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Why We Sometimes Feel Guilty for No Reason

The answer may have to do with envy.

Key points

  • People often feel guilty but can't identify what they did wrong. One explanation is that they have become the object of someone's envy.
  • Envy is wanting what someone else has. When a person becomes the target of someone's envy, it can create an uncomfortable, confusing feeling.
  • If one is the target of envy, it may help to consider whether one actually did something to hurt someone.
Source: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

by Kristen Beesley, Ph.D.

Sometimes you feel guilty but have no idea why. Aside from obvious reasons like hurting someone’s feelings, the source of guilt oftentimes lies beneath the surface.

In my practice as a psychoanalyst, I frequently hear patients say, “I just feel so guilty,” yet they can’t identify what, if anything, they did wrong. One possible explanation is they’ve become the object of someone’s envy.

What does it mean to be the object of someone’s envy? Consider this scenario. You’re feeling guilty in relation to a childhood friend — as if you had done something bad to them. Yet you hadn’t. However, one thing that comes to mind when you think “what am I guilty of” is that you have something they don’t.

What is envy?

Many people use envy as a synonym for “jealousy.” However, they are not quite the same. According to Miriam-Webster, jealousy is when you worry someone will take what you have while envy is wanting what someone else has. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described envy as a feeling that life events are like a zero-sum game—if someone has something you envy, it feels like their good fortune is at your expense.

Why would anyone envy me?

Many people find it difficult to think they're the object of someone else’s envy. It's an uncomfortable feeling. Beauty, good fortune, happiness, fame or success can evoke envy in friends and family who may even sometimes wish that your good fortune would be taken away from you.

When you become the target of another person’s envy, it can create a confusing feeling that you’ve done something wrong but can’t quite put your finger on what it could be.

Examples of feeling guilty due to envy

In January of 2021, when vaccines were harder to come by, my patient Molly* got lucky due to a surplus of unused shots at her local pharmacy. She was ecstatic. She shared this news with a friend with an underlying medical condition and got a strange response from her. The friend accused Molly of “stealing” the vaccine from deserving people. Molly felt incredibly guilty and began to wonder if she’d done something wrong by accepting the shot.

Another patient, Stacia,* reported recurrent dreams of murdering some unnamed person and woke up feeling guilty and remorseful. When thinking about these dreams, Stacia recalled feeling very much beloved by her parents while her older brother was often compared negatively to her. This caused her brother to envy her and in turn, caused Stacia guilt about her parents’ frequent praise. We came to understand the dreams represented “killing off” someone by beating them in a competition—in this case, competition for the parents’ love.

What to do when you are the object of another person's envy?

It can be very painful and confusing to be the object of another person’s envy and it can generate feelings of guilt. If you think that’s happening to you, here are a few things to think about:

  • Have you actually done something to hurt the other person?
  • If not, might it be about the other person’s envy of something you possess or some quality about you as a person?
  • Having great qualities or good fortune should be celebrated. You're not hurting other people with your successes.
  • Invest in friendships and relationships where there's mutual recognition of each other’s good fortune.

Remember, sometimes we feel guilty for no good reason. Talking about the experience out with a trusted friend or therapist, or journaling may help to sort through irrational reactions.

*Names changed and identifying details omitted to protect confidentiality.

Kristen Beesley, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst practicing in Metro Detroit. She is a member of the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and on the American Psychoanalytic Association Committee on Public Information.

Facebook image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock