Why the Trend of ‘Trauma Dumping’ On Internet Strangers Needs to Go
I like to talk about mental health on Instagram — about the apathy towards it, the lack of sensitization plaguing discourses on the subject, and often, about the lack of accommodation for neurodivergent folks like me, and how it affects our day-to-day lives. However, people often assume my engagement with mental health, in general, is a free pass to dump their traumatic experiences into my inbox.
The first couple of times this happened, I knew I was neither in a headspace to respond nor equipped to advise people. And yet, I felt guilty for turning away someone who was sharing their painful experiences with me — maybe, they didn’t have a support system to hear them out, perhaps they couldn’t afford a therapist, I wondered. But at the same time, these DMs also felt like a violation of my boundaries because I’d never signed up to hold space for, you know, strangers. So, I was left feeling somewhat conflicted. Not for long though. I came across the term “trauma dumping” earlier this year, and it helped me understand that the DMs were indeed a violation of boundaries. Turns out, my reaction to them was also natural, and I wasn’t obligated to respond to them at all.
What is trauma dumping though? It’s the non-consensual dumping of one’s emotional load onto an unsuspecting individual, or individuals, without taking their headspace, their emotional bandwidth, and their boundaries into consideration.
Some psychologists have even gone on to describe it as “toxic oversharing.” Pamela Rutledge, a media psychologist, and social scientist, believes “emotional dumping on your friends, acquaintances, or strangers without warning or permission is abusive and manipulative.”
Unfortunately, however, the phenomenon has become widespread and even normalized on social media to some extent. “The logic behind trauma dumping is the same as cyberbullying; they feel bolder saying what they feel when hiding behind a screen,” an article on the subject from 2020 reads.
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But emotional relief for one shouldn’t come at the cost of burdening another. Moreover, while the phenomenon is certainly not desirable for the dumpee, it isn’t too useful for the dumper either. “It’s very concerning that people would rather drop all their heavy, negative thoughts in the comments of a stranger’s video rather than seek out help so they can deal with it healthily,” the 2020 article adds.
The author also mentions that when done publicly on a social media platform, trauma dumping can result in “thousands of others add[ing] onto the same train of negativity until it becomes a competition.” Yet another writer notes that it can also “quickly catapult into people making jokes about unhealthy eating habits or suicidal thoughts” — and that, on the other hand, can be triggering for many.
So, whom does it benefit? Probably, no one. “It’s not cathartic. And it doesn’t make you feel better. Fishing for sympathy or competing for who has it worst will not give you personal insight,” Rutledge says.
We believe that venting out our emotions is helpful in terms of helping us cope with negative emotions. However, there’s a fragile line between venting and trauma dumping. That’s possibly another reason why people indulge in the latter without realizing it might not be the right thing for themselves or their audience.
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But what is the right way to vent? Some note it should be self-reflective rather than self-victimizing and reactive, as well as solution-oriented and open to feedback. However, I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that, do you?
Experts also explain that venting can’t be excessive. “Repeatedly venting over and over and over again can create friction in social relationships… There’s often a limit to how much listeners, your friends, can hear,” Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist, and neuroscientist, notes. While that may seem intuitive or even obvious, the emergence of trauma dumping on the Internet suggests otherwise.
At the same time, research is beginning to suggest that venting might not be as helpful as people led us to believe either. Some studies indicate that venting can, in fact, reinforce negative thoughts and emotions rather than alleviating them.
However, experts aren’t ready to completely rule out the positive effect venting can have on people — but strictly within certain boundaries. “[Venting] has benefits for the self in terms of satisfying our social and emotional needs… [I]f all we do is vent, we don’t address our cognitive needs, too… We aren’t able to make sense of what we’re experiencing, to make meaning of it. We need to find out what the correct dosage is and make sure to offer to supplement that with cognitive reframing,” Kross explains.
It’s always preferable for people to share their traumatic experiences with their therapists, counselors, or a close friend who has agreed to lend them an ear — and seldom to strangers. However, Union Queer Collective, an Australian organization has come up with a few guidelines to enable people to unburden themselves while still respecting the boundaries of those at the receiving end. The rules are so simple, it’s almost unfathomable we haven’t been practicing them en masse already. Some of them involve asking people for consent before sharing your trauma, giving trigger warnings, and letting them know whether one just expects them to listen, or to help devise solutions. And the most important guideline of all, perhaps, is checking in on their mental health before unburdening.
So, next time you want to vent to someone other than your therapist, maybe, ask for permission.