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Family & Friends

Trauma dumping: why it’s so important to set emotional boundaries with your family at Christmas

It may be Christmas, but that doesn’t make trauma dumping and overstepping boundaries OK.

It’s easy to imagine a perfect Christmas Day scene. Tree twinkling, snow falling lightly outside. A happy, smiling family pulling crackers and regaling each other with stories across the dinner table. But in reality, everyone knows that the most wonderful time of the year doesn’t come without its challenges, and things can often feel far from harmonious.

This year, perhaps more than ever, we’ve been through a lot of collective trauma. From the pandemic and the strain that placed on many of our relationships to the epidemic of male violence against women and rising political tension, we’ve experienced a lot in the past 12 months that will inevitably come up at some point during the festive season.

And while sharing in our sorrows can be a healing experience, there’s also the risk that it runs dangerously close to trauma dumping territory.

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If you’re not already familiar with the psychological term, trauma dumping describes the act of unexpectedly off-loading traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy and experiences onto someone else. And it can be extremely toxic and damaging to our mental health.

And if there’s ever a time that we become the unofficial family therapist, counsellor and mediator, it’s Christmas.

Christmas is indeed a wonderful, heartwarming time of togetherness, but it can sometimes be lonely and alienating, and at other times stressful and overwhelming.

According to Psychology Today, long-standing recurrent painful patterns (LRPPs) of trauma are particularly present during the festive season, as undigested experiences come to the surface under stress. 

So when your auntie is offloading the heavy details of her rocky relationship or you’re trying to bridge the gap between your siblings and parents, it can actually bring your own anxieties even closer to the surface.

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And what’s more, trauma dumping isn’t just upsetting, insensitive and inconvenient, it can have some long-lasting impacts.

“LRPPs can be intensely challenging, even crippling,” Radhule Weininger, a clinical psychologist, writes.“At the core of a LRPP is trauma. Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope; it causes feelings of helplessness and diminishes a person’s sense of self.

“A person may continue to feel a sensation of dread and helplessness in their body long after actual traumatic experiences. Trauma may also damage a person’s capacity to have close, trusting relationships.”

So while you may feel validated by someone else trusting you with their deep emotional troubles, it’s the lack of consent in sharing it with you that pushes the practice from supportive to toxic, on their part.

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How to cope with family trauma dumping

The key is setting boundaries, with both yourself and other people. “Trauma rewires the brain and causes a person to experience the world differently. The body chemistry changes and one comes to live in an altered world and in an altered body,” explains Weininger.

And while no one wants to leave their loved ones in the lurch when their support is needed most, it’s important to remain honest with yourself about your own ability and needs when supporting others.

If a subject is too painful to discuss, or triggers anxiety, calmly but firmly suggest changing the subject. Don’t be afraid to take physical respite too – maybe take a lone walk or find five minutes of quiet to decompress from any traumatic experiences.

Weininger also recommends practising mindfulness to attend to what is going on in your mind and foster “self-compassion, which allows a person to experience empathy for themselves”.

That’s sage advice we can all lean into, and not just at Christmas.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org for confidential support.

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