Have you been the victim of trauma dumping? This insidious tactic is used by self-centered people to ease their own emotional pain. It involves opening up and sharing dark hurts, in a way that is both disrespectful and hurtful to the people who they love. That’s because emotional labor is still labor. When someone opens up, we have to be a in place where we can mentally and emotionally handle it. Do you have a friend or loved one in your life that is always opening up and dumping their trauma on you? Take steps to protect yourself before the damage becomes permanent.
What trauma dumping can look like.
When we share a close relationship with someone, we support them in several ways. That includes emotional support. We talk them through tough things during tough times. This can be taken too far, though, when your friend or loved one goes from venting to trauma dumping. An insidious form of self-relief, trauma dumping is both harmful and abusive in its own ways.
Venting is a lot different from trauma dumping. When a friend vents to you, they may call you up and ask to go out for drinks, or to have a movie night. “Hey. I’m having a bad day. Wanna go out?” That comes with the understanding that you’re going to unload about a bad day. Trauma dumping, though? It comes out of the blue. You may be having an enjoyable afternoon, and boom. They launch into a story about their childhood that gives you chills.
Creating great pain
Trauma dumping differs from venting in that it creates obvious pain and discomfort in the other person. Listening to the story of your loved one’s trauma can take an emotional toll. You may feel sadness, you may get angry and frustrated. But worse than that, you can also take on some of their anxiety and their upset. If it upsets your emotional balance, then it crosses a line that must be closely observed.
Getting dark and deep
One of the most distinct signs of trauma dumping is a swift move toward extremely dark and deep content — without permission or warning. Your friend or loved one might start the conversation by talking about a minor hurt, but it may quickly dissolve into trauma or upset. The heavy topics keep coming and the deeper they get, the more of an emotional burden they become on the person who is stuck listening in guilt and horror.
No real compassion
There’s a distinct lack of compassion for the listener with trauma dumping. In many cases, it’s clear that the person listening is uncomfortable. Yet the person doing the dumping goes on. It’s because they don’t care how their information is making the other person feel. They are tuned into their frequency and their frequency only. That’s where the compassion gets lost (and the other person’s feelings flatly ignored).
An element of disrespect
Trauma dumping is disrespectful. It’s a blatant prioritizing of your wellbeing over that of your loved ones. It’s saying, “I don’t really care about your boundaries. I’m uncomfortable and I want you to make me not feel that way.” The people around you have a lot going on to, and when you throw your pain on top, you disrespect the struggles that they’re also confronting.
Why trauma dumping is dangerous.
Trauma dumping is a big deal. Not only can it be an indication of an emotionally abusive relationship, it indicates low emotional intelligence and creates pain in the lives of loved ones. Don’t pretend that you owe your friend or loved one this extreme, unwarranted emotional labor. You don’t. Be honest about how it’s affecting you and the intention behind it.
There is no denying the fact that trauma dumping is disrespectful. When you don’t ask permission to burden someone with heavy information, you blow past their boundaries and decide how you want them to feel. It’s disrespectful. It proves that you don’t value the quality of their life, and whether they are prepared to handle the heavy emotional information you’re about to hand them.
Creating more pain
Trauma dumping is more than disrespectful. It can literally create pain in the people listening. Vomiting the pain in your life all over someone else puts some of that pain on them. They may feel anxiety, they may have a real physical response. It’s even more disruptive on an emotional level. Your sadness becomes their sadness and vice versa. Trauma dumping is a pain generator.
Early sign of abuse
Yeah. Believe it or not, consistent trauma dumping (especially when asked to stop) can be a sign of an emotionally abusive relationship. People have boundaries. And that’s not just physical, intimate boundaries. Consent extends to emotional labor too. You need permission before dumping on someone and expecting them to clean it up. When you ignore that consent, you’re abusing the connection you share with the other person.
Low emotional intelligence
To trauma dump on someone is a show of low emotional intelligence. Truly empathetic people don’t act that way. They have taken the time to analyze their pain, and don’t wish to put that burden (unduly) on others. An emotionally intelligent person is aware of what is going on in another and asks permission before unleashing their demons on them. Some people get that and some people don’t.
When someone trauma dumps all over the people around them (all the time) it prevents honesty. You can’t be open with that person. How could you? Your subconscious doesn’t trust them to respect your boundaries or needs. More than that, you come to see this person as the eternal victim. And really, what could opening up to that person do for you? It’s hard to lean on someone who always needs to be supported by everyone else.
