We all have that friend, who constantly talks about their problems without stopping to consider how others are feeling. And sometimes, a seemingly innocent conversation about relationship troubles will suddenly pivot into a much darker one about childhood trauma or toxic parents.
“You might see someone at a party … and all of a sudden you’re talking about an awful date you had, and how it reminded you of when you were molested as a child,” says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy from Fear.”
Though openly talking about your trauma isn’t an issue in itself, Manly says a problem arises when serious information is “shared without permission, in an inappropriate place and time, and to someone who may not have had the capacity to take in this information.”
This is what experts call trauma dumping.
Unlike venting, trauma dumping is done in an “unsolicited, unprepared way, where a person dumps traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy onto an unsuspecting person,” whether it be a close friend or a stranger on social media.
“We often have so much frustration, irritation and anger pent up inside us, and we simply need a place to offload it, but trauma dumping isn’t the best way to do it,” Manly says.
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What is trauma dumping?
Many people engage in trauma dumping without realizing it, but it isn’t necessarily because they are selfish or narcissistic. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of “The Empath Survival Guide,” says these victims of trauma use it as a coping mechanism.
“It’s usually unconscious anxiety that they’re venting and just start dumping onto another person as a way to release the energy and frustration, and getting that out can seemingly help a victim of some sort of trauma,” she says.
There’s a fine line between venting and dumping. Experts say the latter is “toxic” and “damaging,” because trauma dumping doesn’t include or respect the consent of the listener and often seems one-sided.
In any healthy friendship, “it’s always important to express yourself and ask someone if they’re ready to listen to your problems,” Orloff says.
Manly notes that it’s healthy to vent about superficial and minor inconveniences, such as your work or social life, to friends. However, casually dropping information about your trauma into a brief conversation is unproductive and problematic, she says.
“Someone who just dumps their trauma onto others— they’re actually reliving that trauma. A trained therapist would help you understand the story, how to learn from it and move forward. Trauma dumping doesn’t do this.”
‘We can be supportive but we can’t take on others’ trauma’
Everyone should feel comfortable talking to friends about their frustrations, but some conversations are meant for a therapist.
“Not everyone has the bandwidth to take in others’ traumas, because their own lives are filled with stress too,” Manly explains.
According to Orloff, most people on the receiving end of trauma dumping will feel anxious, stressed, helpless and even depressed after the conversation.
“People may feel better after trauma dumping, but the person they dump it onto feels horrible,” she says. “They usually start to feel drained and it’s just too much serious, unexpected information at once.”
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Manly adds: “For someone who isn’t psychologically stable, absorbing somebody else’s trauma is generally what happens, rather than just listening to it.”
Experts say it’s OK to create boundaries with those who continuously trauma dump. It’s important to emphasize that while you still care for them, you also need to protect your own peace.
“As a psychiatrist, people are always dumping on me when I’m at a party. Always. So I just smile and say ‘Hey, I’m sorry if you are hurting but if you want to talk about solutions at a different, more appropriate time and place, I’m here for you,” says Orloff.
“This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person,” Manly reminds. “It means you love yourself enough to build that boundary to protect yourself.”