I’ll have a more finance-geared post soon, I promise. But this subject has been rattling around in my brain for a couple of weeks now.
So I want to discuss what trauma dumping is and how you can avoid trauma dumping in the future.
And at the end, I’ll talk about living with the fear I’m doing it.
What is trauma dumping?
For those not familiar with the term, trauma dumping refers to someone spewing a ton of information about their past trauma — either at inappropriate times or just at an overwhelming volume — to people who may not be prepared/able to process the information.
Trauma dumping has a sort of steamroller effect.
The most obvious version is simply unloading tale after tale of your past traumatic events to someone who may not be able to handle that level of intensity — especially if it’s barely or not at all related to something being discussed. Remember, we traumatized people aren’t the only ones who have finite emotional bandwidth.
Another trauma dumping scenario is someone choosing an inappropriate time to share their trauma. Whether that’s due to what’s going on around them — a wedding, funeral, party, etc. — or whether the listener is trying to discuss their own issues.
Trauma dumping can also be talking at someone rather than with them.
Sometimes the dumpers don’t allow the dumpees to get a word in edgewise. They don’t allow breaks for the listener to have a reaction or respond to the information — or they may ignore any remarks that keep them from continuing the info-dump.
In short, the person trauma dumping is negatively affecting other people to make themselves feel better.
To be clear: This isn’t to say that traumatized people should never discuss our pasts. We just need to be careful how and when we share these things.
Trauma is part of us
This subject has been on my mind a lot lately because in the last several months I’ve been getting to know new people, and I’m nervously walking the very narrow line between letting people get to know me and trauma dumping.
Sad or painful events are such a part of trauma survivors’ history (and sometimes the motivation/cause of present actions and reactions) that it’s hard for us to omit all reference to it even relatively early in the friendship/relationship. That is, unless the person only wants to know you superficially.
For example, the illness that put me on life support for three months is why I have lifelong chronic fatigue.* And the fatigue is a pretty integral part of who I am now — or at least why I carefully structure my schedule and the duration of activities. So I can’t really avoid commenting on it at all. I can just choose how I do it, which I’ll discuss at the end of this post.
Similarly, since some repercussions of emotional abuse by my dad affect me today — like the fact that I start shaking at the merest hint of confrontation with a man. So usually within the first couple to few months I have to at least briefly mention there was some childhood trauma.
And of course, the miscarriages are had to avoid mentioning since “Do you have kids?” tends to be a question early on.
Does it actually need to come up?
So it often feels like you can’t let someone in without their knowing that huge thing about you.
But sometimes I wonder if that’s really true. Espectially early on, how much do I need to share.
After all, I’ve overcome a goodly chunk of the repercussions of my traumas. So if someone is trying to get to know me now, how much of my past is actually necessary information in the early stages of a friendship/relationship?
And yes, I know that normal people share things about their past with friends without a set timeline.
But there’s a difference between telling someone:
- How much you moved around and how it could be tough/some annoying and maybe even slightly unhealthy habits from your parents/an unhealthy past romantic relationship
- That when you were 10ish, your dad pulled you aside at your uncle’s wedding and said you were ruining the whole thing because you were too shy to dance with the groom.
Something on the scale of the second example can be a lot for someone — especially someone without a lot of trauma — to process. I was briefly concerned Pirate Party Guy’s head was going to explode when he heard that one.
So for me (and presumably other trauma survivors) it’s harrowing to figure out how to let people get to know you without sharing too soon or perhaps just in too much detail.
It feels so good
The problem is, once one story (or even just allusion) comes out, it can be hard to stop ourselves from full-on trauma dumping. Because even briefly giving a bit of that pain/stress to someone else to hold… It can feel like such a relief. And you want more of it.
Other times, it’s a relief that you don’t have to dance around the subject anymore. So you just want to get more stories out so you can be done skirting those too.
The problem is, if you’re unloading a burden/stressor on yourself then you’re usually loading onto someone else.
But the impulse is just so strong it can be hard to quash. Sometimes it’ll feel like more stories are bubbling up in my throat, begging to be let out. I push them back down — but barely.
(I’ll get more into the how and why of my own struggles after the how-to section.)
Another danger of trauma-dumping
Besides the worry of exhausting/scaring the people in our lives, there’s another problematic effect that can happen: It can give someone a false sense of intimacy.
Not too long ago, I commented about how much I hate feeling emotionally vulnerable. I said it to a guy who I was seeing extremely casually. (Very mutually agreed upon. He refers to me as a friend.) He replied how open I’d been with him from the start. In a tone of voice that indicated he felt special. And he said it a couple times since then — in the same proud tone of voice.
And I just didn’t have the heart to break it to him that… Well, this tweet says it all:
From what I can tell, this is common of trauma survivors.
