How to handle trauma dumping

We’re all entitled to share our feelings. But how can we ensure we’re not negatively impacting the mental health of others in the process?

by Daisy Schofield
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11 January 2022, 8:30am

Of all the pop-psychology buzzwords ripe for misinterpretation, ‘trauma dumping’ is arguably one of the more nebulous. Broadly understood as sharing trauma without permission in an inappropriate place or time to someone who may not have the capacity to process it, the term is often confused with venting. Others have even suggested that “there’s no such thing as trauma dumping – it’s just the way we communicate”.

The term recently was at the centre of controversy when a therapist uploaded a video to TikTok deriding patients who trauma dump in their first session. The clip attracted such intense backlash that the therapist was forced to delete the video and, later, her entire account. While there was widespread agreement that the idea that someone could trauma dump in a therapy session equated to a distortion of the phrase, it still left some feeling uneasy, and raised sticky questions around the nature of talking about trauma. In a culture where we are encouraged to be open about our mental health, is there a limit to how much we should share? And if so, what is that limit?

Part of the problem with trauma dumping is that it is applied to virtually any situation, despite the fact that how much is appropriate to share will differ depending on the context. So, while people should be encouraged to divulge their trauma in therapy, there are some instances in which this sharing is more plainly inappropriate.

Sex workers, for example, often become unwitting therapists for their clients. “With longterm clients there’s a certain rapport that can be established, but even venting is, if unpaid, too far for me personally,” says Brandy, a 26-year-old sex worker. “Clients who trauma dump don’t spare us or our wellbeing a second thought.” For sex workers like Brandy, any kind of sharing can be categorically defined as ‘dumping’ because it’s occurring in an inappropriate place and time. As Brandy points out, this wouldn’t necessarily be the case if the client was paying a sex worker for ‘the girlfriend experience’ where an extensive conversation about feelings is more likely to be permissible.

For sex workers, being firm on these boundaries is vital. Brandy considers it unpaid labour if clients are ‘dumping’ on her, and will sometimes apply an added ‘rude tax’ — “If you pissed me off at initial approach I charge extra up front,” she explains — or cut off clients guilty of this kind of behaviour entirely.

But when it comes to close relationships, these boundaries can be far more difficult to discern. For some people, such as 25-year-old Morgan, the term has only made interactions more fraught. “As a plus size woman with an eating disorder, I know what it’s like to be triggered by something someone says,” she says. “I think learning the term [trauma dumping], at first, terrified me. I thought, ‘Oh no, is me finally opening up and sharing my thoughts and experiences actually traumatising others? Am I doing exactly what people do to me in regards to my fatness?’”

Morgan’s initial response was to suppress her feelings, fearing her trauma would “be too much for people to handle,” she says. But bottling things up is hardly a viable alternative. As Bessel A. van der Kolk wrote in The Body Keeps the Score: “Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down.” It can also trigger various physical responses in the body — such as headaches and muscle aches — that, van der Kolk writes, act as “signals of problems that require your urgent attention”.

Dr Rachel M Allan, a chartered counselling psychologist and author of How to Help Someone With Anxiety, worries that the term itself “risks stigmatising or casting a negative light on the act of sharing our most difficult experiences”. The word ‘dumping’ “carries the suggestion that someone is doing it from a negative place or with negative intent,” adding: “It’s certainly not [a term] I would use myself”.

But of course, not everyone who learns about the term uniformly finds it unhelpful when it comes to dealing with their own trauma. According to Dani, 23, “[Hearing about trauma dumping] made me realise how toxic I’ve been, which has been an important part of my growth”. Intended as what she describes as a “note to self”, Dani created a now-viral TikTok on the topic of trauma dumping. “I made the video at a time where I had just started to process why a friend of mine cut me off, and it was because I emotionally dumped a lot of my problems on her.”

In the TikTok, Dani offers her understanding of the difference between venting and trauma dumping. “Venting is time bound […] trauma dumping has no limits,” she says in the video. “You just talk and talk and talk about every single problem you have […] you talk about multiple reasons for whatever it is you’re suffering from.” She advises “going to therapy”, or talking to multiple friends, so that one person “doesn’t have to carry the entire burden of processing your feelings”.

But given what we know about trauma, addressing this impulse to ‘talk and talk and talk’ is not always so easily achieved. Often, the trauma imprint can create a ‘tunnel vision’ whereby everything someone might see is interpreted through the lens of a traumatic experience. While Dani acknowledges that therapy is prohibitive for most people because of the exorbitant costs, the alternative — of talking to multiple people so as not to ‘overburden’ one person — is, of course, not always an option.

Perhaps it’s more helpful to focus on what the motivation for sharing in the first place is. Dr Allan says that our impulse to “overshare” often stems from a misguided belief that disclosing painful experiences will facilitate closeness. “It’s a really fine balance, because of course, being open, and sharing some level of vulnerability, is important when it comes to forming connections,” she says. “But if we are prone to really oversharing, or sharing something that is too personal, too quickly, that then has a really strong effect on the other person. So the person doing the oversharing might be driven by a longing to connect, but unfortunately, what it risks doing is actually pushing the listener further away.”

Dr Allan advises being selective with who we share with – so, making sure to confide in someone we share a close relationship with, and asking that person if they’re prepared to listen. For Morgan, this has helped with her fear of triggering whoever she is disclosing her trauma to. “I’ve started to ask people: are you sure you really want to hear how I am right now? Or, are you in a space to hear this?” she says.

When it comes to the person listening, it’s possible to set boundaries without resorting to accusations of trauma dumping or sounding like a bizarre self-care template. According to Dr Allan, it’s about telling the person what you can offer (“You might be able to make yourself available at a later point”), or letting the person know how you can help them in terms of finding professional support or “some other channel to do what they need to do in terms of sharing”. Either way, it’s about setting boundaries while “expressing your care for that person,” she explains.

Any term that risks stigmatising the act of opening up should be approached with caution. But, of course, there is a balance to be had when it comes to how we talk about, and respond to, trauma. It’s a balance that Morgan is still trying to navigate: “I’m trying to learn that I sometimes have to trust someone else to say they can’t handle it right now,” she says. “And, that sometimes, I am entitled to speak on my trauma.”

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