A supportive friendship is one of life’s greatest joys, and a saving grace for so many of us. Our true friends are there for us through thick and thin, whether we need advice, a confidence boost or some gentle but necessary home truths.
While they’re often the first we call with good news and causes for celebration, we rely even more heavily on our friends if something bad happens. When we’ve had a bad day or are facing a dating dilemma we can’t quite get our heads around alone, they’re the ones we turn to.
They’re there to comfort us, and talk us through our worries and anxieties. But, as the world feels like it’s becoming more and more bleak amid rising Covid cases and overwhelming news of the climate crisis, we can sometimes fall into a trap of oversharing the negative without balancing it with the positives. Wine dates and movie nights become less about spending time together, and more about providing constant emotional support for someone else. And even for the most loyal and invested friend, that can become exhausting.
And psychologists have a name for it: trauma dumping.
“We all need to vent and sharing our anxieties and worries about minor matters can help us process difficult feelings by allowing us to ‘get them off our chests’,” clinical hypnotherapist and certified life coach Marie Fraser tells Stylist.
However, trauma dumping is something quite different, she explains. “It’s when someone unexpectedly off-loads their traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy and experiences onto someone else.”
Many of us will have been in situations where friendly meetups have felt co-opted by someone else talking only about their problems, without leaving space for anyone else to express their feelings. But, because we want to be a “good friend”, we sit through it, all the while becoming bogged down by shouldering so much of someone else’s burden with no opportunity for relief.
This is something that has only increased over the past 18 months.
“No doubt the pandemic has created a lot of reasons to vent,” Fraser continues. “An increase in trauma dumping online can also be seen surrounding negative global events, like lockdown, when we’re unable to access our friends physically in person.”
Why do we trauma dump?
We’ve all experienced a bad day at work where we can’t wait to get what happened off of our chest to clear our head. However, when it comes to trauma dumping, the dumper is often unaware of the severity or intensity of what they have shared and the emotional fallout for the listener.
“Trauma dumping without warning or permission can have a toxic and adverse effect on relationships,” explains Fraser. “Sharing deeply personal information can be very uncomfortable for the listener and leave them unsure how to respond. It can also trigger their own trauma, without allowing them space to navigate it.”
Isn’t listening to someone share their problems just being a good friend?
Empathy is one of the most important aspects of any relationship, and helping those closest to us deal with struggles is all part of the give and take of a healthy friendship. However, when that balance becomes invariably skewed, with no space allocated for our own thoughts, fears and stresses, that’s when the relationship can start to slip into trauma dumping territory.
“Often, dumpers will overwhelm the listener with many issues, becoming stuck on the same victim mindset without being open to solutions or help,” says Fraser. “This can be a very negative and exhausting experience for the listener and can have an extremely disagreeable impact on them, especially an empath. As the recipient of a trauma dump, it can leave the listener feeling drained, anxious and helpless.”
How to set friendship boundaries to avoid trauma dumping
Fraser recognises that setting boundaries with friends, especially when they are going through a hard time, can be difficult. No one wants to leave their loved ones in the lurch when their support is needed most. However, she suggests that it’s crucial to be honest with yourself about your own ability and needs when supporting others.
“It may be helpful to set a time limit, for example: ‘You’ve caught me at a crazy time, I’m around for 10 minutes, does that work for you?’” Alternatively, if you are feeling overwhelmed, communicating this to your friend in a gentle way can help protect your own wellbeing, as well as giving the other person a reasonable expectation of your capacity. Fraser suggests phrases like: “You know I care for you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and am not sure how I can help you” and “I know this is hard for you and I wish I could offer you support, but I feel I don’t have the bandwidth to support you through this”.
Fraser explains that sometimes, the best thing you can do is to encourage the person to seek help from other sources. “Remember, your friends are not therapists. They don’t have the training or the mental bandwidth to take on large amounts of trauma alongside their own emotions, so helping them to find a therapist or mental health support is a way of showing that you care about them without taking on all of their burdens alone.”
How to be mindful of trauma dumping on your friends
Of course, as much as we can try to protect ourselves from being trauma dumped, it’s also important to recognise our own behaviours and when we may be veering towards overstepping boundaries ourselves.
Fraser suggests actions like journaling or “brain dumping” – just getting everything out of your head and onto paper – as safe ways of expressing any negative emotions. “You don’t have to read it back and it doesn’t have to make any sense, but by extracting your emotions onto the page, you should feel some sense of release.”
Good friendships don’t just work when things are going well. They can be deep and weather hard times as well as easier ones, but the important thing to remember is that setting emotional boundaries doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ or distant friend. Actually, by prioritising your own wellbeing so that you can show up stronger for other people, it makes you a better one.
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.
You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for confidential support.