“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds” – Daniel Goleman.
What is trauma dumping?
This is a phrase many of us aren’t aware of and as all trauma deserve its own time and place, one ubiquitous definition is increasingly difficult to validate. But one day someone had arrived, told me about their trauma and then left. I was drowning in what they had told me. In hindsight, maybe I didn’t have the maturity, self-awareness or understanding to say, “Sorry, I am not in the right frame of mind to help but I can signpost you.”
You see, we wear the weight of our experiences. The fact that concepts like, “tone policing”, “trauma dumping”, “love bombing” and “blamestorming” have become so commonly known; it’s refreshing to see. People have acknowledged their abuse, reframed it, and now want to provide others with a set of frameworks to understand that they are not alone.
Trauma dumping according to Activist Tori Tsui is described as the, “Centring of your emotions and needs before considering whether; A) it is appropriate to do so, and, B) whether the person has the capacity to receive it.”
In essence, trauma dumping is spilling an issue onto others without being empathetic to their emotional state. They are often one-way exchanges and can be enormously tiring for their recipients. The very notion of trauma dumping has made me ask myself several profound questions that include:
- Am I being overbearing?
- Is it necessarily the right thing to do to over-share my problems with strangers?
- What does “no man is an island” really mean?
- Maybe the person I am sharing with hasn’t got the answers and maybe they never will so maybe I need to look elsewhere?
I don’t believe anyone trauma dumps on purpose. We feel safe around some people and feel as though we can open up to them. People do genuinely want to help, advise and signpost, but not everyone has the emotional competence to do so. As conversations about mental health have gradually broken down a handful of societal taboos, it remains important to open up and share our feelings. With this comes great responsibility on the shoulders of those we share our pain, grievances, and vulnerabilities. Finding the right person, time and place often come from significant trial and error.
Again, although I don’t agree with the phrase ‘trauma dumping’ itself, it is a thing and many of us are often left struggling to understand, support and care for those who we deeply care about. And this is not a reflection of us. It is purely because goodwill alone cannot compensate for our lack of capacity to carry the trauma of others.
Again, the message of this piece is we must be careful of who we talk to rather than not talk. From personal experience, this is what trauma dumping can look like:
- Your advice is ignored or preferable unheard
- Keep everything they have told you which they weren’t supposed to tell you a secret
- Don’t share anything on social media that may hint at their situation
- You must always be available
- If you get a chance to speak, don’t expect a response.
Although this is not an exhaustive list, they are just a handful of ways trauma dumping works. It is often unconsciously done but can have an enormous emotional impact on the recipient. Especially if we don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with that person or that scenario. It can be incredibly tough because as much as we want to help, being in a good headspace ourselves is the only way we can rationally signpost and support someone we really care about.
By no means am I suggesting that we should not seek help, look for support and open up about what is upsetting or hurting us. Conversations are healthy and from time to time, we all need an objective set of eyes and ears. However, we must be mindful of who we talk to, where we gain advice from and the emotional capacity of those we share with. When we trauma dump, we are expecting non-judgemental support which isn’t always so easily available.
Venting vs. Dumping
There is a difference, albeit a fine line, between venting and dumping. We all need to let off steam and get things off our chest. However, when we talk about our trauma, we must carefully share it with those who have the capacity to help us work through it. This the why we need to distinguish between venting and dumping
According to Psychologist Judith Orloff, the key differences between venting and dumping are as follows:
- Feels healthy
- Sticks to one topic
- Is time-limiting
- No blaming
- Shows accountability for their part in the issue
- Open to solutions
- Feels toxic
- Overwhelms you with many issues
- Goes on and on
- Blaming others
- No accountability for their part in the issue
- Not open to solutions
Dr Orloff’s The Empath’s Survival Guide is such a compelling read.
As we see, there are key differences between what is healthy and toxic. The notion of openness and accountability are essential cues as we differentiate between the two. For me, reading the work of Dr Orloff was empowering in helping create healthy boundaries. Ultimately, dumping and venting differ, as one seeks to sustain a dialogue about pain whereas the other aims to provide solutions to that hurt.
