Though typically not as damaging as trauma dumping, which involves sharing personally traumatizing information with someone without concern for how it’ll affect them, emotional dumping has a similar unfiltered energy about it. “It typically happens quickly at the beginning of a phone call or visit, and often without consent requested for a person to sit and listen to the barrage of negative emotions or complaints,” says trauma-informed therapist Gina Moffa, LCSW. While the content of the emotional baggage at hand can vary, it’s often serious stuff, like the anger of dealing with infidelity or the sadness of losing a loved one.
Unless you’re a mental health professional, or at the very least, a very mentally resilient person (in which case, please tell me your secrets), chances are, a friend’s dumping will hit you like a ton of bricks. “People are often not equipped or prepared to support friends in this way,” says therapist Sara Stanizai, LMFT, founder of queer- and trans-affirming therapy practice Prospect Therapy. As a result, this behavior can do more harm than good—whereas, consensual venting, on the other hand, is often a supportive part of a healthy friendship.
What is the difference between venting and emotional dumping?
The distinction between venting and emotional dumping is mostly in the intention underlying the behavior, according to Moffa. “With venting, the person is just aiming to get something off their chest, with no expectation that the listener fixes or solves anything,” she says. “But with dumping, there’s typically an implicit [or explicit] ask for help or support, often to the point where the dumper is relinquishing all personal accountability for their role in the experience, and playing the victim.”
That’s not to say that any friend seeking out your advice or input on an emotional issue is dumping on you. In fact, talking through tough feelings with friends is a good thing—that is, when both people are okay with doing so, says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. “Mindful emotional processing with a friend or loved one can have significant upsides, like increasing self-awareness and interpersonal connection.”
But that’s a fundamentally different thing from a friend unloading on you without warning and with the implication that you carry or resolve their burden for them. “Emotional dumping is akin to someone throwing their emotional garbage onto another person,” says Dr. Manly. “The garbage still exists; it’s just been inappropriately redistributed.”
"Emotional dumping is akin to someone throwing their emotional garbage onto another person. The garbage still exists; it's just been inappropriately redistributed."—Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
This shift of emotional weight often makes the exchange one-sided, as opposed to the two-sided energy of healthy venting, “where friends take turns letting off steam, sharing grievances, and bonding in a safe space,” says Dr. Manly. While both people tend to feel relieved after venting together, the end result of emotional dumping is just the opposite. “After dumping or getting dumped on, we often feel exhausted, but not much better about the situation in question,” says Stanizai.
Sometimes, particularly heavy venting might be tough to differentiate from emotional dumping, especially if the topic at hand gets everyone heated. But what's important to remember is that emotional dumping doesn't have an upside for anyone involved, while heavy venting can offer a necessary release (at least for the venter), says Dr. Manly. "Heavy venting, although often charged, is most often a cathartic, well-timed release of pent-up mental steam," she says.
Typically, a heavy venter will ask the listener whether they have the bandwidth to absorb what they're about say and will remain attuned to signs that they're becoming exhausted or burdened by the interchange, adds Dr. Manly. Whereas, someone who is dumping won't check to make sure that their would-be listener is in a good headspace before launching into it.
Why do people engage in emotional or trauma dumping in the first place?
It's worth noting that it's a natural inclination to want to offload emotions and even trauma onto loved ones; after all, dealing with heavy stuff isn't a one-person job, and that's why we lean on friends and mental health practitioners like therapists to make sense of it all. Particularly for folks dealing with anxious or spiraling thoughts, opening up to a close friend or partner can help you find a healthy release and gain some outside perspective on the issue at hand.
Those who engage in emotional or trauma dumping (as opposed to venting), though, tend to lack the emotional maturity necessary to recognize how their unloading behavior may be off-putting and upsetting to their recipients. And that may be because of having experienced one or more traumatic events in the past that they haven't effectively processed or resolved.
“In general, those with unaddressed inner trauma tend to be less emotionally intelligent and, therefore, lack the resources to cope in healthy ways,” says Dr. Manly. Cue: trauma or emotional dumping without consideration for the heavy impact of doing so.
Is emotional or trauma dumping manipulative?
