Three System Model

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:

Understanding the Three System Model

1. Threat System, with emotions like anger, fear and disgust, this system evolved in all animals with the function to help us identify and respond to threats in the world. Once activated, this system directs physiology, attention, thinking, behaviour and emotion to reach safety.

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. This system is important in motivating people to get things that are useful to them and others, and is highly rewarding. 

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):

What is compassion focused therapy?

Whilst each of these systems are biologically primed, they are also learning systems. This means that through our lives, our experiences – for example, with other people – shape how these system develops. For some people, this might mean that their threat system (for example) is triggered very quickly, or that one part of it (e.g. anger) is primed to respond to potential difficulties in their environment. This isn’t anyones fault when this happens, but using the three system model can be a helpful way of supporting people to understand themselves and ultimately, think about how they can get more balance within the three circle model.

A key part of Compassion Focused Therapy and Compassionate Mind Training is how to bring change to the three circle model. If in therapy, this is in part done via a safe, caring and empathetic therapeutic relationship. But CFT also utilising a number of exercises and interventions that can support this. 

In a simple way, CFT and CMT aims to reduce threat system, build the drive system (in a healthy, sustainable way) and cultivate the soothing system so people feel more safe in side themselves and with others. 

If you’d like to learn more about this, take a look at our resources page or look at our training page to learn more about Compassion Focused Therapy as an approach

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