Maybe it’s because we’re so relieved that we no longer feel like it was our fault? Or maybe we’re just proud of how we’ve come in recovery? If it’s a recent traumatic event (illness, heinous car crash, robbery, etc.) I think it’s a matter of just spilling it out as a way to process it, saying it over and over until it feels real.
Whatever the cause, if you’re someone who is very comfortable discussing your trauma, just remember that your sharing can be misinterpreted by the listener.
So if you don’t feel super-close to them, you may need to make that clear. Not in a mean way, obviously. Just a comment (gently) establishing that you’re pretty free with that information. Maybe: “Thanks for listening. I’ve told so many people in the past, only to realize afterward that they couldn’t handle it.”
How to avoid trauma dumping
So how do you make sure you’re not trauma dumping? How can you stay on the right side of sharing your past with others?
The first thing you should do is establish whether this is a time you should be talking about this — and how much you should talk about it. You need to ask yourself two questions:
Is the timing is right?
Ask yourself is whether it’s an appropriate time to talk about something as serious as trauma.
If someone else is discussing theirs, you’re probably good to go. (As long as you’re not trying to one-up them.)
If you’re in a small group or — preferably — with just one person, it’s more likely to be appropriate.
If it’s an upbeat event, meaning people may not be in the right frame of mind to hear sad and traumatic tales, it’s probably not a good time — unless someone asks you directly.
Also make sure you check the would-be listener’s state of mind. If they’re stressed out or unhappy, you should probably avoid the subject. If part of soothing them involves referencing something you learned from your trauma, keep it short. Only mention the details absolutely necessary to explain your point.
If you run through all of those qualifiers and it seems like it is appropriate to mention it, then ask yourself another important question:
How much should I say?
I recommend you never start with the nitty-gritty details.
Even if the trauma is germane to the conversation at hand, there’s a difference between using it as a reference for something you’re saying versus unloading copious details that may make people (who haven’t consented to absorbing scary/painful information) very uncomfortable.
Starting by referring to the trauma broadly is an especially good idea if you’re in a group of people. The more people there are, the more likely there’s one or more not equipped to handle gory details.
There are exceptions, of course. For example, if there is a specific detail that’s needed to make your point, fine. But even then, only share exactly what you need to in order to support your statement.
If I need to reference a trauma as part of a casual conversation — like explaining why I have chronic fatigue or adding on to someone’s remarks about a good/bad hospital experience — I just say, “I got very sick when I was 19” or “When I was younger, I got very sick and was in the hospital for around three months, so yeah I [agree with/add to a comment about illness/hospitals].”
Then if they have follow-up questions, I can be more detailed.
Because a great way to avoid trauma dumping is to let the other person ask for more information. That way, you know they’re willing to hear more about what you went through.
Remember: You can always add to what you’ve already said — but you can never subtract from it.
Incidentally, this technique has another benefit: It paves the way for a more in-depth discussion in the future. If you start with a detailed account about a trauma the other person didn’t even know existed, it’s far more likely to feel overwhelming to them. But if it’s expanding on a previous reference, the person may be better equipped to hear details.
How to discuss details
If it seems like an appropriate time to get into detail about your trauma, there are still a few steps you should follow.
Before you start, check whether the other person is up to hearing it.
Say something like, “I’d like to discuss the X I’ve mentioned before, but it’ll be some pretty heavy stuff. Do you feel up to hearing about it right now?”
And remember not to take offense if the person says they aren’t up to it. Better that you wait until they’re willing and able to process what you’re telling them. If you overwhelm them, they may shut down future discussions.
(This is also a good thing to ask before venting to someone. I’m about 50/50 remembering it. It’s a work in progress.)
Listen to the listener
Sometimes we get carried away when we’re talking in-depth about the trauma. We just want to get it all out.
But the other person needs to be allowed to talk too. Pause at times to see if they want to comment or ask a question. And if they do make sure to answer it — even if you feel like it’s getting off-track. You don’t want to leave the other person out of the “conversation.”
If you’ve been talking for a while and the other person hasn’t said much, check in with them.
Say something like, “I feel like I’m doing a lot of talking. Is there anything you want to say or ask? Are you quiet because you want don’t want to interrupt, or are you starting to feel overwhelmed?”
If the answer to the last question is yes, try to find a place to stop relatively quickly. Then say, “There’s more but we can pick back up when you feel ready to hear more.”
An added benefit of this step: If they’ve told you to keep going, you know you’re not trauma dumping.
Make sure it’s on-topic
Sometimes revealing one or two traumas is such a relief that we want to unload more. And that’s when the danger of trauma dumping arises.
