Harriet Walker: 'I'm the world’s most neurotic narcissist'


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On feeling a bit angsty. On lying awake remembering all the times you've made an idiot of yourself. On doing a full-body cringe on a packed bus at the thought of a faux pas 15 years ago that the people you were with may or may not have even noticed.

I've been trying to figure out how Montaigne or any of those other hallowed epigrammatic essayists (back in the day before it was known as self-help) might have tackled this, the dread and anxiety of the modern existence.

Everyone I know has it. Everyone I know worries before, during and after everything they do. They're haunted by things they did in their youth, terrorised by niceties forgotten or etiquette overlooked, at potential offence caused or misguided actions that become monstrous during the lonely small hours.

My friend has a word for it that flashes up on my phone screen from time to time, or gets plonked at the end of an email. I know exactly what it signifies and you probably do too. The word is "hrhrhrhr".

I presume – and it's potentially patronising, this – that no generation yet has felt so keenly as mine that sensation of having put your skin on wrong, or that the sky is about to cave in because of something you said at a party or when you got someone's name wrong in the queue for the loo.

That isn't self-aggrandising. That isn't "my psyche is more acute than your psyche". It's the fact that the young and anxious middle classes in this country don't have to worry about war or famine. Or bubonic plague or dying from a sprained ankle. We have no visceral, feudal problems, as much as we may feel we do. So we clutch the duvet at midnight and think about ISAs and incidents, of shame and mortification. We mentally flagellate, but not for religious purposes; we do it because that's the only way we feel real fear and pain.

All of my friends are anxious. I'm the worst of them. I'm so anxious that when somebody says my name, I assume they're going to tell me someone I know has died. Or worse, that everybody thinks I'm boring. Yes, I'll happily admit to being the world's most neurotic narcissist.

Somebody told me recently that when bad things happen or pain occurs or you worry, your mind reacts like the functioning grown-up you pretend you are, and your body responds like the toddler you are in your heart.

So when you mess up, your brain says, "Hands up, my bad, it won't happen again," but your stomach is in knots in case no one speaks to you ever again, or your mum hates you for ever because you put your finger in the cake mix. You tell yourself it's a lesson learnt and no damage is irreparable, but your upper lip gets hot, you blink back tears of self-hatred, and you want someone to give you a cuddle and say you're over-tired.

And God help you if you're hungover when something goes wrong. Those woolly episodes that bundled you through your early twenties and meant you never really felt drudgery's keen pinch, that protected you from really feeling office hours and empty bank accounts – by the venerable age of 27, a hangover brings with it enough anxiety and self-loathing to give you psychosis.

My friend was knocked out for a minor medical procedure recently. When she woke up, ever so slightly too early, with a tube still down her throat and several members of the caring profession still standing over her, she panicked. She felt fear like a child and her brain was too woozy to behave like a responsible adult. She lashed out. She confronted her fear, anxiety and (she later admitted) her rising irritation, by taking tight hold of the thing nearest to her, which happened to be the consultant's scrotum. It took shouting and two nurses to make her let go.

When I recovered from crying with laughter at this story, I saw it as a convenient analogy (that's what happens when you have a column to write). I don't offer it as literal advice; I don't want a nation's bruised fun kits on my conscience. But perhaps we should – metaphorically – just grab our worries by the balls more often, so that they don't suffocate us as we try to sleep.

Yes, we might at times offend people but, when we are cautious and caring people, these times will be few and far between, and they will be forgiven. There will be moments when those we spend time with step back and wonder if we are idiots, but if we are humble most of the time, they'll come to their own conclusions. Chances are, they'll be so consumed by the possibility that they themselves could be idiots that they won't spend long debating whether you are.

Face your fears. Say no to anxiety. Do as my prone pal did before the life of the mind took over once again and made her docile. Grasp the nearest metaphorical trouserful and yank. It'll take your mind off things for a while.