Why dumping should be avoided
Hearing about the trauma of others can be triggering and often when we are in a bad place ourselves, we develop an innate urge to tell others how we feel. This is a natural response to our pain. Despite being a good friend and trying to help others, if we have yet to fully understand our own trauma, the trauma of others can be enormously triggering. We must protect ourselves to protect others. Until the clouds of trauma have been lifted from our own lives, only then can we support those in need. Only when we are in the correct headspace ourselves can we help others.
We can overestimate and, in some cases, underestimate the emotional capacity of others. We should avoid trauma dumping because it is unhealthy. We should avoid it because it forcibly makes our listeners feel a sense of responsibility. Ultimately, we should avoid trauma dumping to protect ourselves and our close friendships.
If you have ever been trauma dumped on or really struggled to help someone you care about during a dark time, I hope this finds you. Many of us feel the full weight of guilt when we walk away with the empty feeling of helplessness. Our friend turned to us in pain and at that moment in time, we could not help them. Nevertheless, we must learn from this experience. This list is not all-inclusive but I believe they can work in tandem to help others and ourselves too. We need rules for the dumping ground.
How can we avoid dumping? How can we help others?
“Can I speak to you about something?”
For me, this is quite possibly the most powerful question we can ask. This is not only a pre-empt advance warning as such, but it also aims to gauge the level of trust, confidence and empathy of others. This also shows a sense of mindfulness and respectful of your friend’s time and mental space. A simple, “Hey, I’m stressed out about x, y or z, can I talk to you about it?” can go a really long way. Before we offload, this conscious testing of the waters gives our friend or colleague a rough idea of what we want to share. We have no idea of the mental state of those we are sharing our problems with, let alone their capacity to understand and support us with our own issues.
To protect them as well as ourselves, it is so important to give them a disclaimer. Knowing who we talk to and having the ability to trust their judgement, is how we can avoid dumping. Please be mindful of how much you share because as much as it hurts you, it can also be enormously triggering for the person you are sharing with too.
“I’m sorry, right now I am not in the right headspace.”
This is something I am learning to do every day. How can we possibly help someone when we are dealing with a magnitude of problems ourselves? Many of which we choose not to broadcast. Forming boundaries can seem very selfish but we need to help ourselves before we can help others. One person cannot be the panacea for the world’s problems. When we are on the receiving end of trauma dumping there is an overwhelming pressure for us to always find the right words, WhatsApp the right quote or say the right things.
When we are dealing with our issues, it isn’t always possible to be there. Be honest and explain that you are not in a good state to listen or help today but when you are, you will be there to support, advise and signpost. Sometimes stepping away is often the most effective way of helping others. Something as simple as, “Hey, I’m not in the best place right now to talk about this.” We need to normalise these phrases to protect one another.
“I’m not sure if I can help but I do know…”
For empaths, who by natural intuition take on the energies of those around them, this can be difficult. We must encourage those who are dumping, or disproportionately venting, to seek professional help and guidance. Their immediate support network, which may be full of amazing listeners, can become strained if a healthy equilibrium is not found. When we begin to associate a relationship with stress, anxiety, sadness, grief, anger and guilt, our judgement can become skewed. We may not know exactly how to support the ones we care about and that alone can be distressing.
How many times have we walked away from someone and felt such insurmountable guilt in the thought of being unable to help them? As much as we should be encouraging conversations, signposting those we care about needs to be normalised. Allowing them to have guidance from professionally trained counsellors or support workers can alleviate the strain trauma can have on a relationship. Of course, at a time where CAMHS and mental health services are still chronically underfunded, this can become difficult. However, from personal experience the charities Sane and Mind have been brilliant.
People who are on the receiving end of trauma dumping can find it difficult to find the right way to comfort those in distress. I believe that we need to normalise all conversations around our trauma but with the right people. Confiding in the right people who are in the right headspace, who can signpost correctly and who have the capacity to comprehend our trauma is what we should be striving for.
Finally, alongside normalising boundaries, we also need to normalise venting effectively in helping ourselves and others find a happy medium. We should be able to vent to our support systems that in turn enable us to have healthy long-lasting relationships.
I hope you can find your medium, readers. Please remember to vent with care.
The Difference Between Venting and Dumping – Judith Orloff: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-empaths-survival-guide/201709/the-difference-between-venting-and-dumping