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How Triggers are Worked into the Group Therapy Process

By Diosa Moran, Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern

The dynamic of a therapy group often projects patterns and behaviors that are similar to existing relationships in our personal and professional lives. The sensitive connection or even disconnection between individuals in a group counseling setting can trigger an emotion or event from one’s life through an unconscious process.

Triggers between two individuals may bring up a long history of family relationships, highlighting issues of intimacy, hope, similarity, guidance or basic social skills. Professional issues may also be triggered, such as the relationships between a boss and an employee, networking connections, or mentor and mentee, exposing issues of authority, giving and receiving, and advice-giving.

Although any of these dynamics may occur in a process group, it is a limited list and simplified in what really occurs in group counseling. Group counseling is a deep and complex process between group members and therapist.

Triggers usually occur from some kind of trauma. I believe trauma is a transformative and comprehensive experience, which includes the story leading up to an event, the actual event and the aftermath of an event. A trauma is defined by what is real to an individual and not by another individual’s interpretation or perspective.

There are several ways triggers are worked into a group process, including projection, transference and scapegoating.


The process of projecting consists of projecting one’s own traits or quirks onto another simply because the dynamic between two or more individuals parallels that of another relationship elsewhere. For example, a woman in group counseling can all of a sudden take the role of nurturer towards another group member because of a behavior that parallels her own mother-daughter relationship.


At the White Picket Fence Counseling Center, one of our group guidelines is that we create and maintain a safe space and container for individual group members to interact, “act out,” and share information and emotions amongst each other. That includes the interactions that occur between the therapist and the group members, too.

Transference is similar to projection, except that it happens between the therapist and one of more of the group members. When the therapist is perceived as the "leader" of the group, group members will sometimes seek approval, advice or direction from the therapist, similar to the relationship between a parent and child or a boss and employee.

The benefit of these interactions occurring in a group setting is that sometimes the other group members will notice this pattern and reflect it back to the person involved, advancing growth for all.


Scapegoating is another central function of a group setting. Whether in personal or professional relationships, a scapegoat is someone who may be the most vulnerable or where others direct their tension or blame.

In a therapy group, members can sometimes unconsciously assign one member as the scapegoat, or sometimes will reassign another group member as the scapegoat. The dynamic of scapegoating can occur when individuals try to avoid assuming responsibility for their own behavior or actions. The person who becomes the scapegoat will often portray patterns of redirecting, dismissing and/or avoidance.

When triggers are worked out in a group process, it is a wonderful opportunity to witness microscopic behaviors and patterns that are being played out in real-life scenarios. The experience is transformational, sincere and real, and is one of the greatest advantages of group therapy!