I know that I’m not the only vegan who has ever had to deal with social anxiety. I see posts about it on the daily, and occasionally I’ll hear people talking about wanting to go vegan but having the fear of social interactions limiting them from taking that crucial step. Part of it may be because we know the stereotypical image of veganism: to announce you’re vegan in public is to be the punch line of the “How can you tell if someone is vegan?” joke (which isn’t a very good joke in the first place, but it still has an effect on us). With social anxiety, calling attention to your veganism can often feel like an invitation for others to see you as an elitist, a wuss, a snob, picky, over-emotional, or any of the other derogatory associations that those who dislike veganism might make. People with social anxiety make it through the day by flying as low on the social radar as possible. Having a set of moral beliefs that change your lifestyle does place you just a little higher on the “necessary social interaction” ladder. But veganism and social anxiety do not have to violently clash, and in fact the social interactions we have to make to sustain veganism could actually build a bridge towards further success in overcoming social anxiety. Here’s a list of tips for those trying to juggle a motivation to live ethically with a fear of social situations:
- When ordering food, it may not be necessary to use the word “vegan” to make sure you’re getting animal-free food: asking your servers different questions, like “is this dairy free?” (when the only possible animal product in what you are ordering is dairy, such as some smoothies) or “does this have animal products?” or “What are the allergens in this?” can sometimes do the job equally well, or better. Your server may have never heard of the term “vegan”, your server may have strong sympathies for people trying to eat-out with allergies, it may stress to them the stronger importance of ordering animal-free food. This way, you don’t have to worry that they started freaking out or judging you for being “vegan”, and you still get your plant-based meal. This tip is for those with especially strong social anxiety, or those who live in areas where veganism is extremely unpopular.
- When at a social gathering and someone offers you non-vegan food, a quick smile and a no thanks are enough: a “thanks, but I can’t eat that”, or “thanks, but I’m vegan” is the easiest way out of a sticky situation. This time it might be necessary to mention that you won’t eat it (on ethical grounds), otherwise they may further prod you to try it, leaving you scrambling to try and subtly explain why you’re not interested. People appreciate short and to-the-point, and if you’re among good friends just remember that even though they may not understand veganism fully, they likely respect you enough not to make open judgements or immediately tease you. Offering to bring your own snacks can help avoid these situations. Some party hosts may react negatively knowing that they didn’t bring anything you can eat or you can’t seem to eat anything at their party. Be open with them: let them know it doesn’t bother you, or let them know the onus to bring vegan food was your responsibility, not theirs.
- Keep in mind that you may have a social encounter with a vegan, vegetarian, or sympathizer without even knowing it: I used to dance around the subject of veganism, trying to be as coy and indirect about it as possible, until I stopped by a smoothie bar and meekly asked, “Does this, um… have… milk… in it?” to which the woman working there smiled and informed me of the wide range of animal-free options on the menu. She further asked whether I was vegan or not and was beaming at my response of “yes”, sharing similar sentiments herself. Here I was, trying not to offend a vegan by asking if they had anything vegan on the menu. Even if not everyone you meet will be a vegan, the image of veganism and its popularity is changing and increasing each year. People everywhere are becoming more knowledgeable and open to the idea of animal-free living.
- If someone asks you questions about why you are vegan: 1. take a deep breath, straighten up your posture, and smile. Slouching, frowning, shallow breathing, these are bodily signs that psychologically force us further and further into anxious, defensive, uncomfortable and undesirable mindsets. In essence: fake confidence about being asked about veganism, and eventually you’ll have that confidence. 2. Be totally honest. Even if you think they’ll think it’s dumb to be vegan “for the animals”, “for ethics”, “for the environment”, say it anyway - if you lie (like saying it’s about health or just a fad because you think they’ll be okay with that) and they ask further about the lie, you’ll be stuck again scrambling for some way out of the conversation. If you stick to what you know, you’ll have more control over the flow of conversation than you otherwise would have. Stick to easy-to-explain concepts and try not to imagine that your conversational partner is automatically rejecting everything you say. Social anxiety has a nasty habit of making the individual believe everything they say is being ridiculed, and with veganism so widely ridiculed in popular culture we can feel doubly so.
- Don’t feel like you have to be the “perfect vegan spokesperson” whenever someone brings up the topic: it’s stressful knowing that you are probably the only vegan a lot of your acquaintances might ever meet, and as such you sort of embody what veganism is in their eyes. You are the vegan emissary, and it’s a tough job. But you don’t always have to be on the job - if someone asks you about veganism and you don’t feel like you can be the top notch educational ethical guru, just talk about how veganism makes you feel, how veganism changed your life. Talk about why veganism makes you happy rather than why others should follow suit. This doesn’t make you a “bad vegan emissary” because it might turn out that they’ll hear why veganism makes you happy and want to try it out themselves.
- Even if you screw up, nobody will remember it forever: if your voice goes all high pitched and sniffly when you talk about slaughterhouses, if you have to send back a meal because they put cheese all over it, if you stutter when someone asks about veganism, it’s easy to feel like, “Well, I fucked up, I have cursed veganism for a thousand years. I have brought a plague unto our tofu fields and a pox on our plant-based pizzas. I have made myself and veganism look silly and now everyone will laugh at me whenever they see me”. But social anxiety has a hand in making us feel that way. When the fact is, most people, if they don’t forgive mistakes, easily forget mistakes. The person most likely to dwell on our mistakes… is us. Not them. Even if this rational thought doesn’t automatically get us out of the thick of social anxiety, it can help us calm down in our worst moments.
- It’s okay to have social anxiety, and it’s great to be vegan. Never blame yourself for having anxiety and never give up fighting for veganism. We can’t change the world in one day, we can’t change ourselves in one day. But every day we put in a little more effort, with a little more support, and we do see results.