benefits of plant-based eating. And sitting at the dinner table is not the best time or place to share these discoveries with others. Consider sharing about your veganism prior to the meal or gathering, or in a private conversation at another time.
- Learn good communication skills. Beyond Beliefs, by Dr. Melanie Joy, is an excellent book about initiating constructive conversations with others. She also teaches the importance of having vegan allies, people in your life who may not be fully vegan, but who support you and stand with you in your decision.
- Others may surprise you in positive ways. Many of my fears about others’ reactions were unfounded. When I shared from a place of authenticity and non-judgment, others were supportive. In fact, it often led to interesting conversations and greater closeness, even when the other person was not personally ready to embrace veganism. Many later asked for guidance on how to eat more plant-based.
- Bring joyfulness to your vegan journey. Whatever your reason for going vegan, whether out of concern about animals, the planet, or your own health, there is great peace, joy, and freedom that comes from honoring your deepest values. Rather than deprivation, many vegans experience a surprising sense of affirmation, abundance, and possibility. And this is something we naturally want to share with others.