Sometimes after divulging something from my past, I feel an almost frantic need to tell more stories, more instances of pain and/or suffering. Maybe it’s because I want sympathy; maybe it’s to test the other person’s mettle (can they handle being close to me?); or maybe I just want to get it out.
The motivation doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that I’d be giving the other person some potentially very draining information/imagery. I’d be feeling better at the expense of the other person.
So I debate telling more stories, I ask myself two questions:
- Is the story is related to what we’re talking about? Does it lead to a specific point I want to make or mindset I want to describe?
- Does the story actually add to the conversation? That is, does it lead to a new point or idea that wasn’t conveyed in any stories I’ve already shared?
If the answer to either question is no — and it usually is — I tamp it down and remind myself that there’ll be time to share more in the future.
My own struggles
So we’ve covered the how of avoiding trauma-dumping. But since many of you read this as a way to hear about my life, I figure it makes sense to talk about why I’ve been thinking about trauma dumping so much lately.
Because I’m afraid
I’m embarrassed to say that, when I choke back extra stories about trauma, it’s not really out of concern for the other person. I mean… To some extent it is, of course. But I don’t think that would be enough to make me hold back.
I have to say to tell myself that, not only would it overwhelm the other person (which I don’t want), but I might just full-on scare them off. That they might not want to be close to me — or have any type of bond with me (romantic or platonic).
Because I live in fear of driving people away. Often, it’s that I feel too needy — when usually it’s the same basic need for support that everyone has. But I also worry that hearing too many scary/emotionally-draining stories could make them stop wanting to be in my life.
Hopefully, the person would first try telling me I need to tone it down. But not everyone has the ability or emotional vocabulary to voice that. Plus there’s no guarantee I’d be able to tone it down enough for them anyway.
I talk a lot more than Pirate Party Guy when we see each other. So after some late-night overthinking, I texted him to say that I felt like I’ve been trauma dumping on people a lot this year — and that I hope he knows he can tell me if it gets to be too much.
He replied that while he’d commented once that I generally have more to say than he does, had he ever hinted that he wanted me to roll it back? Which, no but…Self-doubt springs eternal.
So perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe I’m tempering my trauma-dumping urges better than I thought. But that won’t make the fear go away.
The fear of being too much
As I told him — when he brought up again the next time he saw me — as someone with Bipolar II Disorder, there is a part of me that is constantly afraid of people feeling I’m too much. Too much hassle, too much trauma, too emotionally needy. You name it.
It’s especially acute for me because, in retrospect, there were times that I was too much.
It took until age 30 to get properly diagnosed. Probably because Bipolar II wasn’t officially accepted until well after I was put on antidepressants. So until then, I was still prone to fits of (low-level) mania and moderate to deep depression.
And someone who’s either anxious attachment or fearful avoidant attachment, I can get very… not quite attached, but overly enthusiastic about any promising guy. And while I think some of the guys were just avoidant and thus going to spook anyway, I’m sure others were a bit put off by the level of attention I gave/closeness I attempted.
So yeah, I was… If not too much then certainly a lot. And it led to quite a bit of crushing disappointment, not to mention self-castigation. It made me feel unlovable and like no one could “handle” me.
And I never want to be like that again. Not just because of the emotional turmoil, but also because I don’t want to scare people away.
What I’m afraid of
Don’t get me wrong: I understand that, while I’m not always an easy person to deal with, I’m generally worth a little complexity.
But there’s a difference between a little complexity and being a sort of a yawning maw of need/too many lows/too many highs. And I’m afraid that people will see me as the latter.
And while I know that worry is somewhat unfounded — as in, anyone who can’t handle me probably wasn’t a good addition to my life anyway — it doesn’t lessen the innate, icy grip of a fear of abandonment.
If you’re like me, in emotional times you debate reaching out for support. You tabulate how often you’ve need support from your network. You wonder if this is the time they’ll say no — or they’ll say that this is the absolute last time because they’re emotionally exhausted by your needs.
Why I’m afraid of it
I have this self-doubt… Well, partially just because I’m a bit insecure. But mostly because throughout my childhood, it was made clear to me that my emotional needs were tiresome and inconsequential. That they were a hindrance, a hassle — something only overcome by (I was given to understand) my father’s impressive amount of forbearance and stoicism in the face on my hurtful reactions.
And if the person who is (allegedly) providing unconditional love can barely put up with your feelings and needs, you’re hardly going to trust that anyone else is going to be able to handle you.
Ah, the irony
And yes, I recognize the irony of saying that I’m not sure people even need to know my past trauma because I’m mostly over it, and then talking about how much it still affects my thoughts/feelings/(in)actions today.
So, fine. I guess we traumatized people won’t ever be able to entirely skip backstories. At least, once we’ve determined we want to really be close to that person — as friends or more.
Do you struggle with trauma-dumping? Or have you been the trauma dumpee?