"Othered" and "Othering": Feeling Separate, Distant or Isolated When Going Vegan
After the long and way too fun post and episode we had last week in which I answered a great listener question, we talked all about my favorite books, the three books that have changed my life and our vegan library of resources, I thought today we needed a shorter but inspirational episode. Today we're going to talk about something that's behind so many of our readers' and listeners' concerns or feelings of sadness, anxiety and loneliness some people experience when going vegan. When we get your lovely questions and comments that have to do with the social side of going vegan, we tend to focus on the habits and external tips and tricks (and I sure have many of those to help you with), when it comes to sharing your life with people who aren't vegan. Today however, we're diving in deeper, because the truth is sometimes we need to go below surface level, go deep into the dark waters and shine a little light on what's really going on so we can enjoy the views of the reef down below right?
We've talked about having a non-vegan partner before, and we've covered so many of the social aspects of going vegan, as well as some of the physical and emotional changes we might go through when we go vegan. We haven't talked about how veganism in a way draws an invisible line in the sand. One that is sometimes reaffirmed and dug into deeper, when we look into the ethical aspects of making this change, or we read certain books or listen to certain advocates. This is the line that separates us as vegans from people who aren't vegan, especially our friends and family who haven't decided to join us. What happens sometimes is that we're not aware of it, and it can start going from line, to a little divider, then a fence, then a wall, and what comes next is the feeling of isolation, of feeling lonely, separate, misunderstood or like we're a lone warrior fighting an impossible fight all by ourselves.
Today I'm going to challenge this line, we're going to try to see it clearly in the hopes that doing so makes us notice that it doesn't have to be a source of stress or make us feel distant. I'm going to do it with a little exercise that you can take into so many aspects of your life, since it will help teach us a lesson that is so needed in our world today. This way we can hopefully learn that differences are welcome, they're more than ok, in fact they're awesome, and the way we do this is by finding the bridges that connect us on either side.
I'm going to start this off by telling you some of the things that kind of set me apart, the things that for years made me draw that line in the sand and feel that everyone else was on the other side of it. As you know, I never ask you to go through any self discovery exercise without using myself as a guinea pig first.
So here goes:
- I grew up in a very traditional community, the daughter of a single mom who hadn't married my dad, and who also happened to have a physical disability and illness that made our life very different from that of the kids around me.
- I'm vegan and I went vegan when no one else around me knew what that word even meant.
- I went vegan because I love animals and wanted to reduce the suffering of animals as much as I could even if I couldn't be perfect.
- I went vegan and through a very tumultuous journey, I finally found peace with food by realizing there was no need to fear food, no need to put foods into good and bad categories. This means I don't eat an oil free diet, I also happen to eat sugar, I enjoy vegan products when I feel like them, including vegan meats and cheeses, soy products and the like. I love whole foods and I'm also not afraid of having Oreo cookies. I eat lots of gluten because I think bread is joy and gluten doesn't disagree with me.
- I don't think health is synonymous with being thin, and through everything I've learned and seen through the years, I'm convinced that we need a shift in perspective, from a weight centric approach, to a self compassionate and kinder approach that puts self care in the driver's seat regardless of weight outcomes.
- I think people of all sizes, races, sexual orientations, genders, education and socio-economic backgrounds deserve equal respect and opportunities.
- I don't think vegan or plant based diets are the only way to eat nor are they the cure for all conditions.
- I think vegan diets can be approached in many different ways and even small changes help towards a kinder world.
- I believe you can go vegan and this doesn't mean you're always perfect.
- I believe you can go vegan even if your loved ones never decide to join you.
Then come the silly and more personal ones:
- I'm a total nerd who loves to curl up with a good book much more than she'd enjoy a party.
- I'm a total introvert.
- My favorite thing to do is write or hang out in nature with my dogs and hubby.
- I don't like the crunchy chocolate exterior of ice creams that are covered in chocolate.
- I'm obsessed with stories about cults.
- I think everything is better with a little lemon on it.
- I put fruit in my Thai curries.
- I think going to the movies isn't worth it if you're not getting popcorn (if you love popcorn of course).
- I think people have so much kindness in them, we've just lost our way a little bit.
These are just some of the things that put me on either side of the line in the sand depending on who you're talking to. I can find many people who disagree with me on many of these, and if you're vegan, chances are you've had people challenge your habits and choices more than once.
