Venting Vs. Trauma Dumping: What's The Difference?

Interacting with your friends compassionately and holding them as you would hold yourself in times of struggle is not always simple, and sometimes confusing boundaries can leave our relationships in turmoil. Our friends are often our confidants and cheerleaders, but sometimes they may inadvertently step into the role of therapist or life coach. Of course, our besties might love being there to counsel and console us. Still, it's worth defining the parameters of healthy venting and overstepping into trauma dumping.

There is still uncertainty around what it means to truly process our trauma, and finding a well-suited therapist in our price range may be more difficult than we'd hope. But how can we define and separate these potentially similar dynamics in our friendships or familial and romantic relationships? And how can we avoid trauma dumping without holding onto our most painful thoughts and feelings?

Venting can be useful

You've entered into a conversation with a friend, but something pressing is on your mind. Per Psychology Today, venting is typically defined by boundaries — it focuses on one primary issue and does not take long to break down than either party consents to give to the issue. 

In fact, consent is a primary tenant of confiding your troubles in a friend, according to Insider's expert psychologist David Tzall. Obtaining consent implies a clear understanding of our own emotional state and its potential effect on those around us. It also communicates respect for our listeners' boundaries as well as their state of mind.

While venting, you might allow the listener to have time to respond, ask questions, and potentially suggest solutions, and Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt, Ph.D., told Cleveland Clinic that venting includes validation and mutual sharing. The key is to lean on the relationship for support in a stressful situation rather than transferring your stress and anxiety to your confidant. Trauma dumping, on the other hand, might negatively affect your relationships in the long run and damage both the speaker and the listener.

Trauma dumping may result in more pain

The term trauma dumping may be thrown around the internet without being clearly defined, but as clinical psychologist Carla Manly told USA Today, it ultimately boils down to information that is "shared without permission, in an inappropriate place and time, and to someone who may not have had the capacity to take in this information." She also clarified that when we spontaneously confide in others, superficial issues are typically better to get into than deep wounds since trauma dumping typically includes the speaker reliving painful moments in their life. Casually complaining about work or friendships isn't qualified as trauma dumping since it likely won't have a destabilizing emotional effect on the speaker as well as the listener, and the latter is welcome to share their own opinions and struggles.

Repetition is another major factor in trauma dumping, per Psychology Today, since the phenomenon entails a circuitous route of rumination that doesn't actually move the issue forward. Reiterating the same issues without prioritizing progress or personal growth can become toxic for all involved, and include victimization and eschewing of personal responsibility. Avoiding re-traumatization, or reliving our worst experiences, means that we need to ensure we are in a safe and productive space when we open up about past pain.

This is how you can tell them apart

Trauma dumping not only does a disservice to those on the receiving end, but it ultimately creates negative patterning for the dumper that stands in the way of long-term healing. Per Psych Central, it is those with complex trauma or PTSD who may naturally turn to trauma dumping to process their pasts with those they trust.

You may be able to step in when you see trauma dumping in action, and Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt offered Cleveland Clinic a potential solution if you find yourself accidentally trauma dumping on others. "If you have noticed that friends or family members may have withdrawn from you because of trauma dumping, this can be an opportunity to take responsibility for your actions by improving your mental health, apologizing to those who have been impacted and working toward setting healthy boundaries in your relationships." 

Per USA Today's referenced psychologist and author Judith Orloff, trauma dumping is a coping mechanism, but that means it can be replaced with another, like speaking with a therapist, undergoing EMDR therapy, or journaling about more difficult feelings and experiences. Stigmatizing sharing our pain is also not the answer; as Bessel A. van der Kolk wrote in her book "The Body Keeps Score," "Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals," (via i-D). Ultimately, either through venting with consent or reflecting in healthy ways, it's important to process our emotions in a safe and appropriate space.