Updated 05 July 2013

12 secret fears

Next time you hear a really embarrassing story, be glad if it isn't about you. These fears keep many people awake at night.

This is the stuff of which urban legends are made, the things about which people laugh, but secretly they are so grateful that it didn't happen to them.

So, next time you hear an embarrassing story, be glad if it isn't about you. Are these the things that keep you awake at night?

Stuck in a lift and needing the toilet. This is a big nightmare. What do you do if you quickly took the lift to the eleventh floor toilet and it gets stuck for four hours? Do you just use the floor? Do you try and hang on? What if there are other people in the lift with you? Should the worst happen, just remember that this will not be the first time in history. Heaven knows what lift repairmen have seen when they open doors, but a puddle on the floor is surely not among the worst.

Locked out of the car in a dodgy place. This is a tricky one. The most important thing is not to waste time trying to open the car by yourself. Get to a safe place and return with others, or leave it till the next day when you can get professionals to help you. While you're struggling all by yourself in the dark, you are an ideal target for a mugger.

Shoplifting by mistake. Everyone has, at some stage in their lives, been deep in thought and wandered out of a shop clutching something they had picked up. The thought of being arrested, in full public view of other shoppers, and having only the lame excuse that it was an accident, is a highly unpleasant one. Be alert when shopping – this is not a place to daydream or be absentminded. After all, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Having a medical crisis in an embarrassing place. The big one here is the man who has a heart attack in his mistress's flat. How does one explain this? You simply can't. Then there are public places in which things can happen to people – embarrassing things. Stories about women giving birth on planes or someone choking in a restaurant fuel these fears. While the middle of the supermarket is certainly not the place you would choose to have your baby, accept that these things can and do happen. Life is not restricted to places of your choice.

Having a cheque/credit card refused.This happens, but what if it happens when you're on a first date? Or trying to impress the in-laws by picking up a bill? And the grim thing is, often this happens even when there is money in your account. The lines are busy or your bank's offline, or whatever – thing is, you end up looking silly. For these occasions, carry enough cash to foot the bill.

Having stained clothing. Whether these are food stains, something you sat in, or worse, you end up looking and feeling quite foolish. The worst is if someone alerts you to the presence of a stain on your clothing at the end of the day and you are sure you've been walking around like that all day. Or you discover your fly is undone, or you have spinach on your teeth. If you suspect something might be wrong, ask someone if everything is allright in order to avoid embarrassment. Put an extra shirt or jersey in the car for these occasions.

Insulting someone unwittingly. You describe a certain type of couch you really hate in detail, and the first time you get to your boss's house, you realise she has two of those. Or you make derogatory remarks about someone's appearance at a party and you later realise the person you were talking to was their spouse. Ouch. There's no getting out of this one. No amount of backtracking is going to make a difference. In fact, it will only make it worse. Be careful when and where you make negative comments about anyone. It's the only way to miminise these incidents.

Halitosis hell. Would you tell your best friend her breath stinks? Would he or she tell you? Point is, everyone walks around wondering whether they've had halitosis for years and wondering whether everyone's just too polite to tell them. Do people back away from you? Does no one want to sit next to you in the movies? Be brave and ask someone. Or see your GP if you think there really might be a problem and you are too shy to ask.

Running out of airtime in mid-crisis. There you are stuck in the middle of nowhere without petrol, it's getting dark, you should have picked up the children half an hour ago and you've run out of airtime. Keep an extra phonecard in the cubbyhole for emergencies such as these, but also remember that you can still call the emergency number, even if you have no airtime left. Use it.

Being caught lying. Everyone lies every now and then. Or even every day. Social rules and regulations often train us to do this. Bobby is taught to say thank you for the awful green socks he receives for his fourth birthday in order not to hurt Aunt Agatha's feelings. We make positive noises about someone's new dress, cooking, gardening or interior decorating efforts when they're nothing short of disastrous. But then there are woppers such as "Of course I'm not having an affair – stop being so paranoid" or "I promise I will pay you tomorrow" which might both be blatant lies. Being caught out in one of the latter types of lies, leaves no room for manoeuvring and will seriously shatter someone else's opinion of you. And you'll have no one else to blame but yourself.

Finding your spouse/lover with someone else. This scenario is often depicted in movies, but alas, it also happens in real life. You come home unexpectedly from work, and the neighbour is visiting – in your bedroom. And he/she is wearing no clothes. This is no ordinary visit and it has nothing to do with borrowing a cup of sugar or the lawnmower. What you do next is unpredictable, but your marriage or relationship will never be the same again – if it survives, that is.

Having an attack of flatulence in public. This is frowned upon socially, especially if you are in a confined space. People may laugh at you – let them. If this happens once in a blue moon, rest assured that it happens to everyone now and then. But if it happens daily, you may have a problem. See your doctor.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated July 2009)

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