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.