I received an email from a friend the other day asking me if I had any advice for helping her deal with a family member who was "opposed to" her vegan diet.
After I wrote her back, I thought it'd be helpful to post my answer on the blog since you might be up against a similar challenge in your life.
Below is an excerpt of her message:
"I'm not interested in converting her but I do want to have things to say without getting into it with her to make her back off. You can feel her disapproval in everything from her body language, tone, facial expressions, etc. It makes eating awful for me. I've known them for several years now and never had an issue until I became vegan.
"I 100% do not want to get into it with her but am dying to know what to say to get her to respect my decisions or to stop sitting at the table, radiating displeasure. I take it personally every single time (and do with everyone's comments)."
Here was my response:
Consider this experience to be a doorway into learning the life lesson of "Don't Take Things Personally". Sometimes when we have a hard time learning things on our own, the universe swoops in and gives us an experience that forces us to learn it. This is a skill that has taken me many years to develop and I can honestly say that in the last year, I have found so much freedom and feel so relaxed now that I no longer take things personally.
Here are some ways to handle the situation and some new perspectives for you to try on:
1. IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU, IT'S ABOUT HER.
She could be insecure about her own eating habits. Is she overweight? Does she eat crap? Did she grow up with a mother who criticized the way she ate? Chances are, she has a lot of "STUFF" that she's projecting onto you. Food is a sensitive subject for a lot of people. Who knows what kinds of stories she has in that area?
2. CONSIDER THAT HER "DISAPPROVAL" IS COMING FROM A LOVING PLACE.
That she's not saying what she's saying to intentionally make you feel awful, but rather she's saying these things because she loves you and cares about you. You married her son. She wants you to be around for a long time! Maybe she knows one other vegan and that person got really sick. Who knows? If she doesn't think you're eating in a healthy way, this is causing her some concern. It just so happens that the way in which she's expressing her concern to you is perceived as judgmental and aggressive.
3. YOU ARE AN ADULT. YOU DON'T NEED ANYONE TO APPROVE OF THE WAY YOU'RE EATING.
You have firm beliefs that support your decision and as long as YOU are on board with why you're doing what you're doing, that's all that matters. If, for some reason, you are not 100% on board with why you're eating this way, perhaps your interpretation of your mother-in-law's words are a reflection of this doubt.
4. YOU DON'T NEED TO EXPLAIN YOURSELF TO ANYONE, ESPECIALLY PEOPLE WHO YOU FEEL ARE INTENTIONALLY CHALLENGING YOU.
Again, this goes back to you being confident about your choices. When I'm in a situation where I feel judged about what I'm doing, I simply smile and tell them "Thanks so much, I appreciate your concern" and then I change the topic or ask them a question. I don't let on that anything they have said has bothered me.
5. BREATHE THROUGH IT.
Anytime she says something that upsets you, breathe through it and tell yourself the following: "This has nothing to do with me, it's all her stuff. I am in love with the choices I have made with regard to my eating and no one can take that away from me." What you can tell her (with a smile, in a loving and gentle way that won't put her on the defensive) is: "This way of eating is working really well for me and I am feeling the best I've ever felt because of it. Thank you so much for your concern though. I really appreciate it!"
6. CHANG YOUR PHYSIOLOGY WHEN YOU INTERACT WITH HER.
It sounds like when she speaks to you she's very tense and radiating negativity. When you relax and talk to her from your "happy place", that might help her body mimic your physiology and relax as well.
7. CONSIDER THIS TO BE AN OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU TO EACH HER HOW TO TREAT OTHERS.
I am willing to bet that you are not the only person she speaks to this way, expressing her displeasure and butting in to people's lives. Stay strong, be your loving, kind self. Respond as such. That might surprise her if she's used to drama and other people "attacking" back.
8. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT YOUR DECISIONS.
You can connect with other vegans online by reading vegan blogs or by starting your own blog. Or perhaps you can join a vegan meet-up group and connect with other vegans in person. Having support and a feeling of community with like-minded people is HUGE. When 90% of the people you surround yourself by "get" you, that can produce enough of a shield to protect you from those 10% of the people who don't "get" you, like your mother-in-law.
It's great that you don't want to convert her. I wonder if part of her behavior is a defense mechanism of sorts...like she's afraid you're going to try to convert her so she's putting up her defenses now. By doing what you're doing and being a good role model and showing people how great you feel, you're shattering her image that your choices are "bad" or unhealthy.
Anyways, see how those strategies work for you. Remember that these challenges are all learning experiences. You're simply being tested! You're going to meet people in life who disagree with you or who come off as judgmental and disapproving. You can choose to let it bother you and deeply impact your life in a negative way, OR you can learn from it and use it as an opportunity to feel even more empowered about your decisions and even use it as a teaching opportunity for them.
This shift in thinking just takes practice. Once you can free yourself from taking things personally, not only will you feel better (and more relaxed about eating) but you'll likely improve your relationship with her as well by clearing away any resentments or frustrations you have toward her. Remember, you can't control her words and actions, but you have complete control over yours.