This can feel overwhelming especially as new vegans, when we constantly feel like we're on the other side of the fence, but what we don't realize is that sometimes, this little invisible battlefield, with armed people on both sides and a huge meadow in between waiting for one side to move forward, is internal. When you find yourself identifying too much to one side or another, and a few weeks later you start noticing that you've been feeling alienated, separate, alone or that people don't understand where you're coming from, chances are you're in what I like to call the "othered-othering" dichotomy.
This is just a made-up name to explain that feeling we get when we're constantly feeling like the people we love are on that other side making judgements about our own, not noticing that we're also in turn having opinions about their habits. We make them different by "othering them", not noticing that by doing that we're making a division that puts us in the "othered" side of the line.
I get it though, as an animal lover and as someone who understands and teaches about all the wonderful side effects eating this way can have when it comes to us, the animals and our planet, I get why we can sometimes feel that going vegan is "the only way". The problem with this, is that it doesn't bring about anything helpful, to us, or to the people around us. Going vegan with this line drawn in front of us, can have us feeling so alone and separate from the people we love, when in fact we'd feel much better and we'd inspire more people by building those bridges that can connect us with what we perceive to be the other side.
I like to do this with a little exercise.
The tiny bridges exercise
Something we sometimes don't like to see when it comes to these issues is that we all have things in common. There are characteristics that are shared between two people no matter how different they might seem, whether it's a hunter in conversation with an animal activist, or two people with opposite opinions on a presidential candidate. We've just been taught by everything around us, that we need to zero in on the things that separate us from others. That's why clubs, religions, fan bases and even particular hobbies are so popular. It's so much easier to just join people who think and like what we do.
The problem with this is that not only would we immediately enter Stepford territory, and the world would become a very boring place with no growth whatsoever, but when it comes to veganism, most of us have people we love who don't eat the way we do and we need to find that point of connection again so we can feel like our normal joyful selves. This includes firmly feeling part of our world, no matter how many different choices we make.
So here's what I'm proposing for this week. Whenever you encounter anyone this week, whether that's a co-worker, the bus driver, a teacher, a family member, someone you dislike, your best friend or a stranger on the street, find something you share. It can be a character trait, your love of something similar, your taste in music or in books, an experience, etc. After a while, once finding little bridges that join you together becomes the default, move on to thinking about people who have opposite views to you. People who are figuratively on the other side of that line in the sand. Repeat this exercise with them until you find the bridges that will now help you build something new together.
Change can be hard on us and it can be hard on those we love, especially a change like going vegan which shakes so many things up, since food is so tied into family dynamics and traditions. The more we find the bridges that we can now build new foundations upon, the better and more supported we'll feel, and the less reactive the people around us will feel in return.
For example, if I were to talk to a hunter, the conversation would be much more uncomfortable if I'm thinking about how this goes against my ethics and I'm thinking about the little creatures he or she is hurting or has killed through the years. What if I took a moment to build a bridge? One little bridge with a hunter could be that they love being outdoors, which happens to be my favorite place to be. Another could be that they love being quiet and having some time to themselves (hello fellow introvert!), another could be that it's been a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation (hello fellow tradition lover!). Then I might start to notice that before I went vegan I was eating everything this man probably hunts without a second thought, and that I thought I'd never be able to change my habits.
There are still so many things we will have that are on opposite sides of the spectrum, but can't you already see the shift that happens when we turn the other person into someone we share traits with? Any conversation we will have will contain much less resistance, and even when not talking to each other, the relationship has already changed, and our feeling of belonging has already changed.
I try to remember this exercise whenever I'm having a disagreement with someone, or someone is driving me nutty, or I keep having a very deep and strong emotional reaction to someone. Chances are they hit a nerve, and sadly due to the complexity of human psychology, this is usually a sign that we share a similar trait we haven't wanted to acknowledge in ourselves.
By building these little bridges of things we also see in ourselves, what we do is humanize people, we turn them from the person on the opposite side of the battlefield, to this reality: we are all sharing space in this world with people who are different from us, people with different beliefs, ethics, mindsets, skin colors, gender identities, incomes, education, tastes, likes and dislikes. This awesome diversity is what creates change in the world, and the road there is sometimes very messy, but we can do our best to find connections instead of separation. We can go from feeling "othered" and "othering" those around us, to finding those common threads that will make us more understanding, and others less resistant, to change. This can change even the most difficult of family or friend dynamics, and it can help us fun weirdos who do super cool stuff feel much less alone, because we start to notice that the world is full of fun weirdos who do super cool stuff and that everyone is looking for belonging.