We often find ourselves being asked why we decided to become vegan, thus inviting a conversation about animal exploitation. A simple, direct answer can often be powerful, such as:  “I’m vegan because I believe it’s wrong to hurt animals”. Specific questions that we’re asked can help steer the conversation into various ethics topics, such as animals who are farmed for food, or zoo animals kept in captivity, or laboratory animals cruelly experimented upon.

While we cannot predict, let alone control, the way others respond to our message, it’s important that we keep the conversation focused on guilt, rather than shame. The distinction is subtle but vital. 

Shame is the feeling “I am bad” whereas guilt is the feeling “I did something bad”. When we feel shame, we view ourselves as inherently defective, flawed, inferior, and unworthy. In this state, our thinking becomes close-minded, we double down on our existing viewpoint (no matter how ridiculous or illogical) and we become fixated on maintaining the status quo. It makes sense after all – if we’re feeling inherently unworthy, then why would we even try to do better? 

When we feel guilt, on the other hand, our self-worth is protected. We’re not bad, we did something bad – and that means, we can make amends and do better next time. The psychological research supports this – when we feel guilt (rather than shame), we’re more likely to change our behaviour in a positive way.

In our conversation, it’s best to keep the focus on harmful actions, rather than harmful individuals. Instead of referring to our non-vegan friends and family members as “evil” or “murderers” (no matter how tempting), this assertion of their character is more likely to elicit shame rather than guilt, resulting in defensiveness and opposition, rather than empathy and compassion.

Dr. Ash Nayate

Dr Ash Nayate is a vegan neuropsychologist, activist, writer, speaker, and mum. She made the shift from meat-eater to vegan overnight after watching the documentary Earthlings in 2008. Ash helps vegans, activists, and young people to improve their mental health and wellbeing. For over a decade she has been working in private practice as well as in major hospitals across Melbourne. Ash initially became vegan for ethical reasons, and quickly became immersed in the mental health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, and she is a strong advocate for brain health. In 2018 she released her first book on mental health for activists and change agents , titled "Staying Positive in a F*cked Up World".