The Irony of Compassion


Have you ever felt Angry with someone who did not follow your advice with the urge to comment “I told you so”.

Perhaps you have withheld this comment, or perhaps you have done it. Were you surprised by the Sad reaction of the person you wanted to help? Why are we so angry at someone’s suffering that we can’t help?

Most of us naturally feel an inclination to help others. Studies of Empathy (Eisenberg, Strayer, 1990) show that from early childhood we have a natural tendency to intervene in a situation where someone if facing a handicap situation. Yet this tendency is not expressed continuously, and we lose it very quickly when our personal interest is at stake in the situation (Green, Kirby, Nielsen 2018).

We feel Joy, even pride in helping a friend or doing a volunteer action that we know is for the benefit of the group or a person in pain.

This motivation is called Compassion. It is a motivation that brings us to relieve suffering. We sometimes develop professional skills to meet the needs of living beings, animals or humans. This motivation can bring us to incredible achievements.

And yet we all have met a doctor who was angry because we had not followed his treatment, a teacher exasperated at our inability to understand his method or an angry parent not to be able to reassure us. Psychologists and psychotherapists can also have this type of reaction. Relieving suffering is the heart of a therapist’s motivation. And yet many question the continuation of therapy when a patient is not motivated. I have often wondered about this reaction when the lack of motivation is part of the symptomatology of many patients. Personally, I feel anger at people who work on compassion without following their own recommendations. This anger makes me with some Irony in the position of those I would feel like criticizing because I then lose my compassion.

Why this Anger? Why can we become aggressive, even violent while our motivation is rooted in compassion?

All simply because our personal interest goes before compassion. And if our personal interest is to free the suffering of the other and that despite our efforts of compassion it does not meet our expectations, we feel frustration. Our own suffering takes us away and we become rigid.

How to overcome this paradox?

By creating a space to become aware of this reaction. We can thus slow down, reconnect ourselves to the sensitivity in the present moment of the person we want to help, and to our own suffering. Most often, simply allowing suffering to be, creates a space for negative emotions to be integrated and a form of Joy emerges.

The Joy of compassion.

Eisenberg, N., & Strayer, J. (Eds.). (1990). Empathy and its development. Cambridge University Press.

Green, M., Kirby, J. N., & Nielsen, M. (2018). The cost of helping: An exploration of compassionate responding in children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology.


Francis Gheysen is a French Psychiatrist working in a private practice and part time in a teaching hospital. Francis is integrating Mindfulness, CFT and the psychiatrist’s clinical tasks and teaches CFT and Mindfulness.

Isabelle Leboeuf is a French clinical Psychologist. She is integrating Ericksonian Hypnosis, CBT and CFT. She is doing a research PhD studying Compassion and Positive Social Emotions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s