How to Turn Trauma Dumping into Authentic ConnectionReading Time: 9 minutes
If you’ve ever watched a reality dating show, you’ve probably seen an example of trauma dumping. It’s that moment during a date when someone opens up about an intense and distressing event in their personal history. It might be their parents’ divorce, a close friend’s accident or illness, or a devastating breakup. This “information dump” about past trauma (hence, trauma dumping) becomes a way of bonding and showing their deeper side.
It’s true that talking about past trauma can bring people closer together. Sharing authentically about what we’ve been through, and feeling accepted and supported by the person we’re speaking to, can be enormously validating and positive. Being vulnerable and honest is empowering for the sharer and also allows the listener to feel trusted and to open up in return.
In addition, sharing about past trauma helps reduce the stigma around mental health conditions and treatment. For example, in the most recent season of the “The Bachelorette,” several contestants spoke about their past mental health challenges and how much therapy had helped them. Public conversations like these contribute to breaking down old stereotypes and create openings for more people to share their stories.
However, whether it’s on a reality show or in real life, there’s a difference between a moment of authentic connection vs. trauma dumping without considering the context or the impact it will have on the other person.
What Is Trauma Dumping?
The most commonly cited trauma dumping meaning is sharing a traumatic story in an inappropriate context, without thinking about how it will affect the other person, or as a way to emotionally manipulate the listener. Oversharing on a first date is a classic trauma dumping example, because the other person can’t easily opt out of the conversation. Furthermore, the “dumper” probably doesn’t know their date well enough to understand how the topic might trigger that person’s trauma or discomfort.
Is this kind of oversharing a trauma response? It might be, in the sense that a person who has no filter and consistently offers too much information could be struggling with unprocessed trauma. In fact, a lack of boundaries around sharing can actually be a result of childhood trauma. Repeatedly talking about a traumatic event might be a person’s way of reaching out for help, or a coping mechanism for dealing with the emotions it continues to bring up in them.
In addition, trivializing the trauma by bringing it up in everyday conversations could be the person’s way of compartmentalizing or distancing themselves from the event. If they don’t have an appropriate outlet for talking about their feelings and experience—such as a therapist, close friend, or family member—they might end up trauma dumping on someone who isn’t interested or equipped to handle it.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about hard things with people, even people we don’t know that well yet. But it’s important to practice self-awareness, learn how to gauge what’s appropriate to share in any given situation, and consider how our listener might react.
Signs of Trauma Dumping and Trauma Dumping Examples
How can you tell when you or someone you know is trauma dumping? Trauma dumping signs include the following behaviors:
- Telling the same story repeatedly
- Sharing graphic, explicit details about the trauma
- Bringing up past trauma frequently and inappropriately
- Talking about their trauma with people their barely know
- A lack of interest in others’ opinions or point of view about their experience
- Choosing listeners who are beholden to them in some way
- Not asking about others’ lives or giving them a chance to share their emotions
- Posting details about a traumatic experience on social media.
Some trauma dumping examples where these behaviors show up might include:
- Telling a stranger they meet on the train about their childhood trauma
- Talking about their traumatic experience with work colleagues at a staff lunch
- Focusing on their trauma for an entire conversation with a friend, and then leaving or hanging up if the friend starts talking about their own life.
Trauma Dumping vs. Venting
The main difference between trauma dumping and venting is that trauma dumping typically focuses on one or two intense stories from the past, while venting is more present focused and may cover a wide range of complaints. Dumpers are usually seeking sympathy from their listener and perhaps trying to forge a more intimate connection. Venting is more about letting off steam after a hard day at work or an annoying interaction.
In either case, however, the recipient of the dumping or venting may end up feeling drained, annoyed, frustrated, used, and/or disregarded. Because they’re so caught up in their own stories and complaints, both dumpers and venters often fail to be curious about what’s happening in the other person’s life. Continually sharing or oversharing without giving the listener any space to talk about themselves can be a sign of an abusive relationship. Trauma dumping can become toxic if the sharer is using their trauma to emotionally manipulate the listener.
Of course, there will always be times in a friendship when one person is going through something difficult and may take up more of the focus and do more of the talking. Friends don’t have to have equal time in every single conversation. Sometimes it’s important to be the listener for a friend who is struggling. With an authentic connection, this balance naturally evens out over time. Hence, both people feel heard, validated, and supported.
- Both people have a chance to vent.
- Talking about it helps in finding a solution.
- Venting doesn’t take up the entire conversation.
- The venter owns up to their part in the issues.
- Both people leave the conversation feeling better.
- The dumper overshares at an inappropriate time.
- They don’t leave space for the other person to talk.
- They’re not interested in solutions or advice.
- The entire conversation is focused on the trauma.
- The “dumpee” leaves the conversation feeling drained, helpless, or frustrated.
The Impact of Trauma Dumping on the Listener
When a person is talking about their trauma, they may be so self-involved that they don’t realize how the topic is impacting their listeners. The people around them may be having a range of reactions, from compassion to overwhelm to irritation to boredom. Or they may be experiencing something more dangerous: retraumatization. Retraumatization refers to the return of thoughts and feelings related to a traumatic event in your past. Trauma dumping can trigger this type of relapse in people who have suffered from trauma or PTSD.
Moreover, even people who have not gone through trauma in their own lives can be triggered by hearing graphic details of someone else’s experience. Secondhand exposure to traumatic events can cause a form of trauma known as vicarious trauma. The symptoms of vicarious trauma, or secondary trauma, are similar to those of first-hand trauma, including anxiety, fear, sadness, physical symptoms, and disturbances in sleep and eating habits.
Recipients of trauma dumping may need to create boundaries to support their own well-being. Set expectations by stating your needs and limits clearly. For example: “I understand this is something you need to talk about, but this topic is disturbing and triggering for me. I care about you and I want to spend time with you, but I can’t have any more conversations about this.” Listeners can also support the person to make a change. You might say to them, “I’ve noticed you mention this experience a lot. Have you thought about talking to a mental health professional about it?”
Emotional Dumping on Social Media
Because social media is all about sharing self-focused information, it’s the ideal forum for trauma dumping. A phenomenon known as sadfishing is a type of social media trauma dumping in which users “fish” for sympathetic reactions and comments by posting sad stories and images. Since there is no face-to-face contact and they’re not speaking to one person in particular, oversharers don’t have to think about the impact of their posts on their friends.
By sharing an aspect of their inner life, online trauma dumpers are striving to create a sense of connection and overcome the loneliness that’s so common among young people today. While the supportive comments they receive may be helpful in the moment, they can’t replace the benefits of a real-life authentic connection.
Furthermore, trauma-focused posts may be harmful for those who read them. A qualitative study on social media trauma dumping found that adolescents who viewed oversharing or “stressed” posts from peers felt more depressed and stressed themselves. In addition, posts about self-harm behaviors can be particularly triggering for those who have self-harmed in the past.
Oversharing is a mixture of loneliness, a search for intimacy in an age of hyper-connection and an obsessive urge to be constantly in contact.
Amanda Du Preez
University of Pretoria School of the Arts, author of “Oversharing in the Time of Selfies”
How to Stop Emotional Dumping and Create Authentic Connection
It’s important to emphasize once again that talking about a traumatic experience with a person or people you trust can be healthy, supportive, and positive for both sharers and listeners. That said, trauma dumping can become a habit or coping mechanism for people who haven’t adequately processed and healed their past experience. Or, for people who struggle with social anxiety or intimacy, talking about hard things they’ve gone through may be the only tool they have to get closer to people or try to prove that they deserve sympathy and love.
If you think you might be trauma dumping, ask yourself the following questions:
WHY am I sharing this experience?
If you are repeatedly returning to this topic because you haven’t fully dealt with the emotions around it, it’s time to reach out for support from a mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma. Or, you might recognize that you’re using your trauma as a way to create intimacy with others. If that’s the case, spend some time reflecting on the fears and insecurities that might be driving you to fall back on your trauma as a way to stay connected. A mental health professional can help with this, too.
WHO am I sharing with?
Is the person a close and trusted friend? Or someone you just met? Do you know whether they are okay with talking about emotional and possibly disturbing topics? If not, consider asking them whether they’re open to sharing on a deeper level. If they say no or seem doubtful, respect that choice rather than charging ahead.
WHEN and WHERE are you sharing?
In some situations, like a support group or a spiritual retreat, it might be encouraged and even expected for participants to open up about past trauma. Other situations, like a job interview or a study group, are not appropriate for intense discussions, unless there are specific circumstances that make your personal history relevant.
HOW often have I talked about this event with this person or group?
If your traumatic experience played an important part in shaping who you are today, it’s natural to want to tell a new friend or romantic partner about it. However, while sharing a trauma can elicit concern and strengthen bonding the first or second time you mention it, dwelling on it can push people away over time. They might start to feel resentful that you’re co-opting the conversation, confused about how to respond, or uncomfortable hearing the details again and again.
WHAT are some ways I can build trust and connection with others beyond sharing my trauma?
The first step might be asking the people you often speak to whether they’re willing to talk with you about your traumatic experiences. You might also ask them to call you on it if they notice you’re veering into trauma dumping. In addition, remind yourself before a conversation or get-together to ask the other person about their life and to give them a chance to vent if they need to.
Treatment for Young Adult Trauma
It’s essential to process and heal traumatic experiences, whether the trauma was acute, chronic, or relational. Trauma-informed care with a mental health professional or in a residential or outpatient setting can help young adults work through trauma and co-occurring disorders like substance abuse, disordered eating, and self-harm.
At Newport Institute, our team of clinical experts support young adults to heal trauma using evidence-based approaches. EMDR and Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) are proven to be effective in creating sustainable, long-term recovery from the effects of trauma. Contact us today to learn more about our specialized approach to young adult trauma.
Frequently Asked Questions About Trauma Dumping
What is considered trauma dumping?
Trauma dumping refers to sharing a traumatic story without thinking about how it will affect the listener, or oversharing in an inappropriate context.
Continually sharing or oversharing without giving the listener any space to talk about themselves can become toxic, particularly if the sharer is using their trauma to emotionally manipulate the listener.
Unprocessed trauma can result in oversharing. Trauma dumping might also be a person’s way of reaching out for help, or a coping mechanism for dealing with the emotions it continues to bring up in them.
Most of the time, trauma dumping is not purposefully abusive or manipulative. It’s more common for a dumper to be so involved in talking about their traumatic experience that they are unaware of how their story is impacting their listeners.
Recipients of trauma dumping may need to create boundaries by making it clear that a topic is disturbing and triggering for them. They can also encourage trauma dumpers to seek help from a mental health professional in processing their trauma.
Trauma dumping typically focuses on one or two intense stories, while venting is less emotional and may cover a wide range of complaints. While dumping is about seeking sympathy or trying to forge a more intimate connection, venting helps blow off steam about something that is usually less serious.