07/23/2012 03:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2012

The Rise of Non-Perfectionist Veganism, Part I: Perfectionism as a Barrier to a Vegan Lifestyle and World

First in a three-part series.

After my book The Lifelong Activist was published by Lantern Books in 2006, I gave a lot of talks to vegan groups and also spoke with many individual vegans and vegan activists. Whenever I'd mention what I'd considered the self-evident fact that some meat-eaters were turned off to veganism after encounters with judgmental or pushy vegans, I would inevitably get corrected. Meat-eaters react hostilely because they're ashamed of their choices, I was told, and the shame causes them to lash out. And while I'm sure there's some validity to this -- you tell me you choose to collude on a daily basis with what you know to be massive cruelty just because some vegan pissed you off five years ago? -- it never made complete sense because many meat eaters do, in fact, have real stories to tell about obnoxious vegan behavior.

Since as vegans and vegan activists our goals are to 1) convert as many people to veganism as quickly as possible, and 2) get them to stay vegan, it pays to look at judgmentalism and other counterproductive behaviors and figure out how we can minimize them, as individuals and a movement. A useful starting point for this work is perfectionism, a harsh and punishing constellation of attitudes and behaviors that is many people's major barrier to productivity, success and happiness. This article offers an overview of perfectionism, with examples illustrating how it plays out in veganism and vegan activism. And of course, I offer techniques for overcoming it.

The Symptoms of Perfectionist Veganism and Vegan Activism

Here are the four major symptoms of perfectionism, with vegan and vegan-activism examples:

1. Defining success narrowly and unrealistically and failure broadly and punishing self harshly for failure. For example: "If I'm not vegan 100 percent of the time without fail, I'm a rotten person and a sell-out!" Please note that we're not talking about having high standards -- high standards are fine! -- but impossible standards. No one is vegan "without fail," not just because of the pervasiveness of animal-derived products and the fact that even most plant-based agriculture harms wildlife, but because we're human and sometimes screw up.

And don't forget the "harsh punishment" side of the equation: "rotten person and a sell-out." When your good intentions become painful and/or self-abusive you've crossed the line into perfectionism.

2. Grandiosity, or thinking things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Example: "Even though I spend my days and nights working to fight animal suffering, I shouldn't need any healing or self-care. And I shouldn't need to take any breaks. Those are all just self-indulgences, and I'm tough enough to handle it all." Grandiosity also comes into play when we think we can take on big challenges, like activism or a profound dietary change, by ourselves, with little or no help -- and because perfectionists tend to feel ashamed of their many perceived failings, they already have a tendency to isolate themselves, which the grandiosity only supports.

3. Overidentification with your "work" (in this case, veganism). For instance, basing your self-worth on how good a vegan you were today. (Note that "today" and see symptom number five, shortsightedness, below.) Example: "I just ate a non-vegan candy bar; that makes me a terrible person." It's the overidentification, combined with the unreasonable standards mentioned explicitly in symptom number one and implicit in most of the other symptoms, that creates the perfectionist's terror of failure. And, by the way, it also isn't good to overidentify in a positive way -- e.g., "I had a perfect vegan day today -- I rule!" While it's okay to be proud of one's veganism, basing your self-worth on it is risky, and probably will lead to an emotional crash the next time the day doesn't go so well.

4. Overemphasizing product over process and deprecating the true process of success. Examples include: 1) going vegan, or doing vegan activism, without requisite information or planning, and 2) expecting success without having made the necessary investments or sacrifices. People who say to others, "It's easy to go vegan! Just do it!" are making mistake number one (more on this one below), while "pastaterians" and other vegans who don't eat a balanced vegan diet are making mistake number two.

And some minor symptoms:

5. Shortsightedness. Perfectionists tend to elevate the current moment above all others. For instance, "So what if you've been vegan for years and are very careful with your diet. If you bought that pair of leather shoes you can't care much about the animals."

6. Labeling, such as "bad vegan," "sellout," "not committed," etc. Even positive labels such as "good vegan" or "compassionate" can be a problem if they put pressure on you. Labels are basically bad; it's okay to objectively describe an action or attitude as compassionate, but avoid labeling yourself. (And, yes, I do realize I use the word "perfectionist" in this article as a label. I sometimes do that when writing for convenience but try to avoid it in conversation.)

7. Hyperbole, such as, "I'm a terrible person." Or, "This was the worst day ever."

8. Fetishes, or relentless, repetitive self-criticism. Obsessing about the cheese you can't seem to give up would be one example. Sure, it would be better to refrain, but bashing yourself constantly for not doing so isn't helpful. (Ditto for the cheese someone else isn't refraining from.) In fact, the shortest route to giving it up, as you'll see, is to be compassionate about your choices, since that empowers you to make change.

9. Negativity, such as, "So you're meatless on Mondays. Big deal. What about the rest of the week?" Or, "So you're vegan. Big deal. Nothing you do is going to make a difference; we're all doomed anyway." There's a short step from sentiments such as these to futility, a hugely demotivating and disempowering mindset.

