Three System Model Formulation

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. This is sometimes known as the three system model formulation

But before we explore how to do three system model formulation, let’s remind ourselves about the basic ideas with the three system model. 


Three Circle Model - Basics

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 wor

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:

three system model compassion focused therapy

Three System Model Formulation- Formulating each System

Once you’ve shared some information about each of the systems with the person you’re working with, it’s then useful to get them to think in detail about how each of the systems works for them. This is known as a three system model formulation. 

There’s a number of ways of doing this, but for each system (Threat, Drive and Soothing) it’s worth holding in mind the following questions (a downloadable pdf can also be accessed here): 


Threat System

Drive System

Soothing System

How often is this system triggered?




What tends to trigger it?




How long does it stay activated for once triggered?




How powerfully is this system when triggered?             (1 being weak – 10, powerful)




Which emotion is strongest when this system is online?




What type of thoughts do you have when in this system? 




What do you want to do when this system is triggered?




The aim of using these types of questions is to help both you and the person that you’re working with to get a better understanding of how their three systems function. Like with many things in life, the more you understand and recognise the shape of something, the more likely you can take helpful steps to make any changes that might be needed.

How are your systems balanced?

It can be helpful at this stage to take some time to think about all three systems together. Some of the questions we can think of here are:

Is one system triggered more frequently or powerfully than others?

Are any of the systems not experienced very often? Does it feel hard to experience any of these systems?

sIn particular, it’s useful here to see if you can help the person you’re working with to think about their three systems based on how they’re balanced. 

To do this, it’s worth having a piece of paper and a pen (and if possible, three colours, red for threat, blue for drive and green for soothing) at hand. Then ask the person to draw out the three systems, but with the size of the circle representing how much of that system they’re experiencing in their life at the moment (with bigger circles representing greater activation). If it helps, guide the person to hold in mind a couple of things:

  • time frame – for example, the last week/month/period since they’ve been struggling
  • context – for example, how they are balanced across the whole of life, or a specific area, like work, home life or relationships 

After completing this, ask the person about their reflections? Did they learn anything about themselves or how their systems work? Everyone who completes this exercise will have different experiences, but often a a pattern arises that includes:

Threat – almost always, people draw a very large threat system that (mostly) is bigger than the other two systems

Drive – this can either be really small (e.g. if someone is struggling with depression or burnout) or large (if someone is struggling with mania, perfectionism or addictions)

Soothing – this is typically small, and for some people, tiny or even absent. It’s sometimes worth holding in mind the two parts of soothing system – the ability to ‘rest and digest’ and the more attachment/care based part of this system. Sometimes one is more absent than the other

Typical Drawing of an 'out of balance' Three System Model

three system model out of balance

Three System Model Formulation - Specific Presentations

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) is a non-diagnostic approach, in the sense that what we’re most interested in is the reality of human distress and suffering, rather than diagnostic categories or labels. In the past, CFT used to be described as a transdiagnositc approach to working with distress, which in some ways is true – but a more accurate way of describing CFT is to drop the diagnostic bit completely and instead just focus on it being an approach to working with human distress and suffering. 

Having said that, sometimes people (clients, clinicians) find it helpful to take a diagnostic or ‘presenting problems’ approach to the three system model. It’s fine if you do this (and use the three system model formulation in this way), although it’s worth holding in mind that for each ‘diagnosis’ (e.g. depression) there are lots of different versions rather than a simple, classic stereotyped version. 

Take a look below at a few examples for how the three system model looks when someone wanted to apply their diagnosis to the systems 



three system model formulation
trauma three system


bipolar three system


anorexia three system

Three System Model - Historical Influences

Whilst a ‘here-and-now’ focus for the three system model can be exceptionally helpful and supportive for people, sometimes it’s helpful to go a little deeper. 

Here, we ask the person that we’re working with to cast their mind back in time – to consider when, what and who might have most influenced how their three systems are working today. 

Although it’s always important to be sensitive when doing this, it can be a powerful way of helping the person you’re working with consider how the way their systems are working today are not their fault – that they’ve been shaped by experiences, many of which they did not choose. 

Example: Laila

Laila attended therapy seeking help initially for low mood and a sense of unhappiness about life.

She found the general idea of the three system model very helpful, and started to make day-to-day changes in finding ways to rebalance the systems. 

However, she was also keen to consider how the systems had been primed to operate in the way they were, and had a sense that there were historical factors that had contributed to their current functioning. 

Laila ended up drawing in to each system the below experiences

Threat System

  • Laila had a really close relationship with her mum as a young child, but tragically her mum died when she was 7 years old. Added to this, her parents kept the fact that mum had cancer from Laila, and so (in her memory) mum was healthy one day and then suddenly taken to hospital and died soon after
  • At school Laila was very academically competent, but found it difficult to fit in, especially after her mum died. In senior school she was bullied very badly for an extended period of time
  • Although she was very intelligent, after mum died she was understandably distressed and distracted, and no one appeared to pick up on this or offer support. When it came to her 11+ exams she didn’t get the results she expected, and wasn’t able to attend the school she had hoped for
  • When she was 17, Laila fell in love with Sarah, and they had a wonderful relationship for a few years (note the * in the soothing system). Unfortunately, without her realising, Sarah was unfaithful to her throughout much of this relationship, and a number of her close friends knew about this but didn’t tell Laila out of fear that it would hurt her to know. Ultimately this betrayal and rejection had a huge impact on the shaping of her threat system

Drive System 

  • Laila recalled a number of wonderful moments where she’d achieved the best grade in her class or year group academically, and how at this moment, her Dad responded with great excitement and joy. Whilst talking about it, Laila also tapped back in to these experiences, but reflected later that recently, she had a sense that she was only ‘good’ if she was successful at work, and could only escape her threat system through achieving things in life. She also had a fear that her dad would only love her if she was successful
  • She also recalled her drive system being very active whilst having fun at university, and in particular, going out to bars and clubs in which she’d drink a lot and take amphetamines, and have fun dancing all night

Soothing System 

  • Although Laila had a few great connections to the soothing system – in particular, her relationship with her mum and Sarah, ultimately both of these relationships ended up disappearing in huge pain for different reasons. 
  • Laila had a profound sense that the green system couldn’t be trusted, and that it wasn’t safe for her to feel at ease, calm, connected or love
three system model historical

If you’d like to track the size of your three systems, our Self-Compassion App has a great tool to help you do this – check it out here:

If you’d like to learn how to balance your three systems more with self-compassion, take a look here.

These ideas have all been adapted from the wonderful work of Professor Paul Gilbert ( and The Compassionate Mind Workbook (