Vegan Psychology


How to live as a vegan in a non-vegan world and communicate it to others

Many ethical vegans suffer from anxiety and trauma. This is because they have learnt about the cruel treatment of animals in society, especially those who are part of industrial production.

In this interview on Freedom of Species Radio, Clare Mann talks about what ethical vegans can do to manage their anxiety, live in a non-vegan world and communicate their values to others who are not vegan.

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When non-veganism isn’t an option: An existential perspective

When people become vegan they are often bewildered at the strength of the resistance or criticism they receive from others, particularly their family. They may have faced resistance to many other choices before, but when it comes to veganism there is none of the usual open-mindedness and willingness to embrace change, and little sign of a genuine desire of family members to love them even while they hate their behaviour. Why is this so, and what can vegans do when faced with a family imploring them to revert to non-veganism?

The late Albert Schweitzer once said, “The problem with man today is that he doesn’t think.” He went on to say that human beings tend to copy what other people do, and conform to what they believe is acceptable or “the right thing”. This is not entirely a conscious choice; rather it is an unconscious acceptance that one’s culture, societal norms, or the “way things have always been” are correct.

Sanctions for not adhering to certain norms may result in being excluded from the family or community. For example, a family may reject an individual who decides to marry outside their faith or culture. Other families may not agree with their children’s choices, but do not reject them. Instead they may appeal to the individual to change, encouraging them to embrace their culture by behaving in a collectively acceptable way.

Understanding Resistance

Different dynamics appear to underpin different families’ responses to someone becoming vegan. Personal ridicule or criticism can be levelled at the person, with complaints about how difficult they are making things for everyone else, or how family celebrations will never be the same again. Remarks often relate to the family’s disappointment that the vegan is being “difficult”, upsetting the way the family operates. Often these complaints focus on personal disappointment and appeals to lost intimacy and shared traditions, and do not make the same appeals to wider cultural norms that occur in other conflicts.

Why is resistance personally focused when a family member becomes vegan, and generically focused when another family member changes faith, say or extends there family outside of their culture.  For example a family who adhere to strict Judaism would most likely resist a member of their family marrying a Muslim.  Likewise, a European couple in a strict Christian denomination might be resisted in their attempts to adopt a child from a family of a different nationality whose country broadly don’t uphold Christianity.   In each case, an appeal might be made to their actions being ‘against their culture’. I believe the reason has something to do with how the family’s non-veganism is personally affronted by the values of the vegan, in a way that other actions or beliefs may not be.


Imagine a family with strong beliefs about the type of partner their daughter should marry in terms of race, religion or sexual orientation. One of their daughters advises that she wishes to marry outside these boundaries. If tradition is valued and her parents believe it is more correct for people to act in prescribed ways, they are likely to exert pressure on her to conform to what they believe is acceptable. They may criticise, ridicule, implore, or even eject her from the family until she changes her ways. The daughter may or may not stick to her guns, but either way she experiences discomfort because her family is not honouring her beliefs, while she is attacked for not honouring theirs.

However, whilst a daughter may seek her parents’ acceptance for her choice, she is unlikely to expect her bothers and sisters to copy her. This is what makes the choice to be an ethical vegan different: the person who chooses to be vegan wishes not only their family but the whole world to be vegan.

Why does the vegan wish to impose their values on others?

criticismThe ethical vegan has become aware of the gross inequity in the rights afforded to human vs. non-human animals. They have lifted the veil on the generally unquestioned doctrine of human superiority that results in Speciesism. Speciesism is a value system that affords different rights to members of different species, or even to sub-categories within a species: for example, domestic animals have legal and moral protections that animals raised for industrial use don’t.

Individuals who choose to be vegan not only want their family to accept their choices—they want them to become vegan too.

Vegans typically report the following about talking to their non-vegan family:

  • They advise their family why they have become vegan and the trauma and anger they feel in relation to the extent of animal abuse in society, including in factory farming, retail and manufacturing.
  • The family may be open-minded and discuss the vegan’s choice more fully. Alternatively, they may criticise the choice because of its negative effect on family habits and traditions.
  • Having told their family of the extent of animal cruelty, and that if they don’t choose veganism their daily choices involve using products and services that abuse animals, vegans expect the family to make the same vegan choice. They say things like, “If my family really understood my pain, they would be vegan. How could they not be?”

This is where the vegan suffers enormous angst in living in a non-vegan family. I believe their angst is existential in nature, and increases the angst of everyone involved.

Existential angst or anxiety is a feeling of dread, anxiety or anguish that arises when an individual becomes truly aware of their freedom to choose his or her own being. The immensity of this responsibility influences many people to deny they have such a freedom. Instead they refer to the objective rightness of culture and tradition, as if they have no choice to be or do anything else. Vegans experience angst because they know their family does have choice despite the vegan’s  heart-felt belief in the wrongness of the non-vegan way of being.

