Like most controversies these days, the outcry over “trauma dumping” started with a viral TikTok. A therapist overlaid an image of herself with the words: “When a client wants to trauma dump the first session” paired with a caption that read “not happening on my watch ever again.”
The therapist, who’s since deleted the TikTok account where she posted the snippet in October, gained attention for all the wrong reasons. Mental health professionals were aghast at the seeming callousness of someone trained to hear traumatic experiences and support the person sharing them. Other commenters wondered who to confide in if not a therapist. Ilene Glance, the licensed mental health counselor who posted the TikTok, told Buzzfeed she was trying to be “cute,” and that the clip had been misunderstood.
In general, trauma dumping refers to oversharing, typically of distressing experiences, with people who haven’t agreed to or aren’t prepared to have that conversation. Though the term trauma dumping isn’t new, the incident revived a debate over how, when, and to whom people should reveal the hardest moments of their lives, like enduring sexual assault or parental abandonment or abuse, or surviving a mass shooting. Despite the backlash to Glance’s TikTok, discussion of trauma dumping often tends toward discouraging or shaming it, depending on the circumstances. Recent media coverage has called the phenomenon “toxic” and “some sort of Gen Z bullshit.”
There is, however, another way to see trauma dumping. Instead of viewing it as something one person inflicts on another, consider it a symptom of a much more complex problem related to social media, changing cultural expectations of what can be shared publicly, and limited access to professional or effective mental health treatment. That understanding provides clarity about why someone might disclose intimate details about their life at unexpected times, which can make it easier to respond when someone’s engaging in the behavior.
What is trauma dumping?
Some of Dr. Jessi Gold’s patients are eager to share harrowing disclosures with her in their first session. Sometimes they’re people who have few boundaries, for whom opening up about things others might consider their darkest secrets isn’t a big deal, often because of their upbringing or a mental health diagnosis. But Gold, who is a psychiatrist and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, says others who are quick to share these details include professionals accustomed and desensitized to anguish as part of working in a traumatic field like health care, emergency medicine, or firefighting. And then there are patients who’ve never had an opportunity to share their experiences. When they finally do, what they’ve held inside comes tumbling out.
Gold defines trauma dumping as sharing information that the person subjectively considers traumatic. This event or experience impacted their life in a significant way. To “dump” it means to share it immediately, without necessarily knowing whether the listener can absorb the anecdotes or feelings, and perhaps to say it all at once.
On Twitter, where she has nearly 37,000 followers, Gold often finds herself on the other end of such confessions via posts and direct messages. These can be harder to receive than information shared by her clients, in a setting where she’s a consenting listener. She tries to reply to everyone who reaches out, but some messages leave her shaken, like comments from strangers about self-harm. (Gold is also on Instagram, where she receives similar messages.)
“I actually don’t think it’s bad for people to see me as somebody they can talk to about stuff,” says Gold, who hopes that her accessibility makes psychiatrists seem approachable to the average person. “I definitely will reply with resources. I’m not going to leave somebody in a lurch, but it’s a hard thing sometimes, for sure, to be in that position. You don’t want someone to be left alone.”
Gold’s nuanced empathy for both the person who’s compelled to share sensitive information and the receiver is a helpful approach.
Why do people trauma dump?
Trauma dumping happens in a broader social, political, and cultural context that often gets buried in a debate over who’s being more insensitive — the person accused of “dumping” or the person who shames the behavior.
Those who are suddenly subjected to hearing graphic descriptions of traumatic events can feel like they’ve been traumatized by the disclosures. Indeed, they may avoid certain types of online content, fearing that it’ll trigger their own latent or undiscussed trauma. It can feel violating when the person sharing isn’t a friend or loved one but an acquaintance or stranger on the internet. And it can really sting when the receiver shares positive or good news and an unknown commenter whose life went a different direction chimes in with a disturbing disclosure as a counterweight, perhaps looking for validation.
At the same time, social media has muddied traditional boundaries about what personal information should be shared publicly. It incentivizes emotional content and rewards users with likes and followers when they strike the perfect balance of confessional and relatable. Social media also offers the promise of sympathy and solidarity. When a radically vulnerable post or comment is seen favorably, it can elicit a wave of supportive comments. This has been evident in the #MeToo campaign, which sparked a movement of trauma disclosure online. Four years after #MeToo took off on Twitter, it should be no surprise when people bare their souls on the internet in their search for compassion or community.
“It’s helpful to have a place to have open discussions and normalize conversations so that people feel less alone.”
