Perfectionism, Veganism and Ex-Vegans
Let me start this off by saying that when it comes to perfectionism, I've got about 2 or 3 masters degrees. By perfectionism of course I mean the pursuit of perfectionism, since this is a horizon-like line that continues to move further away the closer we think we're getting to it. It's an illusion, but for a perfectionist, it just means we need to work a little bit harder if we want to get there. In spite of my advanced career in the pursuit of perfectionism, several things have happened throughout my life, especially in recent years, that have thankfully put me in a state of recovery. By recovery I mean that if there were 12 step program meetings I would surely need to attend for life just to keep it that way. It's work in progress. Not only am I a perfectionist in recovery, but I'm one of those lucky ones that also happens to be an overachiever, and trust me, that is not a good combination.
Here's a look at what my thought process would be in my pre-recovery days:
On the topic of hosting a dinner party:
- "I should think about who's coming and what dishes they'd like the most".
- "I've decided to make a vegan roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, because of course you have to have gravy, maybe a salad."
- "Some people don't like salad so maybe I'll do a side of cooked vegetables as well".
- "Brussels sprouts go well with the meal, I'll make that".
- "Lots of people don't like brussels sprouts, so I'll make some asparagus".
- "Maybe I should make just the asparagus so it's not too much work.... Naaa.... having two options is better."
- "I think I'll make the salad too because maybe someone prefers something fresh like a salad".
- "I think that's plenty of food. Although... I have to offer something while people get here. I need to think of an appetizer."
- "One appetizer will look too silly on a plate. I think there should be two".
(still don't think I was totally insane? Keep reading!).
- "I totally forgot about dessert!."
'- "Maybe I should just serve some fresh fruit and ice cream. That's easy."
- "Ice cream and fruit is for lazies who don't know how to make pie."
- By pie I mean two pies because apple pie is too traditional and some people will want something more decadent, so I'll make a chocolate pie, or a pecan pie too.
- "Pecan pie will be harder to make because I need to go to the only store here that sells pecans."
- "Pecan pie it is because no one will expect it."
- "I have to go buy the decor for the table as well, since these same friends came over for Thanksgiving and I can't have the same table setting."
- I should wake up early on that day since I have to cook so much. That way I can still go for a run early that morning.
- After hours of work, feeling exhausted after the last guest has left, and half of the two pies are still on the table un-eaten (did I mention only 6 people were coming?), not to mention the leftovers don't fit in the fridge and nobody ate the "politically correct/goes with roast and mashed potatoes-brussels sprouts", I realize next time we're all just ordering Chinese.
Talk about crazy!
This was me for YEARS!
If you think I'm the queen of nuttiness, my mother's dinner parties would include all of the above, plus the hand painted place cards made with watercolors, that would match each guest's personality or a funny anecdote. Yes, I said hand painted... with watercolors...
Yup! True story! I learned from the perfectionistic/overachieving pro.
I grew up watching the goddess, the queen of overachieving/perfectionistic tendencies, but as a kid, because of some of the struggles I went through, I also thought that if I could keep it all in a tight little ball, all under my control, in a pretty little perfect package, life would be easier. Spoiler alert, it wasn't. Perfectionism is a nasty little trap, and it can often get wrapped up with food and our eating habits.
It took me years to even accept that so many of the more challenging aspects of my life were even more challenging for me because of the fact that I would have to take it to such an extreme of control and of being perfect.
I've worked through this in more ways than one, and although I'd love to sit here and tell you all about what the perfectionistic side of me would have me do on any given situation, what I want is to shine a light on something that has been worrying me when it comes to people's pursuit of a vegan diet.
I've been noticing two very different things when it comes to the pursuit of perfection and veganism. One has to do with the need to be perfect while on a vegan diet, the other one has to do with the need for the diet to be perfect in and of itself. Today we're going to talk about both, and we're going to try to clear the air of some of those perfectionistic ideas, that not only don't serve us or our advocacy as vegans, but that can also produce the opposite effect when it comes to eating a vegan diet or trying to transition to a vegan diet. Yes, you're getting all this by someone in recovery. Someone in recovery from a very subconscious, automatic and impulsive need to do everything just right. By right I mean perfect. By perfect I mean the chasing of that imaginary line that recedes as you get close to it.
Trying to be the perfect vegan
After going through my own transition to a vegan diet many moons ago, and since helping so many people make the switch to this way of eating, I've realized that we lose sight of the goal fairly quickly.
We may have decided to make this change for the animals, for the environment, for health reasons, or a combination of all, and in all of these cases we were inspired by something greater than our previously engrained habits or taste buds. Slowly but surely though, not for all of us but for some, the focus shifts from the bigger picture, into the very small picture of the diet itself.
Of course any big change like this will require an adjustment period, learning how to build balanced meals as vegans, and all sorts of smaller, practical, shifts. This is a normal part of going through a big dietary change. What I'm seeing however, is that the focus then stays there, in an avid pursuit of perfection.