The family deals with their existential anxiety and the challenge to their choices by appealing to culturally and socially created myths (unquestioned assumptions) about why non-veganism is the correct order of things. They do this by referring to what people must eat in order to be healthy, “the natural order of things”, religious dogma, and the superiority of humans over animals.

Creating a more conscious world

Whilst an existential perspective highlights that each of us may choose our own way of being, the vegan finds it hard to accept that other people choose to be non-vegan. They believe veganism is the only ethically acceptable option that affords all living creatures the right to live a life not controlled or dictated to by humans. They can’t sit in silence when they see inequities or atrocities perpetrated on animals by people who never question the belief that humans have the right to choose how they treat other creatures.

In an attempt to redress this imbalance, vegans act to change the non-vegan choices that impose suffering on animals. This is far more central to their sense of self identity and moral and ethical rightness than other choices like sanctioning marriage outside a faith or culture.   As we have pointed out, that is not the same.

Veganism is a philosophy of the non-use and non-exploitation of animals. The vegan has learnt that animal cruelty is institutionalised in industrial processes related to the production of food, clothing and furniture, in product testing, and in other uses e.g. entertainment and sport.  A person may disagree with animal cruelty yet choose not to be vegan, not considering that animal cruelty is inherent in the goods and services they buy. Non-vegans do not knowingly collude with animal cruelty: they are unwittingly collaborators, until a vegan tells them the truth.

resistanceA vegan who talks to family members about these issues and finds that they do not also become vegan believes that the family agree with the cruelty, or disbelieve what they have been told, or are indifferent. As the family dynamic is inherent unequal, with parents tending to assume they “know better” than their children, they often resist challenges to their choices from their children (even when the children are adults). The discomfort they feel may be existential because it challenges the certainty with which they see “the world”. They are being shown that there is “another way of being” different to how they have fixed their world, and they are being asked to accept this knowledge and act upon it.

If family members refuse to change, the vegan knows that the non-vegans now have knowledge but choose to continue with the collusion. This is why they say that their family don’t understand them. They sometimes say that the non-vegan family members are demonstrating that

  • Cruelty and animal exploitation is acceptable.
  • They do not wish, or are unable, to empathise with the vegan’s trauma.
  • They do not believe that animal cruelty is as far-reaching as the vegan reports.

Because of the extent of animal exploitation in the industrial process, non-vegans are unwittingly colluding with cruelty every time they put milk in their coffee, eat meat, use cosmetics or household cleaning products that have not been labelled cruelty free, sit on a leather couch, or wear a woollen jumper. It is impossible for them not to collude with industrial cruelty unless they specifically choose the vegan option. This is why the vegan and says that their non-vegan friends or family don’t understand them. They are colluding with those who harm animals by their daily lifestyle choices. Their choices don’t just affect them: they affect the millions of animals who are part of a production system that exists because of human demand.

Moving forward

If you are a vegan, what can you do to respond to your family’s resistance to veganism and attempts to influence you to revert to being non-vegan? There are a number of strategies:

  • Manage Strong Emotion
    Learn to manage the strong emotions that invariably arise when your family members don’t appreciate the inherent cruelty of their choices. Bring yourself to a state of calm so you can have productive conversations about these very challenging subjects. Learn to slow your breathing; use self-soothing self-talk techniques; develop a positive mindset and re-frame conversations so you can move other people towards veganism in steps rather than trying to convert them in one conversation.
  • Improve your Communication
    Learn to communicate effectively about veganism. Identify the specific issues that interest your family and focus on them, and later tease ethical issues into these conversations. For example, if some family members are interested in health, focus on the benefits of a vegan diet rather than trying to discuss social justice.
  • Become Informed
    Learn as much as you can about the arguments for veganism in terms of diet, environmental destruction, water use, economics, demographics and social justice. You will be more credible if your passion is underpinned by evidence.
  • Get Support
    Surround yourself with other vegans who understand you, and gain their help and support. Regularly debrief them about your experiences, and work with them to become the best advertisement for veganism you can be.
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Are veganism and vegetarianism symptomatic of eating disorders?

Over the last year, a large number of clients have told that medical professionals advise them that that their lifestyles and eating choices are tantamount to mental illness and should be categorised as eating disorders. Their choice to not eat any animal products or limit their consumption to non-flesh based content is viewed as extreme and a response to disturbances in their psychological wellbeing. As a psychologist, I wish to address these concerns both to the clients and medical professionals.

eating disordersFirstly, it is important to understand what vegetarianism and veganism is. Vegetarianism is the practice of not eating flesh-based products of animals i.e. Meat, fish or chicken, although some people still call themselves vegetarian but eat fish. Choices are often made on the basis of beliefs about health or cruelty in farming practices or meat production. The former belief is based on the understanding that a person is healthier if they do not eat meat, fish or chicken although they choose to eat animal bi-products like milk or eggs. The latter belief is related to cruelty issues surrounding the treatment of animals in animal agriculture. These two belief sets do not necessarily go together for the vegetarian; a person may restrict their consumption of animal products in the pursuit of improved health whilst not having particular concern for the welfare of animals involved.

