Hanging out with vegans is the best. You can eat their food without worrying, you can talk about the latest accidentally vegan foods you’ve stumbled across, you can go to restaurants and eat amazing… So, the food part is obviously great. As is the fact you can talk about vegan issues in a caring and understanding environment, but sometimes it’s important to have a break.
As nice as it is to imagine having a family and friendship circle that is entirely vegan, the reality is that for the vast majority of vegans, this simply isn’t attainable (in the short-term, anyway), and failing to come to terms with that can put a strain on your social life and mental health. Surrounding yourself with vegans is important, but it’s equally important not to live in a vegan “bubble” (as nice as that sounds).
1. There’s no use preaching to the converted
If you like to help others become vegan by educating them on the physical, mental and environmental benefits of veganism, you’re obviously going to have more success by talking with non-vegans. Even if there’s a few vegetarians in your vegan friendship circle, the chances are they’ve already heard everything you’re going to tell them. Speaking with non-vegans can be challenging, but equally as rewarding. Never underestimate non-vegans! You’ll be surprised who is receptive to veganism given the chance.
2. You can change carnist culture from the inside
In his 2010 book The Age of Absurdity, Michael Foley reminds us that “conditioning is not a simple one-way transfer but a complex circular process fed by constant feedback loops … That is, public behaviour can precede change in public consciousness”. As a vegan spending time with non-vegans, you have the power to subtly influence people who likely wouldn’t change their actions if you weren’t there. If your entire extended family weren’t eating that vegan cake you made for your birthday, they’d be eating non-vegan cake. And who’s to say that realising cake can be vegan (and that good) won’t change their long-held pretences about veganism? Keep in mind these kind of changes are rarely going to be huge, but they are important all the same. By answering questions about your lifestyle when they come up in conversation, or simply bringing vegan snacks to an event, you’re contributing to a culture of change.
3. Boost your motivation
It can be pretty horrible being surrounded by people eating dead animals and their excretions, or listening to people you love talk about animal exploitation as if it were nothing, but you can turn these movements into a positive. By clueing in on what non-vegans do for fun and why (going to the horse races? Really?), or listening to what they talk about, you’re better equipped to relate to them. Then, when the time comes, you’re prepared to suggest similar, cruelty free alternatives (“Remember how fun [cool local hang] was? Let’s start a tradition! We can get dressed up and go for drinks there instead of the races!”). Even if you’re not able to, or don’t want to, proactively create change among people around you, realising the thoughts and activities that make up non-vegan cultural “norms” will surely reignite your own vegan resolve.
4. The pressure to be perfect
Sometimes being surrounded by vegans feels a bit… well, cagey, for a lack of a better word. In her guest post for Our Hen House, Maya Gottfried explores the idea that “the vegan police are everywhere and nowhere“. “When I discovered a dress that I purchased was 5% silk,” she writes, “I imagined if I didn’t donate it to a thrift store immediately, vegans would bust into my house, read my clothing labels until they found it and punish me accordingly.” Of course, this is an exaggeration, but the sentiment is clear: “I am an imperfect vegan and will most certainly continue to make mistakes on occasion.” Filled with only good intention, vegans, including oneself, Gottfried concedes, don’t always follow the path of helpfulness in the most compassionate way. Of course, non-vegans can be just as judgmental when you accidentally slip-up, but the pack mentality mightn’t be so suffocating.
5. Ignorance can be bliss
Your vegan friends are undoubtedly some of the best, most compassionate people you know, and you most probably adore their dedication to their cause, but if you’ve had any experiences like me, sometimes the constant talk of animal rights issues can be a bit overwhelming – the problems too big, the causes too many, the dream impossible. Sometimes it’s nice just to have a break – even if that means spending time with people who have no idea, or “don’t care”.
However, this can go the other way:
6. Your mental health comes first
Psychologist and vegan Clare Mann points out that vegans often feel misunderstood by non-vegans, leading to feelings of isolation, anger and despair.
“Of the advocates I have talked to the vast majority say that they no longer have non-vegan friends because they simply don’t feel understood by them. This is particularly the case when they want to talk about the trauma they feel in relation to animal cruelty.
But does someone need to be traumatised by animal cruelty themselves in order to support or understand your suffering?
If this assumption is correct, it has implications for the basis of understanding others generally. Does it mean that people can only understand experiences such as abuse, depression or divorce, if they have been through these experiences themselves?”
Clearly, this is a complex and highly personal issue. No matter what “kind” of vegan you are or what activism you engage in, these mental health issues can affect us all; activism fatigue and trauma doesn’t just happen to direct action animal liberators.
“So can a vegan only receive support and help from another vegan?” asks Clare Mann.
“Not necessarily. It is up to the individual to decide… Our family or friends, like other human beings, have the capacity to empathise with another’s pain. Some people are better at helping someone else than others to develop strategies to cope with the challenges of life.”
In other words, your mum, brother or best friend may not be vegan, but they’re probably the people that know you best – and probably know how best to help you, even if they don’t understand the ins-and-outs of what veganism and animal rights entails for you. For this reason, it’s important not to shut non-vegans out. Surround yourself with incredible, compassionate vegans, of course, but surround yourself with non-vegans, too. Help, love, compassion and support aren’t exclusively vegan traits. Vegans and non-vegans alike will remind you to “acknowledge your own humanity”, allowing yourself the right to pleasure and relaxation.
If you’re struggling socially, mentally or in any other capacity, seek help – from close relatives, friends or healthcare professionals.