Getting Triggered in a Group: A Powerful Portal to Self-Knowledge

Getting triggered in a group can be an unforgettable experience—unforgettably uncomfortable–because in a group, there may be people you don’t know very well or people you don’t trust…and there may be a lot of them! All these people have just witnessed you losing it. This can offer the opportunity to work with things like shame, embarrassment, conformity pressure, scapegoating, feeling left out, feeling judged, social anxiety, and fear of being different.

Triggering that occurs in a group setting can be especially powerful (and hard to manage) if your early wounding occurred in a dysfunctional family setting or an unfortunate school social experience in grade school or high school. Adult groups often mirror some of the dynamics of your early family, school, or peer group experiences. This is because we get conditioned, or “trained,” to behave in particular ways or take on particular group roles in these settings. And now that we’re adults in an adult peer group, we may unconsciously revert to the same group role we played in our childhood family, in school, or on the playground. Your role in your early family might have been the black sheep, the golden child, the protector, daddy’s girl, momma’s boy, the identified patient or family scapegoat, mother’s helper, the rescuer, the sickly one, the rebel, or the parentified child.

Relationships with Authority

I like to remind people that we all started out little and dependent in a world of big people. These people were the authorities—parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy, coaches. Pause now to remember the big people who influenced you as a child. Were they fair? Did they cope well with their own emotions? Did you trust them? How did you feel about yourself in their presence? Did they give good guidance? Did you feel acknowledged and valued by them? Did any of them use you or abuse you? Keep these things in mind as you read this section on leadership and authority. And remember, groups, like individuals, have both conscious and unconscious motives and behaviors. The way a group behaves with respect to leadership or authority is often confusing—because most people are not aware of what we might call “the group unconscious.”

No matter what the setting of the group, whether it is a work group, a learning group, a social group, a support group, or a stranger group, someone has to take leadership to keep things on track. This could be a designated group leader, facilitator, teacher, or boss. Or in less formal groups, it could be anyone who knows how to lead or take initiative. Once a leader is identified in a group (even an informal leader), this person now becomes a projection screen. Some members will give away their power to this person. Others will try to wrest power away from this person. Members may become very vigilant about what this person rewards and what she punishes or ignores. They may hold the leader to an unrealistically high standard. Attitudes toward a group leader (including a non-leader who takes initiative) will vary—depending on what that person triggers in you. And this may have a lot more to do with your triggers than with the leader’s skill or personality.

Recall a Triggering Event

You have just spent some time reflecting on your early relations with people in authority roles. Now, with this in mind, see if you can recall an adult group experience where you got triggered by the leader or a group member. Remember, if you were feeling critical or judgmental, this can be a sign that you are triggered. Can you bring back the memory of this incident? What was the triggering event or stimulus? What was your reactive feeling, body sensation, and story? Did you have an overt reaction—one that other group members could observe? As you recall all this, going slowly through this memory, how do you feel now as you replay the scene in your mind with your observing self actively witnessing? Be with this for a while. Notice if your triggered self was worried about how you were being seen or whether you were being judged. Was your triggered self more concerned about other group members’ opinions or the leader’s? As you go back to the thoughts you were having during this triggering episode, did you blame anyone? Did you expect the leader to do more to protect you?

Expecting that the leader should have protected you (based on a fear of being unprotected) is an extremely common trigger. This may not even be what triggered you in the first place, but when you get one of your other core fears triggered in a group, then you get to witness an additional layer of your trigger signature—feeling let down, betrayed, disappointed by the person who was supposed to take care of you. If you recognize this as one of your triggers, pause now to acknowledge that you carry some vulnerability around being let down by someone in authority. See if you can feel empathy for the part of you who sometimes feels unprotected or not taken care of. If you expand your breathing to make space for this, maybe an old memory will surface. But don’t work too hard to get a memory. A memory will arise if your system is ready for it. Trust your own inner rhythm of zooming in (to see the memory up close), or zooming out (to view the memory from a distance) as you connect with old memories. What does this memory show you about your predisposition to feel safe vs. unsafe?

Another Common Scenario

It often occurs that reactivity will go on for a while in a group, and most of the group members might be triggered without necessarily being conscious of it. Witnessing two other group members in a conflict can be triggering to the whole group because members become sort of “wired together,” similar to how it is with couples. The group has a shared reality and a shared destiny, and its functionality affects everyone. If two group members (or sub-groups) are at odds, this affect everyone’s ability to get their needs met. The same is true of a couple system, a family system, an organizational system, a governance system, and even a planetary system. Keep this in mind so you can become a more astute observer and responsible participant in the systems you belong to.

Tips and Suggestions

It is impossible to be prepared for every possible group situation, but here are a few more suggestions: If you’re just beginning to get uncomfortable, and you’re not yet triggered, you can slow things down by saying, “I need a few minutes to think about that.” If you are triggered, and you don’t want to disrupt the group, you might say, “I’m taking a brief break, but I’ll be back.” If you need someone to quickly back off and they have no sophistication regarding the concept of triggers or the idea of pausing, you may need to say something stronger like, “I’m so upset right now I can’t hear what you’re saying….I need a break to calm myself down.” In all these examples, because the speaker is taking responsibility for their experience and not blaming anyone, it is likely that these statements will be met with acceptance.

