Key Takeaways

  • Trauma dumping is when a person continues to talk about traumatic events without regard for how their story might impact the listener.
  • Most of the time, trauma dumping isn’t intentional. But it signals a lack of self-awareness and a limited understanding of other peoples’ emotional capacity.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of trauma dumping, it might be time to set some boundaries. It’s ok to let the person know that you care about them but you can’t be a limitless source of support.

We’ve all heard the wisdom that it’s better to talk about hard things instead of keeping them bottled up. Talking about trauma with someone you trust can help you process the experience, gain a deeper understanding of yourself, and help you feel less alone. 

But the person sharing their trauma is only half of the communication equation. The person listening can also be impacted. Depending on the situation, the listener might feel overwhelmed or unprepared to navigate the conversation.  This experience is called trauma dumping. It occurs when someone shares details of a traumatic event without considering the listener’s boundaries or emotional capacity.

Why does trauma dumping happen?

Most of the time, trauma dumping happens without any ill intention. The traumatized person wants to lessen their emotional pain and they believe that talking about their experience will help. This approach makes sense because we all crave validation and comfort in difficult times. But problems arise when someone seeks to unburden themselves of their traumatic story without considering how it might impact the listener. In other instances, trauma dumping can happen when an individual lacks the ability to process their emotions in healthy ways. They may seek relief from their pain by airing their experiences out loud. While talking about traumatic events can be an important part of the healing process, it doesn’t take the place of the internal work it takes to recover from them.  There are also times when someone knowingly engages in trauma dumping with a complete disregard for the impact it will have on another person.  For example, imagine you have a friend who you know is having a hard time keeping up with all the responsibilities of caring for an aging parent. They hardly have time for themselves, but manage to make time in their schedule to have coffee with you every few months. When you see your friend enter the coffee shop, you can tell he’s tired. But instead of making space for him in the conversation, you spend the entire time talking about your own trauma.

Consequences of trauma dumping

Trauma dumping isn’t usually a one-time event. Over the course of our lives, we’ll be called upon to support our loved ones and sometimes it’s ok to put our own emotional needs on the back burner for a bit.  But habitual trauma dumping can take a toll on both the recipient and the trauma survivor. It can even cause a phenomenon known as compassion fatigue. This refers to the mental and emotional distress someone may experience when they hear about someone else’s trauma. It can lead the listener to develop symptoms that can negatively impact their mental and physical health. Trauma dumping can also make it more difficult for the trauma survivor to heal. Repeatedly talking about your trauma can be disempowering because, depending on who you’re sharing your story with, you may face stigma or risk being defined by your negative experiences. And fixating on traumatic events can place you in a cycle of emotional distress.   Lastly, trauma dumping can erode relationships. When one person is constantly unloading their emotions onto another person, the relationship can become imbalanced. While there’s always some ebb and flow to the ways we give and receive support in healthy relationships, trauma dumping leaves little room for one person to express themselves or their needs. 

Responding to trauma dumping

Trauma dumping often happens unintentionally. So if a friend or loved one continues to want to speak to you about their trauma, it’s likely that they have no idea how their story might be impacting you. Nonetheless, trauma dumping can seriously compromise your well-being and your relationship.  A sign of trauma dumping might be someone frequently dominating conversations by speaking about their trauma with intense emotions and no regard for the other person’s feelings or emotional capacity. When you recognize the signs, it’s time to set boundaries. Here are some tips for offering support without enabling trauma dumping to continue:
  • Practice self-awareness. Keep tabs on your emotional bandwidth and prioritize self-care when it’s getting low. 
  • Communicate your limits. Express that you care about the person but let them know that you also have to nurture your own mental and emotional health. Make it clear that you can’t be an unlimited source of support.
  • Steer the conversation. If you can, try to gently shift the conversation to other topics besides trauma. Ask questions that might encourage the other person to think about something else.
  • Suggest professional help when needed. People living in the aftermath of trauma can benefit from finding a mental health professional or engaging with other forms of trauma-focused support.

Finding more support 

Most people want to do whatever they can to support a friend or loved one who’s dealing with trauma. Often this includes offering a listening ear and holding space for their stories.  But without boundaries and balanced communication, there is a risk of trauma dumping in these situations. This occurs when someone continues to unload their emotional burdens without any regard for how that might affect someone else.  If you or someone you care about needs help navigating trauma or trauma dumping, Rula can help. Our team can match you with a therapist who takes your insurance and specializes in trauma-informed care.

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