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Understanding The Emotional Regulation System in Compassion Focused Therapy

In this article I will briefly introduce you to the emotional regulation system (Gilbert, P 2020) from Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT). This system at a brief glance contains three ways of operation: Drive, Threat & Soothe. In this overview aimed at those who are having or interested in working with a CFT therapist, it will provide a core and critical understanding of this model.

Because, Compassion focused therapy uses diagrams and worksheets within the client- therapist process having at least a simple understanding of this model will greatly benefit anyone who is having CFT or really anyone looking to better regulate their emotions. I will also link into an overlapping model; Polyvagal theory (Porges, S) that goes along nicely with the emotional regulation 3 circles model.

The 3 circles model

Developed by Paul Gilbert, founder of Compassion Focused therapy. The 3 Circles of emotional regulation is based on our evolutionary evolved motives. As an example, if we sense a threat we have a highly developed system that kicks in to change our physiology accordingly. In the case of a threat we are likely to see an increase in heart rate and see a diversion of energy into the muscles to fire them up. If we are feeling safe and that we are not under threat then the soothing system kicks in and we will see a decrease in heart rate and our digestive system will kick in, hence the common term rest and digest.

So, it is best thought of as three states of physiology that place us in a certain motivation. If a threat is present, the motive becomes to get to Safety. If drive is online, the motive becomes to get something or achieve something. If the soothing system is online, the motive becomes lets rest and repair.

Lets look at some of the attributes of the 3 circles:


Functions: achieve goals, drive to succeed, gather resources

Drawbacks: unhealthy drive leads to inability to soothe, switch off from work etc


Functions: avoid danger, survive, manage threats, protection

Drawbacks: hypervigilant, paranoia, tension, insomnia, afraid of everything etc.


Functions: rest, safeness, caring connection, digest, repair,

Drawbacks: Too much can impede drive, motivation (which can lead to depression) and recognising threats

Typically, The Soothing system tends to be the preference that we should aim for. However, as we can see all three systems have drawbacks. No drive or threat systems, would lead to never being aware of surrounding danger or valuing completing tasks. It would be labeled a shutdown state in Polyvagul theory, so it is best to think of trying to balance these three systems to compliment each other and achieve a balanced healthy system. If all be-it with a slightly larger soothe system then a threat or drive.

If we are honest about what our systems look like for a typical modern human with work-life demands, we are likely to see very big red and blue circles and very small green soothing circles. Life is fast paced, and the modern hustle-bustle human is fuelled by a heart rate busting mix of drive and threat energy drink.

What do your three circles look like right now and what could you do to get a little more green?

Polyvagal theory & the Social engagement system

Now lets look at a similar model, Polyvagal theory (Porges, S 2011) which contains the social engagement system. Simplified into the well known term: fight, flight and freeze. The emotional regulation system and social engagement system overlap nicely as useful models for explaining human physiology. One being developed for use in psychological therapies and the other (social engagement system) in neuroscience, biology as a model of our nervous system. The two models of these systems compliment each other nicely which is why having a simple knowledge of both is useful for those interested in compassion focused therapy concepts.

The social engagement system is similarly colour coded, red for threat and green for safety ( ventral vagul) which enables social engagement, a key modulator of health and emotional regulation. In Porge's theory (The Polyvagal theory, Porges, S 2011) social connection is highly desired, quality social interactions has shown to be a great indication of health, better HRV ( Heart rate variability) and ability to regulate our tricky emotional states.

Take a look at the diagram showing the Social engagement system, can you notice any other similarities with the emotional regulation system of Paul Gilbert?

So just like in Compassion focused therapy, Polyvagal theory highlights the importance of social connection and a feeling of safeness. So get you may be scratching your head wondering how the hell you can create this feeling of safety ( Ventral vagul) if you feel the exact opposite all the time? Well, the truth is it can be for many people a hard and difficult process. Which can be contextualised and explained with many layers of psychological understanding. A example would be understanding why someone might not be able to trigger safeness in themselves or social interactions if they have let down throughout their life by other people making them unable to trust others. Which unfortunately will leave them unable to access quality social connection to feel safe in the company of others. For those that can however, a good hug and skin to skin contact with friends & loved ones has been shown to trigger ventral vagal response. Putting us into our soothing system and enabling us to not be as alert to threats etc.

In summary, both these systems offer a deep insight into our physiology and the knock o effect that may have on our mental states and long term mental health. Both systems highlight the need and champion social connection and feeling safe in this connection. Both systems can be understood in a simplified way but individuals who feel like they would benefit from diving deeper, then both theories offer far more in-depth understanding of our psychological states, nervous system and biology. Further reading can be found below in the form of papers by Stephen Porges & Paul Gilbert respectively.


(Gilbert,P. 2020) Compassion: From Its Evolution to a Psychotherapy, (accessed 8th Feb 2023)

(Porges, S 2011) The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system, (accessed 8th Feb 2023)

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