Most people need to vent from time to time, right? Maybe you’ve been dealing with an issue with a stubborn family member, a significant other, co-worker, had a really bad day, or might be struggling with career or money problems. It’s common to blow off steam by venting about your problems to those in your close circle, but there is a line between venting and trauma dumping.
If venting feels excessive and inappropriate for the context of the situation, you might find yourself trauma dumping or on the other end of it.
What is Trauma Dumping?
The term trauma dumping garnered significant attention when a viral TikTok featuring a mental health professional started being mass shared throughout social media. In the video, a counselor offers advice to other therapists, giving tips on how to cope when their “client wants to trauma dump onto them.”
This TikTok was upsetting to people because for so many, therapy is the one safe space where they can open up about the trauma and painful experiences they have gone through, without judgment. Many mental health professionals felt they had to clear the air and explain what trauma dumping includes and ensure people that most therapists will not view clients talking about their trauma as oversharing.
A more apt explanation of trauma dumping is the sharing of deeply personal information during an inappropriate place and time. For example, let’s say you ask a cashier at the grocery store how they are doing, and they explain they are severely depressed because they are in the middle of a divorce and custody battle.
While you might genuinely feel for the cashier, it wouldn’t be out of the question for you to leave that interaction feeling strange. This is because the cashier is likely a perfect stranger and they have just shared some intense personal information with you that you probably were not prepared for.
To be clear, there is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to trauma you have experienced. People don’t choose to go through traumatic events and trauma is never the survivor’s fault. When it comes to sharing trauma, it’s often helpful to be mindful of how disclosing deeply personal information might make others feel in a given time or place. Context matters and if you’re ever not sure if the person you’re speaking with has the emotional capacity for a deep conversation, you can always ask them for permission to share something heavy to ensure they are able to support you in that moment.
Is Trauma Dumping Bad?
Trauma dumping isn’t necessarily bad, but it does have the ability to negatively impact a person’s mental health and relationships when it’s used as a persistent coping mechanism. Everyone has their own struggles and having the self-awareness to know if and when to share something traumatic with another person can ensure that someone isn’t pushing people away by persistent oversharing.
Knowing who and in what contexts you can safely share traumatic experiences can protect you from opening up to people who won’t take your experiences seriously and treat that information with the sensitivity it deserves.
Why Can Trauma Dumping Feel Uncomfortable?
Everyone experiences different comfort levels when it comes to talking about their own or other’s traumatic experiences. You may have people in your life who are easier to open up to and that’s okay as every relationship is different. So why does it typically feel comfortable when your best friend talks to you about their childhood trauma, but feels uneasy when someone else does the same thing?
One theory as to why experiencing trauma dumping feels uncomfortable might be because you might not be in the right mindset to be met with such heavy topics. For example, if you are at the gym, you likely are there to focus on your individual health so if someone starts a conversation with you and divulges that they are feeling triggered because they have struggled with an eating disorder previously, you might feel caught off guard by the incongruence of having such a private conversation in a public setting.
Another theory is that you might feel secondhand embarrassment for the person disclosing traumatic experiences. This doesn’t mean that the person who experienced the trauma should feel embarrassed for what they’ve experienced, but more so, you might struggle to imagine yourself choosing to share sensitive information at a place, time, and location that feels exposing and potentially emotionally unsafe.
If you have been the trauma dumper (it’s okay if you have!), one reason you might feel uneasy afterwards might be due to what’s called a vulnerability hangover. According to Brene Brown, researcher and author, a vulnerability hangover is a profound feeling of guilt, shame, and embarrassment one can feel after sharing vulnerable information, such as trauma.
It can feel deeply exposing to volunteer sensitive information which can leave you feeling drained shortly after sharing, even if you felt comfortable discussing the topic in the moment.
Finding a Healthy Medium
Avoiding emotional dumping traumas onto others does not mean that people should be stoic constantly and shy away from vulnerability all together. Vulnerability can allow for genuine connection, empathy, and understanding of others. Vulnerability, in the right context, can be incredibly healing and reparative for those who have gone through traumas and can allow them to feel cared for by others.
It might help to think of intentional vulnerability as a means of protecting yourself and others. To bring up Brene Brown again, her view on this practice is to remember that every person you meet is not automatically deserving to hear your story. There are people who might not be ready or deserve to be granted access to your story and won’t be able to hold space for it the way others in your life can.
If you are struggling to find safe spaces to talk about your experiences, trauma therapy can be a great place to start as it’s an environment specially curated for that exact reason. Find your people (friends, partners, therapist, etc) who can support, empathize, and love you through sharing your experiences – they are the ones who are deserving of your authentic self and story.