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I’m obsessed with making bad decisions that ruin my life – how do I stop?

Our agony aunt tackles the big question of when self-care stops being self-care, and instead becomes self-destructive behaviour

I consistently make terrible decisions – decisions that fuck me up in the long term. After I’ve made the first bad decision, I then commit to making more terrible decisions, in a kind of self-destructive cycle. I desperately want to break this cycle, and stop hurting myself over and over, but I know this would require some very tough self-love – something I’m not convinced I know how to do. I think I indulge myself and make bad choices because of the immediate gratification of it. It’s like junk food for the soul.

I know that self-care is obviously very important, but I was wondering if you have any advice on the side of self-care that isn’t just candles and bath bombs and buying every lipstick in sight. I want to nurture and learn the side of self-care that involves taking care of my future and my security and my mental health. So my question is: how do I balance tough love with gentleness? How do I work on my broken brain in a constructive way, without discouraging myself and destroying any hope of getting better?

You’re quite an avoidant person, and you’re more than a little bit spooked by life, like a horse would be if you asked it to pay taxes and find meaningful relationships whilst also keeping up with ever-changing eyebrow fashions. It is a lot of work to be a person, and it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed, and desperate for a quick hit of delicious comfort. Looking inwards, addressing your issues, and finding sensible solutions isn’t comfortable. Changing your bedsheets before they start growing new bedsheet babies isn’t indulgent. Doing all of the dishes and paying your bills is not a fun time, nor is it a sexy time. But these are prime examples of the kind of care that you – and the rest of us – need to practice if we want to stand any chance of surviving on this here planet.

So: you’re on board. You know that what you’re doing isn’t working, and you’re ready to change. You want to make better choices, and to be able to self-identify as something other than “big stupid terrible decision maker”. What now? Well, to really move forward you’ll have to learn where to draw the line between what counts as you taking care of yourself, and what is avoidance. Contrary to what a lot of women’s magazines would have us believe, self-care at its best and most effective is often miles away from online shopping and giving yourself a homemade facial with an ostrich egg and half a banana.

I know as well as any fuck-up who’s in the process of recovery that stopping and changing course part-way through a spree of fucking up is a very, very hard thing to do. It will involve a lot of work. Honestly, if I hadn’t done it myself, then I’m sure I’d still be convinced it wasn’t possible. But I did do it. And you’ll do it, too. Because life is better when you feel in control, when you back your own actions and don’t feel ashamed. 

Start small. Make a list of things that you’d like to start doing everyday. This might be 15 minutes of mindfulness, eating a good portion of fruit and vegetables, writing in a journal, always remembering to take your medication. Put the list somewhere you can see it every morning. Keep it tucked into your diary, or have it saved on your phone. Give yourself a few weeks to start doing these things and see whether anything changes.

Then consider what you’d like to take out of your life. Because you can have all of the fresh fruity produce in the world, but you still can’t make a delicious smoothie when some of your ingredients are literal shit. (I think it was Oscar Wilde who said that.) Identify the shit, and then start evicting it from the Big Brother House of your life. If drinking or drug use brings you more pain than enjoyment, take a good hard look at that habit. If the people around you are invested in keeping you in a state of inaction and avoidance, consider whether you might need to pull away. If you find that your anxiety is dragging you backwards, make a doctor’s appointment today.

“When you spend your rent money on shoes, that isn’t self-care”

This is where the candles and the bath bombs come in. I bet you thought I’d thrown them out. No sir – they absolutely have a place in your life, and your self-care routine. Instead of punctuating your life with momentary indulgences (which so often cause you twice the initial stress down the line) you’re going to learn to use that fun and sexy sensory self-care as a reward for trying. It won’t be a reward for succeeding – because at first, you’re probably not going to do a whole lot of that. You’re going to use it as a reward for showing up. Giving it your best go. Being willing. And you’re going to introduce self-congratulation and self-validation. Commend yourself for any and all attempts to be a person. Then when you’ve tried your hardest and the day is done, you get to take off your Trying Hard Boots and put on your hard-earned Reward Crocs.

When you spend your rent money on shoes, that isn’t self-care. When you blow off important plans with people you love, that’s not self-care. When you ignore all your text messages for 12 days, and drink wine in the bath instead of going to work, that’s not self-care either. It’s like when I slip on a ketchup packet in a carpark and say it’s “parkour”. Calling a thing a thing doesn’t make the thing the thing.

With practice, all of this will get easier. At the beginning you will absolutely feel like a mollusc in a sandstorm – uncomfortable and out of your depth. So don’t forget to reward yourself for completing tasks. Life doesn’t have to be a rotten difficult slog towards maximum productivity and then eventual death. This is how you balance. You do the hard thing and then the nice thing. You repeat that system until you can breathe a little easier. You start small and build up. You ask for help and you take a deep breath and you try very hard.

But why bother at all? Why give up the comfortable and reassuring, the dysfunctional but familiar? BECAUSE THAT’S HOW SHIT GETS BETTER, YOU BEAUTIFUL DYSFUNCTIONAL KUMQUAT. You’re not going to do this to impress your parents or the people you went to school with. You’re not going to do this because you’re “supposed” to. No. You’re going to do this because it will make you happier and more yourself and generally more able to connect with the joys of being a human being on earth. Also because it will make me look good at my job if you do. So please stop being personally disrespectful to me and go and slowly start making your life better. I love you. Goodbye.