Why Some People Dump Their Traumas on Us
... and why what's unloaded often isn't really trauma.
Posted November 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Trauma dumping is a term used to describe intense oversharing, which can leave everyone involved feeling more distressed and helpless.
- People who trauma dump or "over-emote" find it hard to process, filter, and regulate emotions, especially when their threat brain gets involved.
- Understanding the dynamics of trauma dumping can help you distinguish when to listen and when to say no.
People who "dump" traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy onto others—who speak and behave with "wild vulnerability"—find it very difficult to organize, process, and filter their feelings appropriately. Sometimes this suggests a deeper psychological problem—such as borderline personality or post-traumatic stress disorder—but it is often because people are increasingly confused by culturally mixed messages regarding what and when it is OK to share.
The use of the word "trauma" has also become more elastic, meaning that some people experience and describe relatively minor life challenges as "traumatic." Losing out on a promotion at work, queuing for petrol, being single, having noisy neighbors, and developing wrinkles may overwhelm or upset us, but they are qualitatively different experiences to, for example, being raped, witnessing a murder, getting involved in a fatal accident, or prematurely losing a loved one.
It is not surprising that trauma dumping is on the increase. Over emoting is encouraged and has become the norm on social media and in talk and reality shows. What's more, there's now a mountain of self-help manuals and messages instructing us to get in touch with our feelings and tell each other about them. Yet, at the same time, in many of our schools and workplaces, emotions and feelings are not properly attended to or nurtured, and in some places, they are even discouraged. So whilst we are told feelings are a good thing, in reality, there is little opportunity to practice and learn how to express, understand, and process them.
Trauma dumping and threat brain
Ultimately, what determines our ability to acknowledge, manage, and process our feelings effectively is the way in which we learn to notice and regulate the emotions of our threat brain—which is the part of our emotion system that is alert to and responds to danger. An overactive threat brain will flood us with powerful feelings and thoughts which, if we do not soothe and contain them, will eventually spill out in daily life and relationships.
Our threat brain can be activated by both real and imagined threats, which is why, for some people, relatively minor problems can feel terrifying—our ability to replay, imagine, and overthink makes it so.
Trauma dumping causes problems for everyone involved because highly charged speech and behavior stimulate a part of our nervous system that floods our body with powerful hormones and chemicals to keep us hypervigilant and alert. "Detoxing" from this can take some time because of the feelings that arise after the "trauma binge." For example, people often feel guilty and ashamed because they sense they have shared too much and/or embellished and exaggerated the details of their problem. They can also feel increased anxiety because the dumping "solution" hasn't taken away the pain; instead, it has supplied it with problem-focused energy that keeps it "memory active." Trauma dumping is like binge drinking: It might feel good in the moment, but the after-effects are lasting and painful.
People on the receiving end also suffer. They want to help but can't because the purpose of trauma dumping is to discharge emotions and not to work through issues. Or they feel resentful and drained by the emotional "bombing" and their inability to escape it.
Friendships and partnerships thrive on reciprocity—which is mutual sharing, giving, and taking. Trauma dumping, on the other hand, is one-sided, and people are used as objects upon which to project pain. When this happens, the receiver can experience "secondary trauma," which is a kind of emotional contagion where negative feelings become infectious.
If you find yourself frequently at the receiving end of someone's trauma dump, ask yourself, "What is it about me that attracts or enables people to use me in this way?" The tone in which you ask yourself this question is crucial because this is not about blaming yourself but rather compassionately understanding how your relationships might not be serving you well. So ask yourself this question kindly and with curiosity.
People who trauma dump unconsciously seek out others who can effectively become the container or "hook" for their unwanted feelings. In all of us, there is a sixth sense that operates through our unconscious, looking out for and connecting with people who, in different ways, enable our unconscious needs, yearnings, and characteristics to be seen, heard, and related to.
A person who trauma dumps is unconsciously seeking people who have a stronger than average need to be liked or to please others. This need arises—again often unconsciously—from a fear of being rejected or of being unloveable. It comes from a belief, learned in early childhood, that we can secure love and safety by being good, compliant, and submissive to others.
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Thus if you find it difficult to stop your friend or partner dumping on you, you may have this tendency which comes from the "freeze" part of our fight-flee-freeze threat brain response repertoire. Whilst animals literally freeze by remaining still, humans freeze their own needs and beliefs so that they can fully focus on the other person—which feels like the safest thing to do when we feel fear. Unfortunately, threat brain strategies such as fighting, fleeing, and freezing rarely support good relationships and, in the case of trauma dumping, help neither party.
Discovering that you may be caught in a threat brain freeze loop is your first step in learning how to deal with people who take advantage of you. Ask yourself: "What did I do as a child to secure approval, attention, and love from my parents?" and consider where you fall on the continuum from submissive (e.g., people-pleasing) to dominant (e.g., competitive and achievement-oriented). Then taking small steps towards becoming compassionately assertive can help. This means learning to say no in a non-defensive way.
Three ways to say no to trauma dumping
- Learn about your threat brain and share with your friend/partner how trauma dumping increases threat brain activity and creates anxiety and stress in both of you.
- Let your friend/partner know that when your threat brain is activated, it makes trauma worse, and research shows that breathing slowly and regularly is better than talking when we are feeling fearful. Invite your friend to stop talking and to breathe—you can do this together.
- Don't see this person when you are tired or stressed. When you do see them, rehearse beforehand how you will say "no"—perhaps by telling them that you will listen for 10 minutes only.
Trauma dumping is not the same as having post-traumatic stress disorder.
Trauma dumping describes people in the general population who have a tendency to over-emote. It is not an appropriate term to describe people who have experienced genuine trauma and find themselves overwhelmed because of it.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a potentially serious problem where flashbacks and potent memories disorganize the mind and the ability to relate to others, and it is more likely to require a serious effort on the part of the listener to assist with finding help. Trauma dumping, on the other hand, requires the listener to manage the impact on themselves and the relationship.
Facebook image: Andrey Arkusha/Shutterstock
Wickremasinghe, N. (2021) Being With Others: Curses, Spells and Scintillations. Triarchy.
Wickremasinghe, N (2021) Beyond Threat. Triarchy.