“Trauma dumping” is the kind of phrase that can elicit a painful familiarity—because it’s either something that you’ve done or has been done to you. Broadly understood as unsolicitedly talking about “trauma” in inappropriate situations to people who might be unable to process it, the term has been shrouded in debate and controversy.
The term can be problematic for a few reasons. One is that it may discourage people from talking about things they might do well to talk about, something we’ve all been encouraged to do in recent years. Another is that pop psychology has often misunderstood the word “trauma” to the point where some say it has lost its meaning.
“Trauma refers specifically to a highly personal response to an event or events that threaten a person’s life and/or bodily integrity. Trauma involves feeling shaken to our core, with a sense of being unable to control what happens to us,” clinical psychologist Divine Love Salvador told VICE.
According to Salvador, everyone has emotional wounds that are painful and distressing, but not all emotional wounds are traumatic. These wounds may be difficult, but they don’t necessarily threaten one’s sense of safety in the world (as trauma is said to do). Trauma is difficult to talk about, said Salvador, so people who struggle with it likely do not talk about it frequently.
“You can see already from these distinctions that when people use the phrase ‘trauma dumping,’ they are most probably referring to instances in which people are sharing too much, too constantly, and in inappropriate contexts about emotional hardships that are not necessarily traumatic.”
That might be a good thing, because it means the difficult emotions may be easier to deal with than what psychologists might define as “traumatic.”
The other half of the term, “dumping,” more accurately connotes what trauma dumping is. Salvador said that someone is “dumping” when they are sharing without regard for external factors and cues, like how long they have been talking or the other party’s emotions and reactions. “Dumping” also connotes that the person doing it is caught up in their needs, unaware of their impact on others. While offloading your difficult emotions, you may be bringing about, or “triggering,” negative emotions in others.
Of course, all this is not to say you shouldn’t be talking out difficult emotions, traumatic or not. It’s just about how, when, and to whom you do it. Below, Salvador shares her best tips on how to share and not dump your emotions on others.
“When we become more aware of ourselves, we become much better at taking responsibility for our emotional needs, thereby lessening our reliance on others who could be equally if not more vulnerable than us,” said Salvador.
This is not to say, of course, that the goal is to have no friends. But friendships should be founded on mutual emotional support.
Salvador said that we can cultivate healthy self-awareness by asking questions like: What am I looking for when I share my emotions? Can I sense when the other person is becoming uncomfortable? Are there other ways by which I can secure my emotional needs? Am I taking up pretty much the whole space in this relationship and our conversations?
Recognize how “dumping” affects others
It’s easy to get swept away in the relief of talking about our problems. So easy that we forget how it might make whoever we’re talking to feel. How they feel is partly determined by their capacity to listen, their own mental health, and the norms of the situation or nature of the relationship, Salvador said.
“Some people could be distressed by overly detailed disclosures of emotional hardship because such remind them of their own troubles. Some people could feel stressed out by what comes across to them as information they didn’t ask for and don’t have the wherewithal to do anything about. Some people may not mind, at least in the first instance. I think when it is a repeated occurrence, people are [more likely] to mind it,” she said.
It’s good for you to talk about your emotions, but see first if you might need to issue a “trigger warning.”
Define and respect boundaries
“Oversharing in a relationship could be an indicator of a boundary problem,” said Salvador.
She advised asking yourself where the boundaries in your friendships lie. How much of your burden can a friend share? How often? Is the specific problem you want to talk about something your friend has the headspace to handle?
The answers to those questions will help us define our boundaries.
Remember who you are beyond your pains
Sometimes, we fixate on our problems as a way to distract ourselves from asking potentially difficult but important questions.
Salvador encourages people to get to know themselves, beyond their achievements and pains, by asking questions like: Who am I outside of what I do or have done in my life? Who is this person who is in pain? How have I tried to protect myself? How have my self protections shaped my relationships and life?
Asking these questions not only frees people from the loops of “trauma dumping,” but also helps them take steps towards actually resolving their problems.
Seek professional help
Of course, even after practicing the steps above, some pain may remain—and it’s important to talk about it.
“If circumstances and resources allow, seek professional therapy support, so that the process of reckoning and coming to terms is not so lonely,” Salvador said. “Because you will have a trained therapist trudging alongside you in what is sure to be a difficult journey requiring courage.”
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