The roots of compassion

Have you ever felt the joy of compassion (Ekman, 2016)?

This particular feeling when you help someone and see tears turn into a smile? Maybe something tiny like smiling at someone and seeing their face light up?

How did you experience it?

This moment that you have thought of is part of the emotional roots of your compassion.

I am a clinical psychologist and I learned to follow the “thread” of an emotion, to better understand it. (I explore roots, emotional anchors through memory processes; Bower, 1981). For example, if someone feels a strong emotion that seems incomprehensible, I ask at what other time in life they may have felt this emotion. And very often, a “root” memory emerges.

Our emotions not only have the function of organizing our bodily reactions, our behaviors and our thoughts; they also organize our memory and therefore our remembrances.

To be sensitive to suffering and to free them, we need a motivation: Compassion (Gilbert 2014). Compassion organizes our emotions. The situations we encounter are emotionally impregnated. The roots of our suffering will therefore guide our motivation to move towards or to avoid our suffering.

Let’s take an example, a farmer in the middle ages decides to go explore a forest. This decision and the behaviors that follow are guided by motivation. According to the story of this peasant and the experiences that he has been able to live in this forest, he learned to associate the forest with different things. If he harvested mushrooms or fruits in the forest, his motivation to return may be food. Maybe he went there to meet a Druid who healed him, or maybe he made a love encounter with, according to, motivations of compassion or romantic love. If in his history, the forest was associated only with dangerous situations, he could learn to be afraid and a motivation of survival will push him to avoid going there.

Perhaps the idea of ​​meeting your suffering also triggers one of these motivations.

How do you feel about exploring your suffering?

To enter therapy is to enter into relationship with our suffering. According to our history and the roots of our suffering, we will have a motivation of compassion or want to flee.

It’s the same for the therapist. I am often told, “What hard work you do! To hear suffering all day must be difficult! ” And in fact, I am often moved, touched sometimes shaken by the suffering of people who honor me with their confidence. I sometimes cry after a session or at the end of a day. Two things allow me to live this suffering well. The first is to fully welcome it without possessing it. I create in me a warm, nonjudgmental space that allows it to exist. And I take the time to reconnect with the joy of seeing someone get better, I take the time to feel the joy of compassion.

Two experiences are necessary for a compassionate motivation to push us towards suffering. The experience of suffering and that of the joy of compassion.

A Catholic tale recounts that in the Middle Ages, a lord was burned for abominable acts for which he expressed no remorse. On the wood, he was ordered to ask God for forgiveness. He refused. But as the flames began to sore his flesh; he understood the suffering of his victims, fell into tears and implored forgiveness. The tale says that his sudden compassion opened the doors to heaven.

Without the experience of suffering it is difficult; sometimes impossible to have compassion. Which makes we wonder at the fact that children may be taught not to feel their emotions. “Don’t be sad”.

An expression says that healers do not come down from the light but come out of darkness. The experience of pain and suffering allows for an understanding, an empathy that is a basis for compassion.

But is it enough to have suffered to have compassion?

We also need the experienced the joy of compassion. To enlighten us, I asked some colleagues trained in Compassion Focused Therapy what the joy of compassion could evoke. Here are their answers:

Chris Fraser, a therapist in Dublin, U.S., told me a childhood memory. His mother was sad, and tears ran down her face. He was still very young but spontaneously he rubbed her back. He felt his sadness subside and thought to himself, “That’s what I want to do in life.”

Will Devlin, a clinical psychologist in the U.K. explained that sometimes “providing therapy feels wonderful and offers me the opportunity to witness the process of change, to admire the strength, courage and determination of people in difficult circumstances, and to share the joy that people experience when they find ways to make their lives better.  Other times, however, it feels very difficult and painful too: I can feel powerless and incompetent and hopeless.  Reflecting on all such experience is, to my mind, key to understanding the therapy process and helping clients make sense of their own minds.”  Will said that he feels deeply committed to facing suffering and doing what he can to prevent it or alleviate it. 

Bethan O’Riordan, Counsellor & Psychotherapist at Resilient Minds in Ireland explained that when her son was very unwell and had to go to a specialist children’s hospital. She felt “the joy of being his mother, even though at that time he was so unwell”.  To face this difficult situation, she would “sing, meditate and really connect to the pain of the situation”. She had “never felt stronger and more able to manage. I embodied my compassionate best, through the tears and the tiredness (didn’t leave his side for 4 days) and the joy that I was able to be there and be with him was immense”.