10. Invidious comparisons. Comparisons can be valid analytical tools, but when a perfectionist makes a comparison, the primary purpose is invariably not analysis, but self-punishment. An example is, "Why can't I do as much activism as Joe? And why can't I do direct action like he does? All I do is send out letters and donate money. I'm so weak..." This is yet another case where a useful thought ("I could do better") crosses the line into perfectionism by becoming a vehicle for shame and self-abuse.

11. Reductiveness. Perfectionist narratives tend to be oversimplified and dramatic, which is why we constantly see them in the media. Classic examples include "overnight success" stories, "lone success" stories that elide the role a person's community played in their success, and stories that glamorize deprivation and suffering (many "rags to riches" stories). Many or most stories of "instant conversion" to veganism are probably similarly reductive. I myself became vegan immediately after seeing Peaceable Kingdom at a FARM Animal Rights National Conference, for instance, but to call my conversion instant is to ignore a lifelong commitment to social justice and a lifelong deep love of animals. These factors got me to the conference to start withand primed me for my so-called instant conversion by that fantastic movie.

Believing any of the perfectionist narratives is going to give you unrealistic expectations of success for your veganism, vegan activism, and other endeavors.

12. Rigidity, as evinced by repeatedly trying the same solution to a difficult problem despite evidence that it doesn't work. For instance, continuing to lecture your family on the evils of meat eating, despite the fact that prior lectures haven't gotten them to change their diet. A non-perfectionist vegan activist would try some new strategies, including cooking some delicious vegan meals, or she might even decide to give up, at least temporarily, on trying to influence her family and focus her advocacy elsewhere.

13. Dichotomized thinking, also known as black-or-white or polarized thinking. Examples include, "You're either 100 percent vegan or you're not. There's no middle ground." Or, "If you're not willing to look at this picture of a suffering animal, you're a bad, uncaring person." Or, "Whole Foods Market, despite all the humane things they do, is still vile because they sell meat." (I love this last one when spoken by people who shop at Target or other stores that don't do a fraction of what Whole Foods does for animal and human rights.)

Another type of dichotomization is making strong distinctions between those who go vegan for the "right" reasons (e.g., ethical concerns for animals and/or the environment) and those who do it for the "wrong" reasons (e.g., their health). Vegans who do this often cite research showing that people who go vegan for "selfish" reasons often revert back to eating meat, or simply switch from beef to chicken or fish. Even if that's true, however, it makes sense to celebrate any reason someone starts to get more conscious and empowered about their food. From that foundation, you can encourage them to take more steps, and also to develop more of an understanding of the ethics involved.

Moreover, the reality is more complex than the ethics-vs.-selfishness dichotomy would lead you to believe. Obviously, people can have multiple motives for changing their diets. And the fact is that many people have permanently given up at least some animal products solely due to health reasons. As a result of growing awareness about the health risks associated with eggs' high cholesterol levels, for instance, U.S. per capita egg consumption plummeted 37 percent from 1950 to 1990. (Then it bounced back up a few points, and is now dropping again, perhaps due to vegan outreach.) And the recent Earth Policy Institute report "Peak Meat: U.S. Meat Consumption Falling" attributes sustained drops in U.S. beef and pork consumption to consumer health and price concerns. (And don't you just love that phrase "peak meat!") In Europe, where egg prices have risen mainly due to tougher humane regulations, egg sales are declining: "The European Egg Processors Association says that EU-wide production of eggs since the Jan. 1 legislative change has dropped by 10 to 15 percent, or about 200 million eggs a week."

Questions of why people attempt veganism may, in the end, be far less important than why they attempt and fail, e.g., dietary recidivism. Erik Marcus discussed one tiny study on vegan recidivism on his late, great blog, but recidivism is a huge problem for all kinds of dieters. Search on "dietary recidivism" and you'll find that most experts believe it happens when people don't have a good plan, or enough support, or when the diet itself is rigid or extreme or deprivational. In other words, when they get perfectionist about it.

14. Pathologizing ordinary events and setbacks. "I ate some cheese yesterday, so I'm a horrible person and a horrible vegan." We all have setbacks, but a perfectionist will interpret his setback to mean he's fundamentally unfit to reach his goal. A non-perfectionist will, in contrast, learn from the mistake and make a plan to avoid repeating it -- and move on.

As you can see, perfectionism is quite a complex and nasty brew! It also spawns other barriers to success, notably shame, overwhelm, and a sense of futility, all of which may be why the opposition often uses perfectionist arguments to try to undermine us. Here's a telling comment from the recent New York Times essay contest on the ethics of meat-eating: "Vegans claim to be more ethical, but why can't they be the most ethical and eat only rocks and gravel?" Unachievable standard of success, anyone?

So, the next time someone questions your commitment because you took an animal-tested painkiller or mentions that "wildlife died to grow all those soybeans, you know," you'll know what they're up to. If you want to know how to respond, you could do worse than learning from Jacqueline Frasca, author of the Vegpocalypse Now blog, who responded thusly to another blogger who accused vegan photographers of being hypocritical when they use film, which contains gelatin: "Get off your high fucking horse -- I'm a photographer and I use film, but as a vegan I actively save lives that you destroy every day as a non-vegan." (F-bomb optional.) I also like her blog's tagline, "I do my best, but that's all."

Next up: How Perfectionism Disempowers Vegans and Vegan Activists

For more by Hillary Rettig, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.