Self-Inquiry in Groups

In most groups, the whole group is not going to stop what it’s doing while you process your personal trigger reaction. The important thing is that you recognize you have been triggered (because you know your trigger signature, and you know the additional behavior patterns you have with respect to groups). When you notice some aspect of your trigger signature, silently begin your pause practice, followed by being with your feelings as you hold a compassionate space. Support this with conscious, deep breathing. In a group you might not be able to do much, if any, self-inquiry. You may need to put that on hold until you get home and are in a safe and quiet location. So, when you do get home (or to a quiet place) after being triggered in a meeting or group, come back to being with your tender feelings. Take some time attending to your feelings. This does not mean you should crank up these feelings or intensify them. Simply allow them, and watch them change, flow, expand, contract, or get stuck somewhere. Don’t worry if you don’t experience resolution or closure. Just being with yourself like this is valuable in itself.

Further Resources

This article is an excerpt from my new book, From Triggered to Tranquil. The book deals with many aspects of the human condition, culled from my 55-year career listening to peoples’ intimate concerns. Besides being a great read, it is also a self-paced self-healing guide to help you be a better human.

How to Get Your Copy
Order it now from any bookseller. Here is a link to some reviews of the book and ordering information:

Upcoming Events

Hear Free Interviews with Nine Relationship Experts 
My friend and colleague, positive psychology practitioner and coach Anne Nelson, specializes in guiding couples to strengthen intimacy by being their authentic selves.

She’s hosting a complimentary interview series about Making Your Marriage Fulfilling by Being Who You Are. It starts November 6, and it brings together 9 experts (including me) on cultivating connection, intimacy, and fun in your marriage).
Sign up here to join us at no cost:

Getting Real: The Power of Conscious Communication  
A weekend in-person workshop with Susan Campbell

May 7-8, 2022  10am-5pm both days (yes, 2022. I am only doing one in-person workshop per year now)

Cost: $350

“You can only be as honest as you are self-aware.”

GETTING REAL teaches 10 truth skills that make you a more present, aware, spontaneous, authentic communicator. Most people have fears and insecurities which interfere with being fully present and honest. These insecurities can be healed. If you learn to put your attention on your here-now experience, rather than trying to control the outcome of your communications, you discover the real source of personal power, love, and inner security.

In this workshop, you will learn how to:

•   communicate with presence, authenticity, and spontaneity (even when you feel fear about it)

•   be aware of how you impact others

•   clear the air and keep it clear

•   repair rifts in trust and connection after a misunderstanding

•   keep your present relationships free of accumulated unfinished business

•   come back to being present after your fear-buttons have gotten pushed

•   communicate from the deepest parts of yourself—so you can be truly heard and accepted

•   notice and free yourself of all the ways you “go on automatic” as you communicate or listen

•   replace these “control patterns” with honest, spontaneous self-expression

•   recognize all the various disguises that mask the “need to control”

•   ask for what you want without being controlling

•   say “no” or mark your boundaries with compassion and sensitivity

•   embrace and value the silences in human communication

•   heal past trauma and unprocessed pain

•   communicate about difficult topics in ways that foster deep intimacy and trust

The workshop is intended for people who want to join with like-minded others to explore honesty as a spiritual awareness practice, getting to the essential self that is beyond conditioned fears, beliefs, and control patterns. Emphasis will be on developing communication skills and relationship practices that you can take home and integrate into your daily life.

Cost: $350

Time/date: May 7-8, 2022 (Sat-Sun), 10am-5pm both days

Location: Sebastopol, CA, one hour north of San Francisco (directions to follow registration)

REGISTER NOW: Call Susan’s landline, (707) 829-3646 or email:

Led by: Psychologist Susan Campbell has worked as a relationship coach for over 50 years. A former professor at the University of Massachusetts, she is author of 11 books on relationships and communication. Her website is

Coaching Skills Webinar: Doing Parts Work in Coaching (via Zoom) A 4-week webinar training for new and experienced coaches 

Time: 4 consecutive Thursdays in January and February, 2022, beginning January 20, 11am-12:30 pm PDT (2-3:30pm Eastern time) and ending February 10.

Cost: $200 (visa, paypal, venmo, transferwise, and mastercard accepted)

To register or get more info, call or email Susan at (707) 829-3646 or

You will learn and practice how to use various types of parts work, for your own growth and in your work with clients, such as:
-top dog/under dog (from Gestalt Therapy)
-empty chair work (from Gestalt)
-dreamwork (from Gestalt)
-The Committee (from Virginia Satir)
-your inner family (from psychodrama)
-wish and fear as two sides of a coin
-giving voice to various parts of your body or various emotions (from Gestalt)

You will be given homework assignments to practice with a homework buddy on a separate zoom or phone call during the week.  This will require an additional hour per week of your time.

All sessions will be recorded and archived on the web, so you can re-listen to them if you have to miss a session.

