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Trauma dumping: Empathy gone wrong

Art by Anabella Caudillo

Amongst the depths of my severe mental instability, I’ve been carried to the physical abyss, or my teenage bedroom. There lies a mattress with broken springs, half-full water bottles from three months ago, a barely luminescent pink flower wall lamp from IKEA, dirty clothes on the floor, stuffed animals, and dried mascara stains on my bedding. I’ve spent several nights alone in this godforsaken room, with the occasional visit from my 53-year-old Asian mother astonished as to why I’ve begun to rot for the third time within 15 minutes (she doesn’t give me fruit, if that’s provoking your inner stereotype). Uncomfortable with spoken words, I often turn towards a screen for advice, a temporary sanctuary. Sometimes, I turn toward my forbidden Notes app. But other times, I make the impulsive decision to spend hours speaking my mind to a person I confide in to ease my pain. I always think I said too much. I did right now.

My forbidden note folder

Trauma dumping is the term used to describe “the oversharing of difficult emotions and thoughts to others.” as said by Dr. Kia-Rai Prewitt, psychologist. With the ways a person can open their heart, it will always follow us. Trauma dumping isn’t only received through the unexpected late-night sob stories that last for hours (guilty). It’s everywhere, bound to sensitive heartstrings that connect all of us. At times, we don’t want to hear the negative insight, as it can be uncomfortable or not time appropriate. Though, we will always be affected by the emotional response or well-being of others, subconscious or not. It’s evident through social media in our more recent times. It’s become a void prone to both indirect and direct trauma dumping. Perhaps you’ve seen the TikTok slideshow memes with over 35 different images regarding the same mental health disorder. Or followed a friend’s private Twitter account with long threads of an emotional spiral. Even the sad Instagram Bart Simpson edits made from prepubescent teenagers in 2018— which everyone ridiculed at one point, are some examples of what many have witnessed. Yet, it’s always a plea for help for the witnessing screen miles away.

Image via TikTok

The generation of developing a metaphorical lifeline affects both ends of the spectrum once it becomes a strain on our heartstrings. From anonymous sources, I’ve surveyed experiences of being in the “empathy gone wrong” situation from both sides. That being, what it was like to experience trauma dumping in its common form; online venting. And in summary, the receivers don’t know if they were of aid and the dumpers regret their decision of opening up. But why?

There’s a fine line between empathy and toxic empathy in trauma dumping. What was once a “safe space'' is now a place of insecurity as a cross of boundaries have occurred. Struck by the intense state of vulnerability beyond the blue screen, the receivers are unsure if or not the words they’ve said were of use, or if their reaction was appropriate to the situation. The desire to offer more is inevitable on the behalf of the receivers because at times, they‘re not in the right mindset themselves. Most of the time, trauma dumping is placed on a person who might have resonating experiences. It can be suffocating for the receiver to offer the words they need as well because they don’t feel strong enough to be a support system for themselves and for others in need. Guilt is swallowed with every concern, fear, and frustration of wanting to be the catered rock when times are hard, but they can’t.

On the other hand, the trauma dumper spreads their heart on a slab for those they’ve opened up to in a clouded headspace. With the involuntary act of emotional weight being placed, people who trauma dump tend to not acknowledge the space they’ve created for themselves and for other people. The sensitive topics, or ultimate dismissal of the problems at hand create a circling weight that affects the well-being of both ends. As a result, if the trauma dumper did not receive the expected reaction or care, they may see it as invalidated emotions. There, the immediate regret of opening up to the wrong person ends in the feeling or thought of selfishness and doubt in wanting to “vent.” However, there is a significant difference in communication and oversharing.

Trauma dumping prevents healthy communication, or providing an outlet being beneficial rather than an obligation. The act of oversharing doesn’t provide the same relief or comfort as common empathy; it’s overbearing in being able to provide for both ends as the flood of emotions are present. That being, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and needing temporary relief, but not strictly conforming to the struggles of the other person. It’s hard to take accountability for invalidating the boundaries of oneself and others, but nevertheless, you aren’t entirely alone in your struggles.

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