The Compassion Focused Therapy Model

Compassion Focused Therapy, or CFT for short, is a branch of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which I’ve become really interested in over the past few years.  People who come to Forrest Talking Therapies find it a really powerful way of working through all sorts of difficulties, and I often use the tools in my personal day to day life.

In this blog I want to give you a beginners’ guide to the CFT model, sometimes called the ‘emotion regulation systems’ or ‘motivational systems’.  The theory is that our brains have evolved three different systems which work together to control and maintain our emotional state.  The diagram below represents these systems with circles (drive, soothing and threat/protect) and importantly arrows between them showing that it’s a continually flowing, interacting process.  Understanding this model gives us a different way of viewing our reactions to the world around us and suggests changes we may want to make to ensure that the systems are balanced.


This is where we are focused on achieving a particular goal and we feel excited, focused and motivated. When we’re in this system our brain is releasing a chemical called dopamine which gives us a pleasurable buzz.  You may have experienced this when you reach a certain goal in work, or at the gym.


You may have heard of the flight or fight response and that’s essentially what this system is all about.  It’s associated with emotions such as anxiety, anger and disgust.  When we’re in this system a part of brain called the amygdala is in charge and chemicals called cortisol and adrenaline will be rushing around.  Not a pleasant state to be in, but at times it is essential for our survival.


This is a nice, calm system, a place where we feel safe and at peace with the world.  Here the brain is releasing the chemicals called endorphins.  We feel connected to others and have a good relationship with ourselves.

Notice how in the diagram all the circles are the same size, but as you may have already guessed that’s not how it is in reality.  The degree to which we are in each system changes all the time. For example, as I am writing this blog I am predominantly in drive, later today I may find threat taking over as I start to worry about some deadlines which are looming, and then hopefully this evening my yoga class will put me in the soothing system. 

We are all born with the ability to move in and out of each of the three systems, however we often find in CFT that due to negative experiences people may feel an imbalance in the systems and in particular find it difficult to be self-compassionate.  Therapy can help us to become more aware of how these systems relate to our own lives and to work through the blocks we may feel, allowing the systems to flow with more balance.

Based on this beginners’ guide you may find it helpful to check in with yourself throughout the day and notice how ‘big’ each of the three circles feel. 

Over the next few months I’ll be writing Forrest Rambles blogs focusing in more detail on each of the three systems, so watch this space!