In compassion-focused therapy (CFT), clinicians aim to normalize painful parts of the human experience by helping clients understand the way their minds work from an evolutionary perspective.
Modern neuroscience research has identified basic emotion systems which have developed throughout the course of human evolution. To make this research clinically useful, the developers of CFT have sorted human emotions into three distinct systems; the threat system, the drive system and the safeness system.
By helping clients understand these systems and how they’ve evolved, CFT therapists encourage self-compassion, reduce shame associated with emotion-related difficulties, and normalize the human experience.
When clients are able to see with more clarity the way their minds work, it becomes possible to develop a more compassionate, understanding relationship with the internal events that challenge them.
“Instead of seeing emotions such as fear, anxiety, or anger as ‘something that is wrong with me,’ clients can instead see them as ‘part of what helped my ancestors survive.’ By considering emotions and motives in terms of their survival value to our ancestors, clients can begin to see that how these experiences operate within us makes perfect sense,” writes Russell Kolts, Ph.D, and author of the book, “Compassion-Focused Therapy Made Simple: A Clinician’s Guide to Practicing Compassion-Focused Therapy.”
The Threat System
The threat system is what is activated when we experience things like anger, fear, anxiety, disgust and other emotions that generally invoke struggle. Because of the function these emotions served in our ancestors, these emotions trigger us to act; they urge us to either fight, flee, or freeze.
Through intense bursts of physical and emotional sensations, we are triggered to act almost instantly in the interest of protecting ourselves from whatever threat we’ve perceived, whether real or imagined.
In 2001, a study conducted by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenaurer, and Vohs identified what has become popularly known as the “negativity bias,” which simply states that humans see negative information more powerfully than we see positive information. And when we think about it from an evolutionary standpoint, this makes perfect sense.
Unfortunately, when our threat system is activated our ability to behave flexibly is diminished. The strength of these emotions is essentially magnified by thousands of years of evolution that reinforced their role in our very survival.
When you look at it this way, it’s unsurprising that anger, fear, anxiety and repulsion can be an extremely challenging state in which to step back. The sheer volume of treatment techniques, protocols, self-help books and even pharmaceuticals that have been designed specifically to help us manage our intense emotions is a testament to just how hard it is.
“The threat system helps alert us to potential threats and obstacles we need to deal with, to keep our lives moving in desired directions. However, it’s easy for this system to take up more than its share of mental energy, so we need to help clients learn to find balance when they’ve spent lots of time living in states of threat,” writes Kolts.
The Drive System
Survival was not the sole motivation of our ancestors. They also needed to reproduce and prosper. Enter: The drive-and-resource-acquisition system.
When we feel things like excitement, enthusiasm, lust, inspiration and the drive to do anything other than protect ourselves, our drive system is activated. These are the feelings that motivate us to go to work, buy a house, find a partner and attend social gatherings.
“Like the threat system, this system can be very activating and motivating and can powerfully focus our attention on what we are pursuing—which can be tricky when the blind pursuit of our goals can be harmful to others or ourselves,” writes Kolts.
Feelings associated with the drive system are influenced by dopamine, so when this system is overly active or of balance, the things that drive us have the potential to become objects of attachment, craving and addiction.
Again, this chain of reactions is something that has evolved through thousands of years of human development. It’s not our fault. But this is not a free pass to behave badly. As we begin to understand what is really happening and start to release the shame and self-criticism we attach to our undesirable behaviors, we are in a better position to make the choice to behave more flexibly.
The Safeness System
The safeness system is different than the other two. In the absence of threats or goals to pursue, we are in a resting state in which we feel safe, peaceful, at ease, and content. This system is active when we are experiencing kindness, affection and belonging among our fellow humans.
This system is also associated with actions that are soothing (whether received through the self or others) and stress-reducing. These kinds of interactions often involve oxytocin and endorphins, and have actually been shown to yield health benefits such as increased immune and digestive functioning. (Gilbert 2010; Depue & Morrone-Strupinsky, 2005).
The safeness system is important because it helps us behave in more pro social ways. Rather than the behavior-narrowing effect of the threat and drive systems, when we’re behaving from this system we enjoy a broader repertoire of available actions. Simply stated, when we feel safe, we’re more flexible to act according to what truly matters to us.
“The safeness system is fueled by warm connections with others and helps balance out the other two systems, helping us to approach life in an open, kind, and reflective fashion,” writes Kolts.
In the therapeutic context, it’s important to remember that for many clients who have had less than safe attachment experiences, connecting with others may activate the threat system, rather than the safeness system.
“The linkage between safeness and social connection makes the therapy room a perfect laboratory to do exactly this work. Done skillfully, therapy can be utilized to help clients get the safeness system online, and to help them face sources of threat in their lives and in their minds,” writes Kolts.
Compassion is one way to activate the safeness system and to counter overactive threat detection and drive systems. By helping clients understand the evolved vulnerabilities of their minds, we can begin to normalize and de-stigmatize the process of pain and emotional difficulty. Asking clients to stop to sort their emotional experiences into each of the three circles when they feel triggered is also a great way to develop mindful awareness and promote an experience of observation—rather than fusion—with feelings.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370. doi:10.1037//1089–26126.96.36.1993.
Gilbert, P. (2010). Compassion Focused Therapy: The CBT Distinctive Features Series. London: Routledge.
Depue, R. A., & Morrone-Strupinsky, J. V. (2005). A neurobehavioral model of affiliative bonding: implications for conceptualizing a human trait of affiliation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28, 313–349.