Debilitating Guilt

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I am 39 years old. I am successful, charitable and educated. In the 1980′s when I was in my teens I found a very friendly dog in a small town several miles from where I lived. Now that I am older i realize the dog probably had an owner and was only wandering about. At the time, I thought the dog was homeless and let him get into my car and come home with me. When I got home my mother threw a fit and demanded i take the dog back to where I had found him. I had a school event that evening and did not have time to go all the way back so I pulled over and let him out on the highway. I thought that dogs are smart and he would find his way back to his home…
Now, more than 20 years later, I am riddled with guilt. I think about it every day, cry regularly about it, wonder what happened to him, and deal with feelings of self loathing all of the time. What is going on? Why has this surfaced and why am I so tortured by this? It is becoming debilitating and I am at a loss…

A: I encourage you to talk to a counselor. When an old issue surfaces like this and not only makes a person miserable but gets in the way of daily life, there is usually a far more important unresolved issue that is being masked by it. Asking yourself what you would be thinking about if you weren’t thinking about the dog might give you a hint. Whatever it is, it’s so important and so anxiety-provoking that you’ve decided on some level that you’d rather suffer with terrible guilt about the dog than deal with the more painful issue. That says to me that it’s really important to have the emotional support and practical help of a counselor to help you surface the real issue and learn how to manage it.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Oct 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). Debilitating Guilt. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/10/31/debilitating-guilt/