Veganism on the other hand is a philosophy that it is unacceptable to use or exploit animals in any way. Decisions to follow a vegan diet may not be philosophically driven but adopted on the basis of improved health. Strictly this is not vegan but like the philosophy led vegan, the person does not consume any animal products. The true definition of vegan is based on ethics; that it is inherently wrong to use or exploit animals i.e. Eat, wear, be entertained by or use any pharmaceutical products that have been tested on animals etc. The ethical vegan is someone who has been impacted by veganism in such a way that they are either intellectually outraged or have experienced intense pain at the realisation of how animals are treated in industrial production. It is these individuals who are more likely to seek psychological support, since they commonly demonstrate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, suicidality or paranoia.

When an individual seeks out the help of a skilled professional, they often report symptoms that are labelled as constituting a mental disorder or, as I prefer to say, mental distress. When they are asked, they invariably say that they have adopted a vegan lifestyle, which, to the non-vegan medical professional, might be seen as extreme. Upon closer examination, I believe that the experiences reported by vegans are so traumatic and more to do with the knowledge and awareness that has come into their life rather than their lifestyle choices being defence mechanisms or strategies to avoid feeling supressed psychic pain.

What do vegans know?

A person who adopts an ethical vegan lifestyle has become aware of the enormous and inherent cruelty and social injustice of the industrial use of animals in our society, whether in food production, the entertainment industry or testing of products for human use. The industrial exploitation of animals is based on considering animals to be property and, in an attempt to maximise profit, costs are reduced meaning pain reduction is not part of the equation. This means that animals raised for food particularly are not afforded the same legal protection as domestic animals. The vegan is traumatised by this awareness and often feels powerless to have their beliefs taken seriously or effect change quickly or at all. However, their trauma goes deeper than this. They have become aware of a gross injustice and speciesism inherent in this industrial system. When they try to share this with others, they are often pilloried as being too sensitive or encouraged to accept that ‘It is normal to eat animals’ or ‘if things were that bad, they would never be allowed’. This intensifies their pain and feelings of isolation as other people often become uncomfortable with the information they share and the challenge to their own values. These repeated experiences cause the person to alienate their friends or family, further intensifying their distress.

In an attempt to gain some level of stability and relief from their pain, they seek out the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist. For individuals to be told that their dietary choices are extreme and constitute eating disorders, paranoia or depression is, in my opinion, the medical profession missing something very important about the determinants their mental distress. To have their distress minimised or trivialised, is reported by many clients as a form of violence or additional abuse. This results in a complicated grief reaction with unresolved previous grief being re-experienced. In an attempt to alleviate their further sense of psychological pain, anger and resentment, they often hold on more tightly to their ethical vegan behaviours. It is these reported behaviours that result in professionals regularly assuming that their chosen strategies defined through their eating and lifestyle choices are a function of mental illness. It is my opinion that, rather than being symptoms of mental disorders, they are a function of mental clarity, mental wellbeing, increased, levels of empathy and compassion. How are these welcome psychological traits suddenly being categorised as constituting mental disorders?

Challenging the status quo

I believe that ‘If all we have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail’. It is all too easy for a professional to see an individual’s behaviour through the narrow lens of medical labelling and faced with symptoms of non-typical eating behaviour label them as abnormal. We have seen this in other non-typical lifestyle choices like homosexuality which was only relatively recently removed from the list of mental disorders. Additionally, veganism challenges everyone (including the professional) to examine his or her own speciesism and human superiority. Speciesism is the term used to explain why different animals are afforded different treatment e.g. why we are horrified by cruelty to dogs and cats but accept or don’t question the slaughter of other animals for food or as the recipients of testing. It may be the uncomfortable feelings experienced by the observer that results in denial or rejection of the injustice. However, this is unhelpful at least and abusive at worst for the professional to categorise an individual’s attitudes and behaviour as abnormal in an attempt to unconsciously avoid experiencing their own discomfort inherent in their own speciesism or entitled superiority afforded simply because they are human.

I encourage vegan clients to seek out the help of others vegans to support them on their journey. If their symptoms are acute, seeking out a vegan psychologist or counsellor who can empathise with the inherent challenges of this lifestyle would most likely be helpful. However, whilst the psychologist might be vegan, do remember that you can only work through your pain if you trust and have rapport with the professional. If this does not exist, no amount of shared philosophical standpoint will help you work through your challenges.

I encourage medical practitioners, psychologists and counsellors to appreciate that the eating and lifestyle choices of the vegan are not symptoms of eating disorders. This is a value-based judgment based on norms in society and such inappropriate labelling can compound the suffering of the client and be a form of superiority over animals – this time, over other humans.

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