I have often reflected on whether the tools of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) might be useful for our politicians. These thoughts grow stronger when I look at the turmoil that our country is in.

If politicians are to work towards policies that increase social capital, they must focus on those about our common humanity.

Political parties can behave in ways similar to people with depression and anxiety. The tool which may be useful politically is the “Three Systems Model” from Compassion Focussed Therapy (CFT). It offers us some clues about explaining the problems in our country and also gives us some hints about the direction of travel which might help in the future. This model proposes that we have three emotional regulation systems: Threat, Drive, and Compassion. It is an imbalance between these systems - often caused by adverse early life experiences - which creates mental health issues.

Threat System

The Threat System is about experiencing a range of negative emotions, principally anger and anxiety. These emotions link to “fight or flight” responses - either attacking a perceived threat or avoiding it. Given the divisions in the country at the moment, the Threat System seems particularly relevant. Expressions such as “Project Fear” in relation to Brexit makes it hard for us to determine what are false alarms and what are real alarms. This ambiguity is made worse through social media and the rise of fake news. Anxiety and anger are contagious and, when we are in our Threat System, our thinking becomes very black and white. The compromises which we may need to make become impossible because one side “wins” and the other “loses”.

Drive System

The second system, the Drive System, is about goal attainment. The feeling of excitement spurs us into action in order to help us reach our goals, feeding our sense of self-esteem. If we are not achieving a whole range of goals through our activities, we can become depressed. When seen in a political context, the goals are economic ones. The heads of industry who are responsible for the economy know that unduly focussing on the “Threat System” will mean that economic goals are not achieved. As well as becoming poorer, the country’s self-esteem will fall.

Compassion System and social capital

The Compassion System is about feeling contented to both ourselves and others. Despite the fact that the countries become richer through achieving goals - the Drive System - what many yearn for is to feel connected to their community. Many believe that this connection has been lost.

The Drive System is not just about economic goals. We need more goals about feeling connected as a society. This is the idea of “social capital”: the formal and informal relationships which keep our community functioning. If politicians are to work towards policies that increase social capital, they must focus on those about our common humanity. This is important because the idea of connection can be corrupted. Some politicians, exploiting this sense of loss, have focussed on interconnection at the expense of demonising others. This is less about compassion and more about the perceived threat of someone who does not belong to “our group".

Walt Whitman said we are a “multitude of selves”. As individuals and as a society we need to look at how  the Drive, Compassion, and Threat Systems - which seem to be in rivalry with each other - need to work together. When this happens, we may be more able to reach solutions which could have more chance of succeeding in the real world.


Buy "A Practical Guide to Working with Depression: A cognitive behavioural approach for mental health workers" by Michael O'Sullivan (Derbyshire Healthcare Foundation Trust)