A few months back, I saw a nearly six year relationship come to an end, an event that can force even the most hardened soul to bare thread. Admittedly, I spent the first month outside the status quo living a life reminiscent of a McInerney character (sans Bolivian marching powder). While I was by no means surfing a wave into the gutter, I wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. The cake-taker was an unexpected, cosmic-grade connection with a siren positioned in the right place at the wrong time. About two weeks ago, spirit tattered, I wrote myself a Dear John and realized it was time to snap-to.

Over the last decade, I’ve had a ringside seat to several catastrophes that challenged my self-destruct circuit in interesting ways. When things went left of center, the default was to fog out through external things, none of which ever provided the stability and comfort the situation called for. When I was younger, I took shelter in raw hedonism. As I’ve grown up, those sorts of things—albeit momentarily entertaining—have lost their sheen. Nowadays? A top-shelf cookie and a glass of chocolate milk do the trick.

While there are plentiful examples in the world of destroying yourself in the face of upset, from experience, it never lives up to the hype. You always end up feeling worse than you did before and several steps further away from where you should be. We can trick ourselves into taking up preoccupations that we think are the right thing to do (or expected of someone in our situation), even though something inside of us says “this isn’t right.” The all too difficult challenge is to know how—and when—to listen to that voice and do an about-face.

The secret: realize nobody is thinking about you how you think they’re thinking about you. You can do whatever you’d like. Unless you’re going out of your way to call attention to yourself, nobody is watching. Seriously. Want to sit around picking your nose all night? Go nuts. There is no image to keep up. No bar to meet. No show that must go on. It’s all an idea, perpetuated by no one other than yourself.

The invisible—and ultimately non-existent—pressures of society can lead us away from our internal drum beat, especially in times of crisis. Unless you’ve signed your name on the dotted line, you’re not obligated to do anything or be anything. Normal is a concept that can be tweaked to meet your own—current—requirements. It is and will always be in your head.

A roadmap: get really good at tuning your actions to the key of “fuck this.” Your life becomes what you spend your time doing. If you put time and effort into things that will positively effect your future now, well…it’s likely—if not certain—life will get better. Call bullshit on yourself, but don’t get stuck in a web of guilt. Acknowledge where you’re messing up and set to fix things slowly, one thing at a time, all the while remaining patient. Who you are right now is who you were. Who you will be in the future is who you are right now. Dig?

In times of defeat, no matter how wicked or mild, be gentle to yourself. Life is a minefield. Expect that things will go wrong at some point. When they do, allow yourself room to breathe. We are, after all, just humans. Imperfect, imbalanced, and trying to figure out what we’re doing on this big blue ball. When things fall apart, have a bit of fun, refocus, and then promptly find your center. Cookies optional.