I pass a McDonald’s on the way home from the gym every day. Its golden arches glow like a beacon, promising the comforting familiarity of a greasy, salty quarter pounder with cheese. That damned little disc of a pickle. Those french fries. And oh my god, the dollar sundaes.
I don’t remember the last time I ate McDonald’s, but it was certainly longer than two years ago, when I first went vegan. It was likely many months, maybe even years, before that. It’s not something I even want, really, unless I start thinking about how I can’t have it.
“Can’t.” Probably the least useful word I use far too often.
Like so many things, veganism is completely arbitrary. The boundaries I set for myself exist nowhere but my own mind, and I could absolutely go order a Big Mac or decimate a Chinese buffet if I wanted. Still, I sometimes find my mind wandering to the constraints, obsessing on all the things I “can’t” have, as if they’re kept behind some magic forcefield, rather than readily available items I simply choose not to consume.
At those times, veganism feels like a cage, and it’s when I’m most likely to indulge in some other deeply unhealthy snack as a way of comforting myself for my loss or limitations. (If you think vegan foods are all healthy, allow me to introduce you to my friends Oreos Dunked in Peanut Butter, Entire Bag of Mixed Nuts in One Sitting, and Doritos in the Purple Bag.)
By focusing on constraints—on “can’t”—I put myself in a scarcity mindset. My brain, an evolutionarily perfect survival machine, gets into Gorge Mode, and I act out with desperate behaviors.
It’s not just with food, either. I see this in virtually every area of life. Recently, it’s with my new dog, whose presence has imposed wildly inconvenient limitations on me, and I sit around thinking about all I’ve given up, all the solo camping and long-distance driving and easy traveling I can no longer do because I’m anchored to this anxious little mutt. I work myself into a frenzy of resentment and self-pity, as if this dog just materialized in my life and was not a choice I made gradually, over many months of consideration and research.
Even for circumstances I haven’t chosen, like when people broke into my car and stole my jewelry, obsessing over the loss, the negative, is a great way to foster even more negativity. If I think about that white gold necklace my godfather gave me and how I’ll never again see its delicate strand sparkling against my skin, I become angry. It’s a useless anger that has nowhere to go, so it radiates from me toward everything in my path. I’m angry at the coffee machine, my clothing, the work I have to do that day. This anger over something I can’t control, long in my past, is tainting every interaction with my present. It’s making me a worse person.
Conversely, when I focus on the positive, when I force myself to switch attention from that which I lack to that which I possess, I’m able to arrest that scarcity mindset and reframe to an attitude of abundance.
In most cases, the shift is from feeling powerless and constrained to reminding myself I’m in control of my choices. For veganism and the dog, it’s about remembering why I do what I do. I want to feel healthy and like I’m acting in accordance with my values (or as close as I can get given our current food system), or I want a healthy outlet for my caretaking impulse (as it turns out, romantic relationships are not the ideal place to parent [I have discovered after a decade of therapy]).
Whenever I find myself fixating on a limitation, I conjure up that Grand Why, think about all that I’ve gained from this choice, and cycle through options I still do have. Usually it looks something like:
- Step 1—Admit I can have a Big Mac if I want one.
- Step 2—Do I really want a Big Mac? How will it make me feel? How do I want to feel? What could I eat instead? Do I really want a whole bag of chips and guacamole? How will that make me feel? What would make me feel best?
- Step 3—I’m excited to eat a nice, healthy salad, full of foods I love, because it aligns with my values and goal of nourishing my body to feel its best.
I understand how cheesy that sounds. It’s genuine, though. I really do think absurd, dorky thoughts like that about health food. Sometimes I even go through that process multiple times a day, and more often than I wish, I fail somewhere in the middle of Step 2. That’s when I end up in a binge.
Similarly, in cases where I have less choice or control, in which I’m dealing with involuntary loss, I run a list of all that’s still available (I have my favorite octopus ring and bullet necklace!), celebrate the strength that comes from doing without (in cases more serious than missing jewelry), and look forward to the new fillers of that now-blank space. As much as possible, I try to see opportunity rather than loss.
More popular parlance would probably call this gratitude. I prefer thinking of it as abundance because it specifically combats scarcity mentality, which is the mother of so many evils. While a part of the process is appreciation, the bigger focus is on shifting attention away from loss and toward gains.
I’m by no means perfect—or even proficient—at this. I still get caught in cycles of anger or resentment or self-pity because I have far more training in those lines of thinking than I do in the alternatives. Negativity is a stronger reflex. Reframing requires a ton of mental bandwidth, and I have to keep constant check on my own thoughts and physiological states to do it well. Sometimes I have no idea I’m in a spiral until I realize I’ve been brow-furrowing and tab-switching for hours, or the dog barks and I yell just a little too loud. (Or I find myself elbows-deep in a bag of popcorn.)
That said, when I do catch myself and reframe, it’s like unzipping a heavy, matted monster suit and letting it fall to the floor. I feel light and fresh. I see the dog not as a burden but as a source of joy, adding enormous value to my life. I see the constraints in which I operate as welcome guardrails that help me feel the way I want to feel. I see blank spaces as opportunities to find something new. I’m able to act with intentionality instead of desperation.
My goal is to keep applying this to more and more areas of my life until it becomes second-nature. I’d love to approach the world with an abundance mindframe in every possible circumstance, keeping useless feelings of anger or competition or self-pity at bay. I don’t see any value in such thoughts or any reason to allow them to fester. They’re borne of a false sense of scarcity, of feeling limited, when there’s always something available.*
As always, I just have to keep working.
*Note: I understand some scarcity is extremely real, and the flip side of acknowledging my own false sense of lacking is compassion for desperate behaviors borne of genuine scarcity. For example, stealing to feed a family. Abundance reframing can certainly help one cope with real adversity, but it should not be an expectation of people dealing with serious issues. This post and advice, if it can be called that, is intended for minor strife and the daily limitations we perceive for ourselves. Its scope is limited.