I recently heard a deep and educational presentation by Douglas Lisle, PhD. during the McDougall Program's Advanced Study Weekend. Dr. Lisle founded an approach to human psychology and well-being called Esteem Dynamics. This methodology takes a biological approach to human psychology, and can therefore be applied in very effective ways to our lives. Dr. Lisle discusses how people often react to the news that a person has adopted a plant-based or vegan diet. This might be at a gathering, a restaurant, or in our kitchen. Why do people seem off-put to our personal decisions, or even threatened by the news? He discusses practical ways we can approach the discussion to reduce friction, such as how to respond to the oft-asked "but how do you get your protein?"
But just understanding reasons why people feel threatened or angered by our dietary choices is enlightening indeed.
Dr Lisle's website is at Esteemdynamics.org, and I will embed some useful videos by Dr. Lisle on this topic at the end of this article.
Notes from a presentation by Dr. Doug Lisle, PhD
These are notes taken during a presentation given at the McDougall Program's Advanced Study Weekend.
What does that mean?
- Because these notes were typed during a presentation by the noted doctor, and are being written by a "lay person". While I did my best to make notes about what they said, these notes may not be entirely accurate. However, I will link resources (such as the peer-reviewed studies referenced within the presentation) whenever possible within the text.
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Notes from the presentation: Getting Along Without Going Along
Human beings communicate, and share in many more ways than other creatures do (talking, cues, etc). So the social element built within human beings has a very strong backing.
Talking - most important information to bring "to the village". Dr. Lisle was comparing our current lives to those way back in history where we lived in small village gatherings, and how many of the survival methods important way back in history make up how we are socially in many ways today.
Instincts: you (humans) have valuable information, and that information you collect might save a person's life. Way back when, in the village analogy, it could be things like bringing back information about another tribe about to invade the village, or some water source that made people sick. So to deliver "life saving" information is a very strong propulsion built into our DNA.
Two types of people -- Type 1 and Type 2. The way we manage each type of person is quite different.
Doesn't know the connection between diet and health. This type of person is 99% of the people you run into. Most don't know the connection between diet and health.
When a "Type 1" person finds out what you do (plant-based, etc), they are the kind of person who says "where do you get your protein from" - note that this is a trap. Be ready for an argument.
Not just curious, they are anxious and see you having knowledge as a threat. "What new thing is giving you more importance in the group" kinda deal. "Don't try to show off, get attention" and so on. Think about the person coming back to the tribe with important information that can save the tribe. That person gets a bunch of attention and rises in overall "importance" within the society. The Type 1 person is threatened by this, because they worry about their status within the tribe.
These are the people you know, the people who are close to you. They are the ones you chat with, the one you might give a book about plant-based nutrition to, and so on. They have read the book, they know about the nutrition benefits, they know about the health benefits and may have even experienced some of them.
The problem is they're struggling, they have found the diet too difficult, they have given up. They try to pull you in to their "failure", they want to make you eat what they're eating (unhealthy food) because they don't like to feel "less than" or less important than you.
People and their self esteem
People are conditionally touchy about esteem. If you step on a person's esteem (intentionally or unintentionally, just by doing what you are doing) and it seems (to them) like you're trying to elevate yourself, a person can become touchy. People are sensitive to slights, and this harkens back to ancient processes of hierarchy and challenge. If you get in the way of their esteem, take away their importance in the "village".
As a result of you doing something seen as special or new or important, other people around you have the potential to feel shorted in esteem. You are activating their sensitivity when they see you "eating healthy" and doing something better than they are doing themselves.
This feels like you are pushing them down, and you are pulling ahead.
So what do you do? You might have to look to buddhist background and focus on humility, or people sniff trouble and will be reactive.
Speaking with a Type 1 person: Words you can use in conversation to focus on humility and avoid reactivity
Use the word "it seems" in conversation a lot. This says, "I'm not sure", "I'm not too confident", "It may be true or may not be true". [Editors note: It might also offer or encourage the other person the opportunity to do their own research and draw their own conclusions.] Dr Listle calls this the "It Seems" strategy.
"Interesting ideas, ..."
Sniff consciousness and intelligence on it, and it's scary to them.
"Seems to be working for me right now"
When you focus on humility, this phrasing may dial down the listener's defensiveness. It's really hard to argue with such of a statement, and focuses on your results as something that is personal.
"My doctor looked at it, all good."
This response is particularly useful when facing that all-too-common "what about your protein?" question. You can reply with statements like "My doctor checked it out, said the protein is fine" (which was really them seeing you walk in through the front door). Other options are to say that you have discussed the diet with your doctor, who is fine with it, or your doctor suggested it, that your blood test results have improved or confirmed diet success, and other similar statements. The main idea is to defer the decision to a professional or the experts, and that the results are confirmed in medical tests and similar, to deflect it from something coming from you.
"It's probably not right for everyone"
Just give the conversation to them. This could be what they want to hear.
"Im just trying to get more micronutrients and antioxidants"
If the person listening has any open mindedness, this stance opens up their curiosity and may lead to a productive conversation.
Type 2 knows you, and knows about plant-based diets
The Type 2 person has read, already watched the videos and knows the benefits of a plant-based diet. These are the people who "tried eating this way 3 years ago for 6 months or 3 weeks or whatnot, and went back to eating animal products". The stress they feel is coming from the fact you're doing a good job and your friend or family member isn't: that is causing the dynamic.
Tip Just give your friend or family member (Type 2) esteem. This friend or family members already knows the benefits, she read the books and knows all the points you have to make. So just give them the esteem: tell them they're doing fine, and forget about "education".
How to apply "Esteem Dynamics"
Your esteem or status: Your esteem is not inside your head: other people see you at different levels of status, and your head tracks the esteem. Want to do something that makes others value you in the community, so then your esteem goes up. If you become a liability to the community, your esteem goes down. Communities have something that is referred to as a "Sociometer" that tracks esteem within a community. Dr. Leary had scientifically demonstrated this is true. I am adding a couple links to this idea below:
Video about Dr. Leary and the concept of the sociometer "MARK LEARY on The Sociometer Theory of Self-Esteem"
So, how do we apply Esteem Dynamics to our conversations with other people regarding our diets and nutrition? Dr. Lisle suggests the following tactics:
- Ask questions, signaling to the person "I find you valuable and interested in your life." This helps address the fact the other person might feel embarrassed by the fact they may feel they have "failed".
- Give compliments to the other person. Even things out. This may be complimenting how delicious the food looks, how lovely the dinner party is, or whatever is suitable.
- Focus on reducing the focus on yourself, or your diet "success". For example, if you refuse food at a dinner party, you can take some "shine" off by saying something like you "promised yourself you wouldn't eat _(that item)__ today" or similar, as opposed to stating you "don't eat it" or "don't want it".
Essentially, although we want to share our excitement about this way of eating because we know the benefits, we also want to carefully observe the response by others in our social circles. In many ways the people around us see a diet success as threatening, insulting, and so on.
We have to be the bigger people, to get insight into the struggles other people face.
More Information: Videos and articles by Dr. Lisle
You can find videos, articles, and more information at the following sites.
Social Disapproval as a Vegan
Where do you get your Protein From
How to Lose Weight without Losing Your Mind
Getting through the holidays (also applies to any family dinner!)
Find Dr Lisle's website, including more videos, at EsteemDynamics.org.
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