As social media takes the friction and some of the risk out of disclosing trauma, messaging about mental health stigma encourages people to reject outdated conventions about staying silent when it comes to their feelings. This critical work invites people to seek help when they need it but doesn’t exactly lay out new standards for when and how to share trauma.
“It’s helpful to have a place to have open discussions and normalize conversations so that people feel less alone,” says Gold. “That part of social media is great…But the fact that you’re projecting information to actual strangers, a lot of the time, does make it hard.” That’s because bystanders may not know how to respond well or helpfully to disclosures of trauma.
Normalizing mental health struggles on social media and elsewhere also hasn’t broadened access to professional experts or community programs that can aid people trying to address and heal emotional or psychological wounds. The system, in other words, hasn’t kept pace with the messaging. People who are finally ready to disclose a traumatic experience might lack insurance coverage for therapy or have trouble finding a therapist. They may not have accessible or appropriate support in other settings, like school or work. It makes sense that they’d turn to the internet instead, but they may not perceive sharing as an act of “trauma dumping” and end up devastated when they’re ignored or become the object of scorn as the recipient and onlookers criticize their behavior.
Changing the trauma dumping narrative
People needn’t take sides in the trauma dumping debate. Rather than buying into an us versus them approach, anyone can look for opportunities to make different, empathetic choices.
For someone inclined to share unsolicited personal details online, Gold recommends pausing and assessing what they’re hoping to gain. Those aiming for attention or more followers on social media should reflect on that motivation. Gold says ideally someone in that position could talk to a friend or therapist about that urge and the reasoning behind it.
“Sharing might end up being really painful for you (psychologically) and all you got from it was a few followers and a viral tweet,” says Gold. “Is that worth it to you?”
If support is what they desire, Gold says to call or text a friend, reach out to a support group, contact a hotline or helpline, or consider whether it’s time to seek professional mental health care. Keeping a list of trusted contacts handy for challenging times is a good alternative to getting online to seek comfort or validation. Writing drafts of comments, messages, or posts that are never sent can also be helpful. Putting thoughts or feelings in writing is often cathartic, but that doesn’t mean those sentiments need to be public. Pausing before posting or sending is definitely in order when you’re exhausted, inebriated, or experiencing heightened emotions like extreme anger or sadness, says Gold.
When sharing trauma as a form of advocacy, like in the #MeToo campaign, Gold suggests using content warnings or including an explanation of why making it public is important, such as helping to normalize an experience for others. Still, she says to anticipate unexpected reactions from others. Even when someone is ready, it doesn’t mean what happens after disclosing is easy.
“You can’t control other people’s reaction,” says Gold. “You can only control your reaction to their reaction.”
If the anecdotes or comments aren’t received well, Gold suggests muting the responses, disconnecting from the internet, practicing self-compassion, and engaging in distracting but satisfying activities like watching a favorite TV show. She notes that it’s OK to reconsider the wisdom of sharing traumatic experiences online.
“You can’t control other people’s reaction,” says Gold. “You can only control your reaction to their reaction.”
As the recipient of perceived trauma dumping, Gold says it’s important to remember that poor responses can be as traumatizing or even worse as the original trauma for the person who’s making the disclosure when it leads to fresh self-doubt or shame. Still, it’s normal and acceptable to set and protect personal boundaries when such information is too difficult to hear.
Offering support can be as simple as offering a validating statement like: “I can imagine that experience must have been really challenging. Thank you for sharing.” Gold actually recommends against saying a version of “I’m sorry that happened to you,” because it can convey unintended judgment of the circumstances. It’s fine to mute an ongoing thread after making a supportive statement, if that’s a comfortable boundary, but there’s no need to declare that choice.
If the conversation escalates or parameters need to be drawn more clearly because the person becomes more persistent in their sharing, Gold suggests a different type of statement: “I appreciate you feeling safe enough to tell me, but this feels like not the best place to have this conversation. Maybe we can talk about it another time.” If this isn’t a discussion that can happen at all, Gold recommends replying by acknowledging that the receiver isn’t the best person for it: “I feel that’s about all I can handle. I wish I knew enough about this stuff to be helpful.”
Gold says that simpler statements are more productive, and hopefully less hurtful.
“I think trauma, particularly, is quite isolating,” she says. “Sometimes [trauma dumping] is a way of trying to get people, unconsciously, to circle around and support you, and be there for you when that’s what you really need and want, but you don’t know how to ask for that without having them realize you need it.” If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email . You can also call the at 1-800-273-8255. Here is .
This content was originally published here.