Out of all the frequently asked questions in this series, this is probably the one I get most often. Being vegan in an overwhelmingly anti-vegan world can be a profoundly isolating experience, and having to live in a society which is built on animal suffering can have a real impact on mental health. As any vegan will tell you, the most difficult part of the lifestyle isn’t the food, it’s coping with constant exposure to animal cruelty and dealing with other people.
The sense of sadness and anger that comes from knowing the things we know will be familiar to every vegan, where you used to see sausages and bacon you now see dismembered bodies, and what used to be innocuous adverts make you angry and disgusted, as cartoon caricatures of animals are used to advertise the sale of their own dead bodies. This knowledge can be hard to cope with, especially when people dismiss these facts as propaganda, call you a “preachy vegan” for even talking about it, or just make bacon jokes at your expense when you try to share the things you have learned. Knowing about the horrific atrocities being committed can be a burden, and can create a sense of powerlessness, especially when others just don’t seem to care about it.
One of the issues is that vegans don’t feel able to really talk about this in public spaces, for fear of being mocked, which has the effect of isolating people and discouraging them from airing these feelings openly. Vegans are very far from being an oppressed group, but there is a very real stigma surrounding veganism, and several unhelpful stereotypes which are the topics of frequent criticism and public ridicule. Every vegan is expected to be able to “take a joke” when the content of that joke is making light of animal suffering, and we are all expected to want to, and be able to, defend ourselves against almost constant questions, criticisms of veganism and imaginary scenarios. Vegans are one of the few groups who it is considered socially acceptable to bully and insult, even among social justice advocates, since vegans are unfortunately still widely disliked. All of this can lead to some real difficulties, especially if you are shy or socially anxious.
There is nothing I can really say that will solve any of these problems for you, I can only advise based on what I think are good ways of coping. Firstly, though you may feel isolated with few or no vegan friends, know that there is an active and welcoming community of vegans on every social media platform, finding them and getting involved with them can be a great way of transcending those feelings of isolation. Being among like-minded people can be a really healing experience, and it helps remind you that you’re not extreme, you’re not alone in thinking this way and that so many other people are dealing with the same issues and struggles that you are. This can also help you become a better advocate for animals, we can make contacts and we can earn from each other’s arguments, as well as finding healthier ways of coping with the struggles which being vegan can bring.
My chief recommendation would be to channel that anger and sadness into something positive, whether it’s through an outlet like writing or art, or through actively engaging in activism on the streets or online. This can be a really positive and healthy outlet, not to mention the difference it can make for animals by encouraging others to go and stay vegan. Activism can be really challenging, but it is incredibly rewarding and it is a good way to counter those feelings of helplessness and isolation. Even on your worst days, knowing you’re making a difference and helping people to go vegan is a really positive thing. You should be prepared for failure in advocacy too, you will get negative reactions and more often than not people will be unwilling to hear the message, but just the act of being out there and doing something can make you feel much less powerless and much less alone.
Besides that, there are many others positive aspects of veganism which you should immerse yourself in. Reading books, watching documentaries and communicating those messages to others will re-ignite your passion for veganism if you are beginning to find it difficult, and the facts and argument you inevitably learn from doing this can help you deal with the objections and criticisms of non-vegans much easier. I’d really recommend visiting or even volunteering at a farm sanctuary if you have the opportunity to do so, even if it’s something you can only do once, seeing animals in such a positive setting can do wonders for your mental health, and it’ll remind you of the reason we do all of this, and of the fact that not all animals live miserable lives. That connection to nature is something we need as humans, and it can have a profound impact on your mood and your perspective on veganism going forward.
Just as there are many things you should be doing, there are some things you should avoid. While watching documentaries, reading books and keeping up to date on what is happening in the world of animal rights can be really positive, there is just no need to subject yourself to graphic scenes or descriptions if they are going to upset you. Once you’ve seen Earthlings once you don’t need to see it again, and since you’re already vegan it’s perfectly fine for you to avoid engaging in images of animal abuse, since you aren’t contributing to it yourself. This sounds so obvious, but I have met so many vegans who watch these videos on a regular basis and find it deeply upsetting, but they continue to do so out of some sense of wanting to bare witness. If you already know what happens to farmed animals then it’s perfectly reasonable for you to protect yourself by avoiding watching the footage unless you are going to make use of it in your advocacy, in which case you should know what you are sharing.
There are several things about being vegan which are not easy, but veganism is a profoundly positive thing, and even those who struggle with these issues will tell you that their only regret is that they didn’t do it sooner. Being vegan is not something to mourn, but something to celebrate. We are a movement with a long history, we have a vibrant and diverse community all across the world, our own inside jokes, our own culture, music, literature, philosophy and art. By being vegan you are doing something unequivocally positive, and though it may not feel like it, you absolutely are making a difference. We are on the right side of history, and when you are being mocked or dismissed, take comfort in the fact that this is the same treatment which activists of all types have been subject to all throughout history. You are most definitely in good company.