Navigating Social Challenges on the Vegan Path

Photo by Paulette Wooten on Unsplash

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.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist, transformational coach, and vegan lifestyle educator.

Need support on your plant-based journey?  Check out these resources, websites, and book recommendations for guidance and information.

How Veganism Inspired Me to Find My Voice

Three cows with tags on their ears
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Throughout my life, I have been an introvert.  I’ve always relished solitude, and preferred small groups to large crowds.  I dreaded public speaking and hesitated to express my opinion, especially if it conflicted with others.  This is a story of how I transformed from someone who avoided public speaking to becoming empowered to express what matters deeply to me.

I initially chose a career in journalism because of my love for writing.  However, I discovered that news reporting did not fit my reserved nature.  I was fascinated by psychology, and changed majors in the middle of my junior year of college.  I went on to complete a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology.

Now, a few decades later, I am grateful for this heart-guided choice.   I found work that I loved and that fit with my interests, gifts, and introspective nature.   However, the day-to-day demands of my work as a psychotherapist didn’t leave much time or energy to pursue my dream of writing.  And looking back, perhaps I was not yet inspired to overcome the perceived obstacles.

An Awakening

But then I learned about something that became so meaningful, compelling, and life-changing, it has continued to impact me and to make me more fully human, more fully me.  It gave me a sense of purpose and passion to make a difference.  And over time, I came to realize that it impacts all of humanity, including physical health, emotional and spiritual well-being, and the survival of the planet.  No longer could I keep this to myself as a private revelation.

This discovery started in December 2006, a few weeks after my 40th birthday.  I was watching a program on PBS which had a segment featuring workers in a meat processing plant.  These employees endured difficult working conditions and frequent occupational injuries.  They were coerced not to report their injuries but rather to continue working or face the threat of losing their jobs and income.  The program did not show any gory details of “meat processing,” but I was deeply unsettled.   Maybe it particularly struck me because at the time, I was employed in a pain management program, working with patients who suffered devastating emotional, physical, and financial impacts from work-related injuries.   

I also recognized that if I didn’t like how the workers were treated, I would be appalled if I saw the slaughter process or how the animals were treated.  For the first time in my life, I began to consider the systems that produced my food.

Obviously, on some level I knew that meat came from animals and that they were killed in order to become what I called food.  However, like many of us, I was very disconnected from this process.  Although I grew up in Iowa, surrounded by farms, I didn’t know about factory farming.  I knew only a few vegetarians, and I didn’t understand why anyone would choose that lifestyle.   At that time, I wasn’t much of a cook, and I ate a lot of microwave meals and comfort foods.  I couldn’t imagine taking on the effort of cooking and meal planning, much less learning how to eat and cook in an entirely new way.  

After watching the PBS program, a door of possibility opened.  The very next day, I went to Barnes and Noble, bought my first vegetarian cookbook, and tried out a recipe for roasted red pepper and artichoke lasagna.  Because I was such a novice at cooking, I had to drive to K-Mart mid-way through the recipe to purchase appropriate pots and pans.  The lasagna turned out to be delicious, full of vibrant colors and sumptuous flavors.  I shared it with my boyfriend’s family, and it got rave reviews.  Wow, who knew I could cook?

I went on to read every book in my local library about vegetarianism.  I read about plant-based nutrition, to make sure I was covering all of my nutritional bases.  I also read about the ethical and environmental impact of animal agriculture.  I found myself captivated, and at times horrified, by what I was learning.

At first, I still ate meat when it was served at social gatherings.  However, at home I was eating vegetarian, and for the first time in my life, found that I enjoyed cooking.  I realized I had never liked handling meat, but thought that it was necessary for my health and well being.  I began going to the health food store and buying spices and condiments I had never used before.  I expanded my food palette and found new freedom, joy, and creativity.

I continued reading about vegetarian ethics and lifestyle.  Gradually, I took in that despite what my upbringing and culture had taught me, I did not need meat to thrive physically.  I learned that plant-based diets have been shown to reverse heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer and auto-immune disease.  But what impacted me the most were the stories about how the animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered, and the cruelty and pain inherent in every step of the process.   At that point, I knew I needed to speak my truth: “I’m no longer eating meat.” 

A Deeper Commitment

Over the months and years following my decision to be vegetarian, I came to understand that all forms of animal products involve pain and cruelty.  I started to limit dairy products, and discovered that I was free of chronic seasonal allergies when I did so.  I knew that becoming vegan was the right next step for me to more fully honor my deepest values.  And yet, in spite of my desire to embrace veganism, at times a kind of hypnosis took over, where I felt myself pulled back into eating what was familiar.  And since dairy and eggs are often “invisible” components of baked goods and other foods, I found it hard to explain my decision to not partake in these foods at social gatherings.

I knew I needed support, and so once again, I turned to reading.  Books such as  The 30 Day Vegan Challenge and Main Street Vegan helped me with many practical skills for living a vegan lifestyle:  How to make delicious breakfasts and baked goods without eggs; how to find cruelty free cosmetics and cleaning products; and where to buy shoes and coats not made from leather, wool, or down.  I also learned skills for communicating with others about my choices.

I took in the reality that the living conditions for dairy cows and egg-laying hens are as cruel as those endured by animals raised for meat, and that at the end of their relatively short lives, they go through the same slaughter process.   Gradually, I broke through the deep layers of emotional disconnection and social conditioning.  At that point, there was no going back.

Finding My Voice

Speaking up does not come easily or naturally to me.  Yet my passion for veganism, for animals, for our health, and for the environment compels me to do so.  Most of all, I long to share the freedom and joy I have found through a plant-powered lifestyle.   When I stopped eating animals and embraced the bounty of the plant kingdom, I became freed in ways I hadn’t anticipated.  I was freed from past food preferences, habits, and addictions that weren’t healthy for me.  I was freed from the subconscious weight of killing sentient beings for my daily sustenance. 

Veganism is a path of listening to our heart’s guidance to extend compassion to all of creation.  We have the power to vote for what we believe in through how we spend our money and what we choose to eat.  Each day, through these choices, we can honor our deepest values of vibrant health and well-being, a thriving planet, and compassion and justice for all.

An array of brightly colored vegetables
Photo by Chantal Garnie on Unsplash

Interested in moving toward a plant-based diet? Check out these resources and book recommendations for guidance, information, and support.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist, transformational coach, and vegan lifestyle educator.