Leanne Rondeau who works in a mental health and wellness service in Montreal Canada, shared with us that the death of her mother to a brain tumor (15 years ago) was her most significant experience of suffering.  She explained: “We come into the world through our mothers, and when she was dying I felt that a part of me was dying with her.  However, the small glimmers of craziness, of fun and lightness, of twistedness, brought us closer and deeper.
If I would mention all the stupidities and fun we had during these dark months I am not sure it would be understood out of context, and it could actually seem quite offensive (Like Camus’ l’étranger having a cigarette in the morgue). However, in the end these elements ended up being what preserved our humanity, sanity and belief. So looking back my laughter flows as easily as my tears.”

The joy of compassion is a guide, a compass that allows us to approach suffering with confidence and serenity. It allows us to remain open, calm and creative in the face of critical and difficult situations. It gives us courage and helps us regulate our emotions.

The joy of compassion is a root that anchors the strength of our compassion.

A very big thank you to all the colleagues who supported this paper.

Bower GH (1981) Mood and memory. Am Psychol 36: 129–148.

Ekman, P. (2016). What scientists who study emotion agree about, Perspectives on psychological science. 11, 1, 31-34.

Gilbert P (2010) Compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. London: Constable-Robinson. Oaklands CA: New Harbinger.

Isabelle Leboeuf is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist

In her therapy practice she integrates Hypnotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy. As she continues to work toward her PhD in Psychology, she is studying the links between Compassion and Positive Social Emotions from the point of view of experimental psychopathology and clinical applications.

Compassion for hate?

My friends, I’m going to ask you courage.

Imagine spending some time watching TV, news …

A feeling invades you gently. Your throat tightens. You breathe a little less well. It’s fear. “Terrorism, unemployment, cancer, natural disasters …” Your mind is focused. You can’t turn off.

A second feeling appears when you finally switch off. A feeling of heat rising. You feel stronger. It’s anger. You think: “All rotten, corrupt, inflation, scams …” The anger shrinks without you noticing your space for reflection and your thoughts become certainties. This fear and anger bring out a new thought: “the others”. Without them everything would be fine.

Then you realize what you are thinking. And a malaise wins you. Shame. You know that you should not think like that.

You connect to the internet to try to understand, am I alone to react like that?

And you observe two things. On the one hand, the medias despise what you think and feel, and on the other, a smiling woman kindly tells you that all of this is normal, you are just right-wing, very right. What are you doing?

Of course, you are tempted by the reassurance of an identity. To be part of those who will protect you, those who are like you, who understand you.

Fear and anger are powerful weapons to convince and politicians have long understood it.

In addition, two emotions form a balance to regulate our social interactions, our place or our status: shame and contempt. He who is at the top of the balancer expresses contempt for staying in the upper position and the one below is feeling shame that paralyzes him.

Shame is a fundamental emotion that helps to regulate deviant behaviors in relation to the group. It is an unbearable emotion and we are all trying to avoid it. Whatever the price. It will create a movement towards the norm and create a strong need for identity in relation to the group. It plays a dominant role in the psychology of nationalist voters.

It is fundamental to understand that scorn reinforces shame.

In the aftermath of the elections, an American Frenchman was interviewed by a French journalist and he explained that he voted Trump in response to the terrorist threat and the lack of reaction from politicians. At the end of the interview the journalist insinuated that he was drunk and tired because he was repeating the names of some Brittany cities. The emotion is there. Contempt.

And this contempt reinforces nationalist ideas. He crystallizes them.

The psychology of compassion helps us to understand and to come out of criticism and shame towards responsibility.

Compassion is a motivational process that develops the ability to think, confront and relieve suffering (of others or of oneself).

Fear, anger and stigma are part of being human. It is always easier to judge than to think deeply and we all fall into this trap. In a threatening situation, we seek support and compassion in our close group and we lose all compassion for others. They are no longer humans like us but enemies.

It’s necessary to move away from contempt and to treat the nationalists with a sense of responsibility. A serious dialogue is necessary to be able to hear, to recognize the suffering and needs that are real. It is only through a dialog of Compassion that the suffering of everyone can be heard.

Isabelle Leboeuf is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist

In her therapy practice she integrates Hypnosis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapies and Compassion-Focused Therapies. As she continues to work toward her PhD in Psychology, she is studying the links between Compassion and Positive Social Emotions from the point of view of both experimental psychopathology and clinical applications.

Why Compassion?

I am 5 years old.

I’m sitting at the edge of the garden.

I look at the path leading to the train station.

I’m leaving, nothing holds me back here.

Nobody loves Me.

How is it possible that my parents don’t love me?

I must have been adopted, that’s it. I was adopted.

A feeling of freedom runs through me like a breath.

I feel good, I’ll be fine.

But where will I go?

No one is waiting for me anywhere…

At 18 months my mother finds me a new nanny after my 2 years older sister asked her why I didn’t move all day.

At 15, I scarify myself and write FUCK and LOVE on my nails with black polish. I spend hours in the shower and life seems as exciting as a highway exit.

