How do I lose my conscience


By Veronica Bonilla Gurzeler

Parents are masters at developing guilt. That's not bad. It can also be helpful, find psychologists.

A Sunday evening last fall. “Where we belong”, the latest film by Zurich director Jacqueline Zünd, is playing on my laptop. Five children and young people between the ages of 7 and 18 tell with an almost oppressive honesty how they experienced the separation of their parents. Analyze not only their own feelings, but also those of their parents. Describing how they deal with their pain and the changed reality.

While the interview scenes in the film interweave with aestheticized images from the everyday life of the children, the longer the more painful my own separation story presses into my awareness. I separated from my children's father when they were 6, 9 and 11 years old. Our love was not strong and big enough to reduce the differences and conflicts in dealing with one another to a tolerable level.

Although I always had the inner certainty that the breakup was best for everyone, I now feel violent guilt gnawing at me. Undoubtedly, our children had suffered from the division of the family, even if we tried very hard to at least be good parents of divorce to them.

Why do mothers especially suffer from guilt?

That evening I couldn't sleep for a long time. It was rumbling inside of me. What is this guilty feeling about? What are they used for? How to deal with them And why do parents and especially mothers suffer so often from them? Psychologist Julia Onken even says: "Mother and feelings of guilt are synonymous."
Indeed. When I start to ask around, it is mainly mothers and only a few fathers who talk about remorse. Kind of birth, breastfeeding, child care, employment, behavior towards the child: There are pitfalls everywhere, the potential for scruples is great.

I realize that parents are real world champions at developing guilt. No wonder, because we are poorly prepared for the great task and responsibility that having children means. The fact that educational methods are subject to social trends and change every few years doesn't make it any easier.

41 reasons for parental guilt

In the book “Conversations about guilt and feelings of guilt” by the Bernese psychotherapist Jürg Kollbrunner there is a table with reasons for parents feeling guilty. It starts with “losing patience too quickly” and ends with “not being compassionate enough”.

It is long, but if you go through it you will see that it is still incomplete, even though it has 41 points. And that sometimes we don't even know exactly where the bad feeling, the bad conscience comes from. We then suspect that something is wrong, but would rather not deal with it.

When mother's love suddenly fades

On YouTube I discover a series of interviews with the Viennese psychiatrist and neuroscientist Raphael M. Bonelli (51). In his view, guilt is an alarm signal; like the feeling of pain, they indicate danger.

While physical pain draws attention to physical damage, such as a knee injury, the feeling of guilt indicates social damage: We have hurt someone with our behavior or with our words. If we feel guilty afterwards, this is okay and a sign of mental health. In his practice, Bonelli has noticed that most people are reluctant to talk about guilt and feelings of guilt.

Feelings of guilt are taboo

I also find out about this during my research talks. Hardly anyone wants to be associated with this topic in public. One exception is Yasmin Matthys (30), marketing specialist from Bern, founder of the parents' blog “roots4wings” and mother of two children. She tells:

«My second child was a cry baby from birth. A cry baby doesn't just cry, it screams. For hours. Sleep is only a short one. As soon as it wakes up, it has stress. And intensifies into the next screaming attack. Sometimes I texted my husband, come home, I can't take it anymore! On days like this I would have loved to hand over the children, pack my suitcase and leave. In the evenings in bed, I was plagued by massive feelings of guilt. I kept asking myself why I couldn't calm my son down. During the holidays with my parents, I reached the lowest point of my motherhood so far: my baby had never before screamed for so long, my nerves were completely blank, I no longer felt motherly love. My son screamed from the core of his little body - and suddenly I screamed back, full pot. So loud that my ears ached and my parents ran over. My father took the little one out of my arms, my mother hugged me very tightly and wouldn't let go of me. I collapsed, cried and shivered, just said, I'll kill myself, I can't take him anymore. "

We don't have everything under control

We can understand when a mother or father in an extreme situation loses their nerve when they scream, their hand slips when they hurt with words. Psychotherapist Raphael M. Bonelli says it's normal for us to be guilty. Likewise, that others would be guilty of us, because nobody is perfect: "Everyone would have to say that I am half a perpetrator and half a victim."