Means of control
Trauma isn’t always just a means of selfish alleviation. It’s also a means of emotional manipulation and control. Covert narcissists use this technique whenever they are called out for their problematic behavior. They also use it to make their loved ones more compliant with their wishes. Whenever it’s time to make a major decision? Boom. The trauma and the tears come out. Soon, you become willing to step to the side in order to make the poor, hurt creature more comfortable.
How to manage trauma dumping in your relationships.
Is there someone in your life who is constantly dumping their negativity all over you? It’s important to set serious (and enforceable) boundaries with this person — in both word and action. Prioritize your wellbeing and encourage your loved one to get more realistic support. Learning to say no is uncomfortable, but it’s a power that you need to adopt if you’re going to build a life in which you’re emotionally secure and protected.
1. Start by setting some boundaries
Boundaries are the first step in dealing with the trauma dumper in your life. Lines have to be drawn around your wellbeing. At some point, you’re going to have to say no and turn them away. You cannot nurse their pain. And, essentially, you are enabling them to continue the behavior when you do. For the good of your relationship and your lives, you need to set boundaries that both of you can abide by.
You need to set serious (and enforceable) boundaries. Stop dropping everything to help them — in word and deed. Tell the dumper what is changing. But also follow that through with definitive action. Stop answering the phone and the text every time they have a crisis they want to dump on you.
Don’t say “Yeah, sure, I have a minute,” when what you really mean is, “I’m exhausted and the thought of listening to this makes me want to cry.” We shouldn’t feel drained from our interactions with others. And if we do, it’s a sure sign that we need to take a step back and reassess. We may be out of emotional bandwidth. But we may also be dealing with someone who is taking advantage. Figure out which is which so you can react accordingly.
2. Put your emotional wellbeing first
Prioritize your mental and emotional wellbeing over that of your loved ones. This is not selfish. This is self-preservation. They choose themselves every time they open up and vomit their pain all over you. When they don’t ask permission, when they assume you’re always ready to do their heavy lifting, they are using you and therefore putting themselves over and above you in every way.
This is the moment for you to do the same. Consider this your call to action. Now is the time to put yourself mentally and emotionally over the person who always chooses themselves. You have a right to be at peace. You have a sovereign right to be comfortable and at ease in your own skin. If your love one’s trauma dumping prevents this, it need to be stopped. You’re the only who will protect yourself. And you’re the only one with the responsibility. Act like it.
3. Encourage a better support system
A lot of trauma dumpers inflict their negativity on everyone around them, but some don’t. Some of these abusers prefer to dump their trauma all on a single person. Maybe everyone else has turned them away, or set stronger boundaries than you have. Whatever the reason, this can’t be tolerated. Part of supporting your friend in this moment must include encouraging them to get the real help they need (instead of dumping on those who can’t help them).
Encourage your loved one to get more realistic and practical support. You are clearly not the person who is able to help them work through their issues. And you’re also not the person who can handle this emotional load. They need to be talking to professionals or other loved ones who can better help them navigate the challenges they’re facing.
It’s okay to say to your friend, partner, or family member, “I don’t think I’m the right person to help you with this right now. "Maybe you can open up to a ___ or we can find a professional with more experience in this.” You are not responsible for making sure the people that you loved are healed and okay. Your only job is to love them. We are each responsible for the course of our own lives and how we experience them. Be there, be a friend, but clarify that someone else needs to be involved.
Putting it all together…
Trauma dumping is a serious form of disrespect and abuse that’s widely accepted in many relationships. Make no mistake, though, there’s a big difference between venting and trauma dumping. When you have a friend that keeps crossing the line and disrespecting your peace, you must protect yourself and take action in the name of your emotional wellbeing.
Set serious and enforceable boundaries that allow you to protect yourself. Tell your loved one what is no longer allowed, then reinforce this new truth by following up with action. Don’t answer calls and texts. Stop allowing them to walk all over you. Prioritize your emotional wellbeing and encourage your friend to get more realistic support. You can’t be the only person to help them. They need to be more practical. If you need to, get help of your own. Don’t allow their pain to become yours. Put your foot down and find peace in the discomfort. You don’t owe them the peace you’ve fought for. Protect it and hold it dear to yourself at all costs.
- Gabriel, A. S., Daniels, M. A., Diefendorff, J. M., & Greguras, G. J. (2015). Emotional labor actors: A latent profile analysis of emotional labor strategies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 863–879. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037408