Honesty Salon in Webinar Format 

Beginning November 10, I will offer a six-session Honesty Salon in webinar format (zoom). It is scheduled for 6 consecutive Wednesdays, noon-1:15 pm Pacific time, and ending December 15. This offering is full, but contact me at the email address below if you want to get on the waiting list in case someone drops out.

Cost is $200 for the 6 sessions. An Honesty Salon is a small group experience where we practice the 10 Truth Skills with one another, sharing whatever arises in the present moment. We use a set of simple communication guidelines that assist us in un-hooking from identification with mind chatter and being innocently open to whatever arises.

Between sessions, participants will have the option of meeting in dyads or triads to de-brief and do practice exercises. All sessions will be recorded and archived on a private page, so if you miss a session, the recording will be available to you.

To register or get more information, email me at  If you are interested in this offering, and the announced  time is not convenient, I may be able to change the time.  So please contact me about that at the email address above.

Practicing Compassionate Self-Inquiry–Recording Now Available on You Tube

The recording of my recent talk for The Stoa, titled Practicing Compassionate Self-Inquiry, is now available on You Tube. I guide the group in how to “be with” our upset emotions as a way to heal our fear of emotional pain–so we can cope more effectively and compassionately with “the normal pains of adult relationships.” The link to this one-hour program is:

Free Monthly Group Coaching Session on Zoom–November 2 at 10am Pacific Time

Subject: Culture Wars and Covid: To Vax or Not to Vax

I have resumed my free monthly group coaching sessions. From now on, I will be sending out a link in my monthly newsletter for these calls which will happen on the first Tuesday of each monthat 10am Pacific time. In these calls, I generally present an idea or a practice and then work with a few volunteers, followed by group sharing and Q and Sometimes I will start with the Q and A part, or with check-ins, and offer what I have in response to what is coming up for people. This month I plan to facilitate a discussion and practice around the topic of “our polarized positions re vaccines and mask-wearing.” We focused on this same topic last month, and the discussion was very rich. I led some group practices to help participants get “from triggered to tranquil” (the title of my new book). I plan to do that again. Here is the You Tube link to last month’s webinar titled, Culture Wars and Covid: To Vax or Not to Vax:

Check this monthly newsletter for a new link each time. I generally send the newsletter out a few days before the first Tuesday of the month. On rare occasion, I may change the time of the free First Tuesday webinar, so check the announced time each month.

Below is the link and phone-in information for Tuesday November 2, 2021 at 10am. These sessions will be recorded and posted publicly on my You Tube channel. If you subscribe to me on You Tube (drsusan95472), you will be notified when these recordings appear. is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.

Topic:‘s Zoom Meeting
Time: Tuesday, Oct 5, 10-11am Pacific US time

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Video Available of My 80th Birthday Party

If you attended my 80th birthday celebration on zoom in July, thank you so much! I said I would post the link for the video for those who missed it. The “party” was me answering questions about my life–on such topics as my spiritual mentors, my sexuality, the early childhood experiences that shaped me, finding my calling, how it feels to be 80, and much more. Here is the link to the You Tube recording of this fun and interesting 90-minute event attended by over 100 people.

The 10 Truth Skills You Need to Live Authentically

Here is a summary of the 10 truth skills detailed in the book, Getting Real. For those of you familiar with my latest book, Five-Minute Relationship Repair, you may see that that entire book is about truth skill #6, Taking Back Projections. This is such a complex and often difficult-to-master truth skill. So I thought it deserved a whole book. 

Now here’s the list:

1. Experiencing what is  You have a felt body-based sense of your present feelings and sensations. You can notice and not identify with your judgments, projections, and interpretations.

2. Being transparent  You can disclose to others what you are feeling, sensing, imagining, or saying to yourself—with the simple aim of “knowing and being known,” free of the need to explain or defend.

3. Knowing your intent  You can consciously reflect on the intent of your communication. Is it to relate or to control? Are you revealing yourself in the interest of transparency or are you managing and strategizing in order to avoid discomfort?

4. Asserting what you want and don’t want  You can express a desire clearly and impactfully, without expecting to get everything you ask for. You mark boundaries when you need to.

5. Thriving on feedback  You are open and curious about others’ impressions and reactions to you.  This is different from being dependent on others’ reactions.

6. Taking back projections  You know how to learn from situations where your buttons or “favorite fears” get triggered. You can differentiate your fear-stories from what really happened.

7. Revising an earlier statement  You can re-visit an interaction if your feelings change or if you discover later that you have mis-spoken or were on automatic. You can say, “If I had it to do over….”

8. Holding differences  You can hear and empathize with someone else’s feeling or viewpoint while at the same time holding a different feeling or viewpoint. You can “be with” the tension of holding both in your awareness at once.

9. Sharing mixed emotions  You can communicate your multiple feelings about an issue or situation, e.g. You may wish to clear the air with someone while also fearing that your words might feel hurtful to the other.

10. Embracing silence  You can allow some space after you have spoken. You do not fill in the space with explanation or justification. You can experience the nonverbal emanations in the silences during a conversation.  You can tolerate uncertainty, ambiguity, not knowing.

Practicing these skills brings you to a deep and abiding sense of serenity, presence, and compassion. These three words that describe the qualities that we begin to embody when we practice Getting Real.

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