Your mother has dangerously high cholesterol but still eats meat and eggs every day?
Your overweight husband has already had triple-bypass surgery and decides a low-carb diet is just the thing to save him?
Your co-worker, the dog lover and shelter volunteer, doesn’t make the connection between the animals she loves and the animals she eats?
As a committed and informed vegan who understands the connection between the consumption of animal protein and illness in humans, as well as the devastating impact on the animals and the planet, it can be immensely frustrating when you want to help those close to you go vegan but they just don’t or won’t understand.
As a health coach, my job is to help people change their destructive health habits – I can tell you that most people will struggle to make these changes even when their own lives depend on it. When literally given a “change or die” scenario, most people will still resist making the changes needed to save themselves! So imagine the immense difficulty in convincing people to change to save the life of another, an animal that they don’t even know.
Understanding the stages of change
To help ease the frustration, I find it helpful to understand the basic stages we all tend to go through when making any sort of change in lifestyle. Some people will go through these changes overnight; others will spend a long time in one stage but then breeze through the rest, while many will spend a lifetime flip-flopping, unable to commit.
Once you are familiar with the stages, you can see more clearly where your loved one is on the continuum and tailor your support to fit their current stage. These five stages are detailed in Prof. James Prochaska’s book Changing for Good.
Stage One: Pre-Contemplation
In this stage, we are unaware, blame circumstances beyond our control, or may deny there is a problem at all:
“I couldn’t survive one day without cheese!” “I can’t cook these new foods because my family will reject them and starve.” “It’s too expensive to buy all these vegan foods.” “Animals are meant to be eaten. I don’t want to hear about their suffering!”
People in Pre-Contemplation are the hardest to get through to because they are entirely cut off from their responsibility and deny there is even a problem.
The way in which you can help when speaking to a person in this stage is to try to arouse emotion and help them connect the dots between their actions and the outcome of these actions.
You could invite them to watch a film like Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, or Earthlings, and afterward, have a conversation about how the film relates to their own situation, helping them to see the connection between what they consume and their health, animal suffering and the environmental impacts. Books like Skinny Bitch are particularly effective in Stage One because they are confrontational and raise emotions. Your loved one is likely to get upset and you must not be afraid of that emotion as it indicates that they are making the connection and emerging from numbness.
Allow this person’s feelings to arise but don’t meet their anger with anger of your own, even if they lash out and blame you, remember it is not about you at all!
Stage Two: Contemplation
In this stage we have declared our intention to change but are having trouble implementing and sticking to it. People in this stage may claim to be vegan, but “fall off the wagon”. You will hear them say things like “I WISH I could be vegan, but it’s just too hard because…”
Your job is to be supportive here! No bashing and being negative. Contemplators need hope and inspiration, and they need to see concrete examples of people just like them happily and successfully living a vegan lifestyle. The movie Forks Over Knives and the Engine 2 books are particularly effective for Stage Two as they will inspire with real life stories.
Encourage stage two-ers to take things at their own pace and not view stumbles as reasons to give up entirely. Diving headlong too soon and unprepared, can lead to becoming demoralized and quitting!
Stage Three: Preparation
Notice that we are still not even at the action stage yet! In the preparation stage, people are collecting all the information and tools they need and are getting ready to implement.
Get in the trenches with people at this stage – be there to help them in the kitchen, make meal plans together, share your favorite vegan websites and cookbooks, encourage them to hire a vegan health coach or nutritionist and help them to address their struggles with compassion and positivity.
You could also encourage them to try The Vegan Society’s ‘Vegan Pledge’ which provides mentor support to new vegans. Stage three is about concrete steps and turning an idea into an actual reality.
Stage Four: Action
We have finally arrived at the stage we have been waiting for! In this stage we begin to walk the talk by putting oneself into “testing” situations – such as going on vacation and being confident enough to take veganism on the road.
If unprepared these situations can lead to backsliding and confusion, so encourage your loved one to establish a stable routine, practice asking for what they need in restaurants, learn basic new recipes, explore the health food store together, listen to podcasts and read inspiring vegan books and magazines.
Stage Five: Motivate / Maintain
For most of us it is smooth sailing from this point on as we enjoy the benefits of becoming involved in the wider vegan community. There are many new possibilities available at this stage from joining in with vegan potlucks to becoming active in campaigns for compassion towards animals, visiting vegan fairs, and meeting new vegan friends. These all help strengthen our commitment to a cruelty-free, healthy lifestyle.
This is the point where many “plant-based for health” eaters start to become ethical vegans; and sadly, this is also the point where some who have not made the ethical connection, will often resort to eating animals again. It requires ongoing inspiration, education, and motivation to stick with any life change and the vegan journey is a life-long one in which learning never stops.
Meeting loved ones where they are
Now that we understand the stages of change, it is important to bear in mind that many people are in a place where they cannot imagine that a change to a vegan lifestyle is possible or desirable; things that seem obvious to you, can seem insurmountable to others. In order to know how to help others go vegan, we need to listen carefully to their objections, try to place their stage, meet them exactly where they are and give them support, patience and compassion.
Remember that while we can support others, we will ultimately make our own decisions in life, and will develop at our own pace and style.