At 16, I leave for 9 months to the United States, without really knowing why. But this is the first time I feel that my choices matter, that I can change something in my life. I face my fear and walk in the footsteps of my older sister. After getting lost in Dallas, I meet a generous family who fosters me.

I read my first books on Buddhism, Meditation and Compassion, found at random in a second-hand book shop (Gavin Harrison or The Teaching of the Buddha). In fact, this is the first time I read because I want to.

I practice meditation in my room, and I discover an intense happiness that I have never felt before.

Only one problem: “Why be happy if the people around me are sad? “

This question stays with me. It hinders me in my practice of meditation that is not assiduous. I continue to meditate sporadically without real discipline, for the joy that it gives me, I do not seek happiness.

Compassion is on my professional path a few years later.

I am in Paris, in a small training room of the House of Chemistry, at the edge of “les Invalides”. I only came to this place once, a few years before to see a scientific poster from Professor Antoine, with whom I worked on anxiety related to pain.

Professor Paul Gilbert begins to speak to the 15 of us gathered in the room. He speaks in English. There’s no translation.

He talks about Compassion and his “Compassion Focused Therapy”. I’m under his spell. I absolutely want to know more about it. A few months later in Derby in England I learn to talk to that part of me that is calm, peaceful and able to offer me Compassion.

I then ask this part of me, “How can I be happy when the people around me are not? “

I hear a simple word: “joy”.

This part of me, an ideal form of compassion is now there for me if I need it.

This very simple, and so obvious answer – “joy” – will guide me to the greatest philosophers (like Spinoza and his Ethics of joy), neuropsychologists (like Antonio Damasio who gave neuropsychological arguments to Spinoza’s perspective) or psychologists (like Darcia Narvez who describes social joy as a primary need of the human being and a necessary anchor for ethical development, Erich Fromm who guides us toward a faith anchored in love) or spiritual guides (like Thích Nhất Hạnh or Thomas Merton, who put positive emotions at the heart of their practices).

This meeting of Joy and Compassion is today the subject of my Psychology Research PhD.

I am 38 years old and nobody has ever talked to me about my childhood depressions.

For all those who will one day feel the breath of one of the guardians of Azkaban*, I share my story today. Hoping that one day we can cross the emotional desert of depression without shame.

Chronic depression isn’t something we heal from, we learn to live with it: like a sportsman who starts the sport again after an injury. Meditation taught me to stabilize my mind. It offered me, with the wisdom of Buddhist writings, a new perspective on the world.

The thoughts that suck my energy are no longer channels that enclose me in the fog but the song of crows I have learned to love.

Compassion is about looking at the reality of suffering without judgment allowing us to say, yes me too, yes someone of my family, yes my friend, we suffer, it is so. Compassion is approaching and staying present to this suffering so that it can be released.

It is to be together again and rediscover a shared joy, beyond the borders of stigmatization.

We see the stars only in obscurity
Ancient travelers were waiting till dusk to find their path
Technology gives us more informations
But we still have to walk through darkness
To find the meaning of life

Damasio, A. (2003) Spinoza was right. Joy and sadness, the brain of emotions, Paris, Odile Jacob, 346

Fromm, E. (1967) The Art of Love, 158; 20 cm. Original title: The art of loving. Ed. Desclée de Brouwer.

Gilbert, P. (2010) Compassion Focused Therapy, Routledge, London.

Harrison, G. (1994) In the lap of the Buddha, Shambabla, Boston.

Merton, T. (1961) The Paths of Joy, (Thoughts in Solitude), Lib. Plon, Paris.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: W.W. Norton.

Spinoza, B. (2005) Ethics, Paris, Editions de l’Éclat, 1990, PUF.

The Teaching of Buddha (1986), Buddhist Foundation, Japan.

Thích Nhất Hạnh (2014) Taking care of the inner child, Belfond.

*In the universe of Harry Potter, the guardians of Azkaban, the famous wizard prison, are creatures of darkness considered the most abject in the world. Dementors feed on human joy, and at the same time provoke despair and sadness on anyone nearby. They are also able to suck the soul of a person, leaving their victim in an irreversible vegetative state.

Isabelle Leboeuf is a Psychologist, Psychotherapist

In her therapy practice she integrates Hypnosis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapies and Compassion-Focused Therapies. As she continues to work toward her PhD in Psychology, she is studying the links between Compassion and Positive Social Emotions from the point of view of both experimental psychopathology and clinical applications.

Translated with the kind help of Ari Cowan

Ari Cowan is the Director General of the International Center for Compassionate Organizations (ICCO). He focuses on the continuing development of the International Center and coordinating its overall day-to-day operations. He is also the key author of the theoretical principles of the International Center as well as a participant in developing, delivering, and evaluating the International Center’s programs, publications, partnerships, and initiatives. We are waiting for his new book, “Compassion and the alchemy of being”

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.