It is also important to recognize that we do not have everything under control. Our genes, our temperament, our origins are given, as are our parents and our upbringing. For Bonelli, and now his choice of words betrays the Catholics in him, the “admission of guilt is the beginning of the healing process.

A burden falls off of us when we no longer have to hide what we've done. We can feel remorse, maybe even be forgiven, ”says the head of the Vienna Institute for Religiosity in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy.

Yasmin Matthys: “It was extremely difficult to forgive me for this outburst. Of all the guilt, this is the worst in my life. The incident also woke me up. I realized that I couldn't do everything on my own. That I am not one of the perfect mothers like the ones I meet on Instagram in my everyday blogging. An illusory world is clear to me today. I bought myself time and got help from my family. Whenever possible, I took care of the children for a few hours to recharge their batteries and to remind myself that I love my son and that he wasn't screaming out of defiance. I also started craniosacral therapy and learned to see my emotions as a mirror of my mother's love and to imagine that I transfer every feeling directly to my children. Since then my son has been changed, the screaming has clearly subsided and I can deal much better with situations in which I am annoyed or overwhelmed. "

Different types of guilt

Sometimes mothers and fathers need outside help, even after less dramatic incidents. Parent counseling or couples therapy may be necessary. Because guilt can weigh heavily on us and feelings of guilt can have a destructive effect, keep us small, make us sick. Addressing them, naming them or even recognizing them therefore has a healing and relieving effect.

Jürg Kollbrunner has noticed this over and over again during his many years of work at the ENT clinic of Inselspital Bern when dealing with parents, especially when their children are suffering from an illness or disorder whose psychosomatic component (such as stuttering) cannot be denied. “Feelings of guilt are a great opportunity to behave differently in the future,” says Kollbrunner.

The psychologist distinguishes two main groups of feelings of guilt: The authentic or justified feelings of guilt arise when we harm someone else or ourselves. They are painful, tormenting if they are very guilty, sometimes for a long time. "When we understand the guilt behind them, we can not only regret our guilt, apologize, ask for forgiveness and seek redress, but we can also learn to avoid certain culpable behavior in the future."

Social pressure leads to feelings of guilt

It is more difficult to identify the feelings of guilt of the second group, the socially learned, unjustified. This group is where most of the guilt feelings mothers and fathers carry with them fall into. We have adopted them in the course of our lives from our parents, teachers and close caregivers, but also from society.

"They are the result of dressage as we know it from animals," says Kollbrunner. They are persuaded to make us behave in a certain way and if we do not, there is a risk of loss of love; we are afraid of that. "They indicate that we are still too dependent on early authority figures," says Kollbrunner.

When we identify them and reflect on the inherited beliefs behind them, we can see that they may no longer serve us. We then figuratively show them the middle finger and go more and more our own, self-determined path.

Yasmin Matthys: «My daughter got off to a difficult start. She was born five weeks early and suffered from severe jaundice. I wanted to breastfeed her, but she was so weak that she couldn't suckle properly. She must gain more weight, the hospital staff told me every day. I tried it with and without a hat, with expressing, bottle giving and became more and more stressed. Developed massive sleep deprivation and felt like a failure. The desire to breastfeed kept popping up, but withholding this valuable, supposedly very best food from my child made me feel unbelievably guilty. Not least because of the social pressure, as breastfeeding is incredibly glorified in this country. After two months, reason prevailed. My baby slept through the night almost immediately, finally gained weight and I knew I had made the right decision. Since then I have been open about challenges in family life, also publicly on my blog. I encourage other mothers to listen to their gut instincts. "

Sign of empathy

That night I remembered my feeling that the separation was right then. And just allow yourself to feel guilty.

That can't be wrong: research ascribes positive traits to people who feel guilty more often: They seem to be “more empathetic, better friends, lovers, employees and managers,” says Kollbrunner. «Without guilt there would be no civilization; only the right of the strongest would count. Wherever there have been serious conflicts, they are called signs of hope for the restoration of a peaceful community. "

Veronica Bonilla Gurzeler


Veronica Bonilla used to want to be a skydiver. Since she experienced free fall giving birth to her children, that desire has vanished into thin air. She is still fascinated by borderline experiences and transitions such as birth and parenthood again and again. As a journalist, she loves to think outside the box and to be surprised by what comes up there.