We worry and wonder about macronutrient ratios, organic, raw, gluten, soy, about going on cleanses, about ketogenic diets, about oil free diets, about taking our bodies to the edges of control and reaching unrealistic ideals. We worry about how often to eat, how many calories to eat, what new superfood we need to make smoothie bowls with, we worry about being absolutely perfect when we order food at restaurants or travel. We worry about the impact that one little meal will have. We start worrying so much it becomes a dietary obsession. We receive so many different takes on nutritional requirements, supplements, foods we should never touch (even vegan ones), and foods we need to practically overdose on regardless of our preferences. We worry about never touching a conventionally grown tomato. We run at the sight of the word sugar in an ingredients list. In other words, we start making it all about the diet.
Veganism is much more than that.
You've heard my perspective on the countless mini vegan diets out there, and how confusing it can be to have experts recommending the exact opposite. We've taken all the diet industry lingo and problems that I'm working so hard to debunk, and we're attaching it to what it means to be vegan. You've heard me say it before, when we add restriction upon the inherent restriction in a vegan diet, many people will feel overwhelmed, will have problems meeting nutrient requirements, will feel fatigued, stressed, anxious, and in many cases, people end up leaving their vegan ways behind. All because by trying to be perfect, and reach unrealistic ideals, they ended up feeling alone, confused, and eventually decided it wasn't worth it.
Our fear mongering culture is also slightly to blame. We love to fear things so deeply that a meal that wasn't perfect means we've lost. A bite of food that wasn't vegan means we've already quit, a step back means there are no more steps forward. We look at the contents of our bathroom, our makeup kit, our comforters, winter coats and feel they don't meet vegan standards and then no change is worth it. We feel the need to be perfect and even go as far as to judge or comment on vegans that aren't as vegan as we are.
Then comes the avalanche of failure and shame.
We feel we've failed if we got blood work back that said we needed to supplement something. We feel we've failed if we caught a cold, gained weight, lost weight. We feel we've failed if we can't be "a model vegan". We are on the perfection train, not realizing the train is hurting everyone, especially the animals.
Whenever I talk about this topic I love to quote the wonderful Colleen Patrick Goudreau who you've heard me mention so many times.
In Colleen's words:
"There is no such thing as a 100% certified vegan. Being vegan is a means to an end - not an end in itself" - Colleen Patrick Goudreau
I love this quote, and it took me a while to wrap my head around it.
"Being vegan is a means to an end." The end being: doing everything we can to help animals. That's what it meant for me at least. Here you can swap the animals for a greater boost in health, a way to help the environment, a way to prevent the human struggles and injustices associated with the meat and dairy industries. That is the end. Being vegan is a way to get there.
When we focus only on the diet, on the minutia of eating this way and how to become the perfect vegan, we lose the chance to inspire others by showing them this change is actually much more doable than some people make it out to be. We alienate from others, often at the expense of feeling connection ourselves. We lose, and the animals lose.
There is no such thing as the perfect vegan, and it's why I get so incredibly excited (and you of course might disagree with me) when certain authors or speakers have told stories of their "vegan humaneness". Like Alicia Siverstone who told Oprah that sometimes she's taken a bite of the cheese dip at a party, or how she wrote in her book, a book that has turned thousands vegan, how she loved sushi so much as a non-vegan, that even after going vegan she would sometimes steal a non-vegan sushi roll from the friend sitting next to her and then move on with her life. Like Rip Esselstyn who confessed to having one burger a year after winning a race. Like Marissa Miller Wolfson, who in her movie Vegucated included people who were almost vegan, vegetarian, mostly vegan, and many who went all the way to vegan. This isn't meant as a permission slip to go eat animal products as vegans. First of all because you don't need a permission slip from me on anything, second of all because what these examples show, is that people are human, imperfect, and brave for not being afraid to admit it. They also understood, that one bite of non-vegan food didn't mean they were quitting on their beliefs or on their veganism, they were human, they made a choice, and then they went on their way to making more changes for animals by being vegan (again, a means to an end, not an end in itself). How far would we go as a movement if we allowed a little more humaneness into the mix, and left perfectionism behind!
This isn't to say the word vegan doesn't mean something. We'll be discussing this soon when we discuss the vegan label so stay tuned.
Enter the ex-vegan
I've been meaning to talk about ex-vegans for a while. I want to talk about it for two reasons. One, is that extreme perfectionism and ex-vegans are two little peas inside the same pod. They are so related, you'll find hundreds of stories of people who decided not to eat vegan anymore after a period of extreme restriction, after feeling so much pressure to be perfect they just couldn't keep it up. And two, add to that the fact that ex-vegans are completely and totally ganged up on, insulted, bullied and criticized for often still doing much more than the average Joe to reduce the consumption of animals. From what I've seen, and from many ex-vegans I've talked to, this makes people feel completely alienated, and reject this lifestyle for good, not wanting to have anything to do with people who ironically preach compassion. Many happy vegans I know have gone back to eating animals at some point, only to go back to a vegan diet once they found their sweet spot. When we bully and alienate ex-vegans, we lose, and the animals lose.
Of course I'm saddened when I hear someone isn't vegan any longer. I feel saddened because after someone already opened their eyes and had such level of awareness they decided to change their diet, they decided to go back to old ways, but I always think of how this person might have stuck with it for longer, had perfectionism and self-judgement (plus judgement from others) had left the building sooner.
The perfect diet
As we move down our list of perfectionism related topics, here's something I've been wanting to talk about recently, especially in recent weeks in which lots of health claims have been made when it comes to a vegan diet.
There is no such thing as the perfect diet. Sure, from what we have seen from the latest research on nutrition, a well-planned vegan diet is amazing, nutritionally speaking. It's even more amazing when it comes to the ripples of change it can create for the animals, the environment or our fellow humans. So much growth will happen when as humans we realize that a little work and compromise is part of doing what is right, meaning we release magical thinking and get real, without expectations of something being perfect in and of itself.
As vegans, we need to make sure we're getting the nutrients we need to be healthy. We need to make sure we get regular check ups and supplement if we need to (and always with vitamin B12). We need to learn from our mistakes, we need to find what works for us and see how we can make it a habit. It takes a little work, as all changes do, but then it becomes second nature and we find our sweet spot.
As humans, we're not only on a constant personal pursuit to achieve perfection, but we love things neatly organized in categories, tightly wrapped in packages that we can label as good, bad, perfect, imperfect. Perfect is often synonymous with magical. We want and expect a vegan diet to be perfect in and of itself. It isn't. Nothing when it comes to diet is perfect and magical just because it is so. We are human, we are all different, we need to work on it and find a balance that helps us stay healthy and feel sane with a dietary change like this. This is so important when it comes to feeling our best on a vegan diet, and keeping it up for the long haul.
When we expect something to be perfect, just by having the automatic flip of the switch of "meat eater to vegan", we cop out of participating in the adventure that is actively improving our lives, making sure we find our place as a vegan advocate, a vegan eater, and our place of health which also includes our mental and emotional health.
Being real and deciding to make this change and work through it if we struggle: always good.
I'm always afraid of films, books and advocates that promise claims when it comes to veganism. They promise weight loss when it doesn't happen for everyone, they promise the shiniest hair when sometimes people's hair stays the same. They promise a lifesaver against cancer, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses, or they especially promise the solution for never getting colds again, a natural cure for depression or anxiety. The aftermath when these things don't happen for everyone? People feel they've failed, they quit, because you had to be too perfect as a vegan.
Here's what does always happen on a vegan diet:
With every meal we eat, with every animal product we skip, no matter how perfect or imperfect we were, we are moving a step further to a world where we start putting fellow beings (including human beings), and our planet, as an important part of our lives, which therefore needs our attention and action. Make no mistake, this is our responsibility as the evolved, thinking, reasoning, human beings that we are.
Imagine a world where we thought about the person next to us, the ocean next to us, the animals next to us, and the people next to us did the very same thing.
When we don't over-obsess or try to be 100% perfect over the 0.0009 % of butter that might be in the bun of the vegan burger we've just ordered, we show the people around us that veganism is actually doable. That you don't have to be a strict monk with perfect will power, paying some kind of penance. It shows we're human, not perfect. We make a far greater impact on others who might want to follow us, when we approach veganism with truth instead of false promises, with flexibility as opposed to rigidity, and from a place of wanting to be part of the change we want to see.
I'll never forget reading a piece by an Amish girl taking part in Rumspringa, the time during their adolescence when they get to experience the world outside their closed communities. She saw a homeless man begging in the street of a big city and remarked that that would never happen in an Amish community because everyone would always reach out to help. Imagine the world we would live in if it was cool, and a given, that making choices because of our values was just as important as any other reason. If veganism wasn't a badge of honor that tries to say we're perfect, but a simple word that says I'm not perfect but I'm trying to do the best I can.
I'm on a mission to change that, and I know many vegans aren't always happy when I support people who are trying to do things the best way they can, even if that isn't fully vegan yet. I would rather you make this transition a long lasting one that inspires so many others, than a perfect one you leave behind.
When it comes to the reason I went vegan, here's the deal, the animals will benefit far more if you show that veganism doesn't mean absolute perfection. That it can be delicious, doable and that you can make "mistakes" and no one will knock on your door and remove your badge. The animals need millions of vegans that in turn inspire millions of others by making this seem approachable and keeping it real, they don't need just a few who do it perfectly.
Oh but how we love the pursuit of perfection! We can start to change this by bringing awareness to the fact that veganism is much bigger than the drizzle of a sauce that may contain mayonnaise at the top of your vegan hotdog.
Just a little food for thought in a week in which the vegan movement has been in a bit of turmoil, some promising dietary nirvana with the flip of a switch, others trying to inspire while keeping it real and imperfect. I'll take real and imperfect any day of the week. It's what I believe we need in order to move forward.