09/07/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

The Rise of Non-Perfectionist Veganism, Part II: How Perfectionism Disempowers Vegans and Vegan Activists

Second article in a three-part series. Read part one here.

Procrastination, or the inability to do one's work or other important tasks (e.g., eat vegan) is largely a response to perfectionism. (There are other causes, including resource deficiencies and ambivalence, but perfectionism is usually the biggest barrier.) Because perfectionists so harshly judge themselves, they dread failure, which is unfortunately inevitable since they define success so unrealistically. When a perfectionist senses she's about to fail, she struggles to self-correct, but since perfectionist psychology is fundamentally harsh and rigid, the only "fix" she can come up with is a self-abusive litany that runs something like this:

"What's wrong with you? This is easy! Why are you so weak? You've had all this help, and you still can't get your act together. Animals are dying because you don't give a shit. Etc. Etc."

The litany is a desperate attempt to coerce herself back on track, but it actually makes the problem worse since it only adds fear on top of fear, and shame on top of shame. The terrorized, shamed self wants only to escape those awful feelings and eventually does so via procrastination. There are other ways to cope with such a crisis, of course -- you can problem solve, ask someone for help, or make a plan so you avoid its reoccurrence -- but in her fear the perfectionist loses access to many of her skills, talents, and capacities, and thus can't take those more-productive steps. She's disempowered, in other words. So procrastination, it turns out, isn't caused by weakness, lack of discipline, lack of commitment or any other "lack," but the disempowerment caused by fear.

Now, think about someone who loves animals and wants to live more compassionately. He checks out veganism, but is bewildered and discouraged by what seems to him to be a lot of rules and a lot of deprivation. He turns to a vegan for help and is told that, "veganism is easy."

Not only is that statement pure perfectionism (emphasis on product over process), it is callous and irresponsible -- that last because someone hearing it in mid-struggle is likely to become ashamed and demoralized and simply quit. (And probably resent vegans.) As vegan nutritionist and Vegan for Life co-author Ginny Messina writes:

"People who perceive barriers to going vegan need to have their concerns acknowledged, not dismissed. Here's the thing: Giving up whole categories of food that you love and that are familiar and that you know how to prepare and that have always been a part of your family and social celebrations is not necessarily easy ... The idea isn't to reinforce concerns and pre-conceived ideas about veganism, but to recognize them, and then help people find ways to work through them ... Sharing our own struggles in going -- and staying -- vegan can actually be reassuring to others."

A few moments of reflection should tell any vegan that if changing one's diet were easy for most people, there wouldn't be an obesity problem in the United States or a $65 billion global diet industry.

Compassionate Objectivity: The Antidote to Perfectionist Veganism

Perfectionism will sometimes seem like a good motivational tool, especially if you confuse it with having high standards (see Symptom #1), but it is always a dead end, both for individuals and movements. It constricts your sense of yourself and what you're capable of and, oftentimes, your view of others and what they are capable of. The opposite of perfectionism is what I call compassionate objectivity. In place of perfectionism's rigid, reductive, and punishing worldview, it offers flexibility, nuance, empathy, compassion, and true love and respect. And, instead of constriction, it offers abundance and expansive possibilities.

Compassionately-objective vegans and vegan activists tend to:

Define success broadly and realistically. They know that every vegan meal or ingredient is a triumph and a foundation for future progress.

Non-grandiose. They don't expect to succeed without adequate planning and preparation, and without occasional challenges. Or alone.

Separate their veganism from themselves. Their veganism is important to them, but they don't let it fully define them or determine their self-esteem.

Prioritize process over product. They focus on just living their life as compassionately as they can, moment by moment and day by day.

They also:

- Take the long view / broad view.
- Favor accurate, objective, compassionate descriptions over labeling.
- Avoid hyperbole.
- Avoid fetishes.
- Avoid comparisons.
- See things non-dichotomously in shades of gray.
- Are flexible.
- Anticipate setbacks and don't pathologize them. A compassionately-objective person, when she slips up, is not likely to say, "What a horrible jerk I am. Etc. Etc." But:

"Okay, I wish I hadn't had that cheese at the party. I was standing near the buffet and couldn't resist it, especially when everyone else was saying how great it was. Oh well, I won't dwell on it. I hadn't had cheese for a month before that, and I'll try to go for another month -- or more! -- without having it again. Parties seem to be my downfall, however, so let's see what I can do to help myself. Well, I won't stand near the buffet, for one thing. And maybe I'll eat something ahead of time so I don't arrive hungry. And maybe I'll bring some faux-cheese treats for myself and to share with others. But if I do that, I should be prepared for some people saying they're not exactly like real cheese."

As this example illustrates, compassionate objectivity is not about giving yourself a "pass." Compassionately-objective people take full responsibility. They simply skip the shame and blame, which enables them to move much more quickly and easily to problem solving.

In my classes, people describe the compassionately-objective voice as that of the "good grandparent" or "wise teacher." Because of their empathy, expansiveness, kindness, and other qualities, compassionately-objective people often make terrific advocates for veganism and their other important values.

Next up: Solutions to Perfectionist Veganism and Vegan Activism.

For more by Hillary Rettig, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.