Three System Model - Black & White

The Three System Model – sometimes called the Three Circle Model – is an important part of CFT and can play a helpful role in someone understanding themselves and their emotional lives.

Scientists have many theories about how many emotion ‘systems’ we have. One way that can be useful is to consider how our emotions can be grouped together based on their function – that is, what they evolved to help us to do. For example, if you’re threatened in some way you might experience feelings of fear or anxiety. Or maybe, if this threat involves you (or someone you love) being treated unfairly, then it might be anger you experience.  In contrast, if you’re achieving things you might have pleasant emotions such as joy, excitement and happiness.  However, we can also have pleasant emotions that are calming and soothing, for example, when we feel safe and cared for.

With the three system model in CFT, we suggest that evolution has shaped our emotions to have different functions, all of which have been helpful in facilitating our chances for survival and reproduction and ultimately, passing our genes on.  The three major emotion systems are referred to as:

1. Threat System, with emotions like anger, fear and disgust, which function to help us identify and respond to threats in the world

2. Drive System, linked to higher energy pleasurable emotions like excitement and joy, which motivate us to move towards resources and goals that might be helpful to us, and leave us feeling good when we achieve them

3. Soothing System, linked to feelings like contentment, calmness and safeness, which helps us to engage in periods of rest and peacefulness when we are not threatened or trying to achieve things. This system is also associated with giving and receiving care from others.

We show this model visually like this (a copy of this can be downloaded here):

three system model black and white

If you’d like to know more about how you can formulate using the three system model, take a look here