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“Plant based” or “Vegan” and increasing our tolerance for discomfort

These are my thoughts following a CWAFV Zoom meeting in December 2020. I host these meetings on a monthly basis and the purpose is to allow people to explore questions and concerns about veganism. For vegans, this often means learning how to better communicate about veganism in a way that people can hear. For non-vegans, the meetings provide a space to ask questions without fear of being shamed.

Hi there,I hope you’re all having a great day! As is typical for me, I’ve spent much of my time since we met on Sunday pondering our conversations and feeling so inspired by your willingness to put yourself out there, share your concerns, questions, vulnerabilities – basically, sharing your true selves. I ask you – Is there anything better???

I promised to send you those restaurant notes and I also wanted to briefly touch on a few things we discussed the other day. To find the notes, go to the “Resources” page of conversationswithafriendlyvegan.com. If you have any trouble, please contact me directly at amp@sta2ned.com and I’ll send it to you. Also, please contact me if you had questions that we didn’t get to cover.Any one of the topics we covered could easily take the entire hour. If anyone would actually like to dig deeper and spend the whole time on one issue, I’m more than happy to oblige! In the meantime, here are my post-meeting thoughts.

“I’m vegan” versus “I’m plant-based” – Whatever you say, I want it to be a reflection of your most authentic self. If you’re vegan for ethical reasons, then saying plant based may not convey the truest version of you. As I mentioned, some days we all need a little deflection – we’re not up for the conversation, the tension, etc. It’s totally okay for you to have those moments and protect yourself! At the same time, if you’re consistently believing one thing and saying another, it may weigh on you in the long run. It does take courage to show your true self but it’s also very hard work to pretend on a regular basis. I still have moments where I say one thing but what I REALLY mean is, “I’m vegan but I don’t want to educate you on that right now” or “I’m vegan but I don’t want to talk about it.” I wonder how THAT would go over! Instead, I may say something like, “I’m vegan. Hey, I like that sweater. Where’d you get it?” That’s the good, old, change the subject technique. Very sophisticated.

Conversation Stoppers – I’ve been thinking about the response, “I’m vegan for ethical reasons” and how it fails to lead to any follow-up questions. Here are a few responses I’ve given that have, at least sometimes, resulted in a conversation:“I don’t want to unnecessarily hurt anyone. I feel terribly sad when I think of how animals are tortured and killed in the billions for no reason.” — the other person may feel compelled to comment on the necessity which can lead into some good stuff.“I’m vegan because I can’t think of one good reason NOT to be! Believe me, I’ve tried and not one argument holds up to scrutiny.” — someone may proceed to work pretty hard to stump me. It can be a fun way to spend some time. I think the skill of scrutinizing ideas previously taken for granted is an excellent one to master.“I’m vegan because I realized that leading a compassionate life is one of my highest priorities and I decided one day to take it very seriously instead of just saying it.” Let the fireworks fly.These responses add more details and give someone something specific to either agree with or argue against. They may still not follow-up but I bet you anything , the next time they have a meal, they will think of you – maybe not fondly but, still. If it feels weird to say these things, first, I recommend you find your own words that better reflect what you believe. What’s your honest answer to the question? Second, feeling a little uncomfortable when you’re pretty sure your answer will make someone else uncomfortable is understandable. Go with it. It will help increase your tolerance for discomfort.  Speaking of …

Discomfort – I’m not in the business of shaming people or telling people what to do. I don’t want to coerce, but I do very much want to have a positive impact. I want to make a difference. I learned early on that, if I wanted to have an impact with regard to veganism, I needed to increase my tolerance for discomfort – my own, and the discomfort of others. It’s okay to change the subject sometimes, but I don’t want that to be my M.O. To impact deeply entrenched ideas about animals, compassion, and kindness, I must be willing to create cognitive dissonance. That’s when my mere presence or a conversation reveals that a person’s stated beliefs are out of line with their actions. That is SUPER uncomfortable! But discomfort, in this case, is a very good sign. When someone pushes back on my statements about being vegan or refuses to acknowledge how excellent my pumpkin pie tastes 😉 , I see someone experiencing a disruption in their normal thinking pattern. I see an internal struggle. I used to get nervous when I sensed this. Now I feel excited. It’s an opportunity you can pursue if you’re up for it and if you’re prepared for it. How do you train yourself to be up for these conversations? I did it by learning techniques (I can help you out with this part!), reading a ton about vegan related issues, and a whole lot of trial and error. I need to be willing to explore my own biases and sensitivities that regularly get triggered during intense conversations. When I sense that discomfort and may feel an impulse to run, instead I take a deep breath. I practice self talk that calms me. I listen very hard so I can understand on as deep a level as possible what the person is trying to say to me. I share from my heart with all the compassion that brought me to veganism in the first place. Mostly, what I see when I’m really willing to be open to what someone is saying, is fear. When someone’s afraid, I’m not inclined to overpower them. I’d rather sit with them, listen, and offer support. This is a big part of what Conversations with a Friendly Vegan is all about. I want to support someone in becoming vegan, not shame them into it.

Vegan-to-Vegan – I know there are different ways of looking at vegan advocacy. I developed Conversations with a Friendly Vegan because I wanted something different than what was already out there. This is not (at all!) to say that what’s out there is bad. Quite the contrary! But I wanted what I call, “everyday advocacy” – something integrated into my life rather than something I do every once in a while. Among all the vegan speakers and groups out there, I’ve seen tons of support and also some criticism of each other. I welcome criticism of my method because it helps me see the flaws and improve it. But, it can of course go well beyond constructive criticism and I’m pretty sure that’s not helpful. I think there’s room for us all and we’ll ultimately be stronger if we back each other up. Speaking specifically to something that came up during our talk, here’s a cognitive distortion I think may be at play that keeps us in opposition instead of supporting one another: “Every ethical vegan should be 100% willing to speak out for animals 100% of the time,” or, “Every ethical vegan should be at the same place in their willingness and ability to discuss vegan issues.” Here’s a pro-tip: The word “should” can often point to a cognitive distortion. I studied under someone who coined the phrase, “Stop shoulding all over  yourself!” Yeah, he was funny. It helps me to write these things down because it becomes more clear to me that my thinking might be a little off. The next step is to challenge the thought – Is this REALLY true? If the answer is no, I proceed to determine an alternative that IS true such as, “I want all ethical vegans to be ready and willing to talk about vegan issues but I know there are many factors involved and we will all be in different places at different times. I can support vegans who want to increase advocacy skills.” One of the really cool things about this practice is that, exploring our own cognitive distortions, helps us be more patient with the distortions held by many non-vegans.

Truly, I could keep writing. Really, I’d like to include something about being “nice” versus being “kind”, how being a friendly vegan doesn’t mean things don’t get super tense sometimes and how it’s okay to vent with each other as a way to process frustration so our conversations with non-vegans can be more productive. Do you see now what I’m saying when I say I’m inspired by you and these amazing conversations? Thank you! I hope to see you again next month. Remember, 4pm, last Sunday of every month.

Finally, here’s my New Year’s toast to you: “May 2021 be a year filled with a joyful exploration of your most authentic you.”

Love,Anne