Typically, the answer is "no." As noted above, trauma dumping often occurs as the result of a person carrying unaddressed trauma and not having the emotional maturity to know when and how to share this information or seek resolution. That's to say, trauma dumping is often emerging from “deep inner pain and a lack of awareness” rather than an intentional effort to subject someone else to trauma or manipulate them, says Dr. Manly.
The trauma dumper may just feel like they have to release their pain in some way—and turn to dumping on a friend or loved one to do so. From the perspective of the recipient, this can certainly feel like manipulation (especially if they're regularly subjected to all sorts of traumatic information from the dumper), but that may not be the dumper's intent.
However, in certain instances, trauma dumping can be manipulative if it's being deployed by someone to influence someone else's behavior or perception of them, adds Dr. Manly. For example, if you are trying to break up with a partner and they suddenly unload all their trauma as a means to elicit your sympathy so that you choose to stay with them instead, that would qualify as manipulation.
How do I know if *I'm* the one doing the emotional dumping?
Like venting, dumping can certainly go both ways: If you feel like your friends are often dumping on you, perhaps you're also returning the favor (er, well, insult). Below, Dr. Manly shares five ways to tell if you may be emotionally dumping on your loved ones.
1. You don't ask if someone is willing to listen before speaking on emotional topics
A defining element of emotional dumping is that it happens unsuspectingly and catches the recipient off guard (at which point, they feel trapped beneath the emotional garbage, if you will, and unable to easily disengage). If you unleash your feelings about a particular gripe, event, or person on someone without asking them if they're in a good mindset to listen, you might be emotional dumping on them.
2. You don't accept a listener's feedback
A healthy conversation—even one that involves venting—is a volley back and forth that involves acknowledgement and exchange of ideas. But if you're emotionally dumping, Dr. Manly says you probably won't be keen to take in any feedback or response from the person with whom you're talking.
3. You struggle to control your emotions in venting conversations
If you feel like you can't control what's coming out of your mouth during conversations about emotional topics or grievances, you may be inadvertently dumping, says Dr. Manly. Typically, interchanges that involve dumping have a frantic and frenzied nature about them—almost like a train that's gone off the rails and can't be stopped by anyone involved.
4. You aren't aware of how a listener may be affected by your words
Look back to the last conversation during which you were sharing your thoughts and feelings. Did you notice how your listener might have been responding to your overture? If you tend to get caught in such an emotional fog that you lose sight of how the person on the other end may be affected by your words, you might be emotionally dumping, says Dr. Manly.
5. You don't feel better after sharing
Emotional dumping doesn't feel good or cathartic because it's so haphazard. If you emerge from emotional conversations with loved ones still feeling upset or with a "sense of having vomited emotional energy and details," that's a clear sign of emotional dumping, says Dr. Manly. "The person doing the dumping often feels little real relief and tends to repeat the cycle of dysregulated dumping to no benefit," she adds.
Why is emotional dumping a toxic behavior?
Emotional dumping is toxic for any relationship in which it occurs because it leaves both the listener and the speaker worse off, says Dr. Manly.
The emotional dumper is unloading in a careless, unproductive way—which won't help them sort through the issue they’re describing and, by contrast, could leave them more worked up or upset about it. “When we listen to emotional dumping, we’re unconsciously allowing [the dumper] to perpetuate negative emotional and behavioral cycles,” says Dr. Manly. Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end is then stuck carrying the burden of all these emotions and feelings without warning.
What to do to protect your mental health when someone is emotionally dumping
Because emotional dumping often happens suddenly and all at once, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by it in the moment. If you notice that happening—perhaps you’re feeling knots in your stomach, tightness in your chest, or a strong urge to yawn or even scream—you can feel empowered to interrupt the person and excuse yourself, says Moffa.
Dr. Manly suggests stopping the dumping mid-stream with a comment like, “I hear that you are upset, but I don’t have the mental or emotional space for this talk right now. I am happy to sit here with you while you silently reflect on your thoughts or feelings.” If that doesn’t feel feasible or comfortable to say in the moment, she suggests tuning into your breath or practicing a calming breathwork technique. “Breathing is one of the best strategies for managing your mental state while being dumped on by someone else,” she says.
After you’ve escaped the overwhelming situation, devote some time to restorative self care. Moffa suggests moving your body by taking a walk, exercising, or simply shaking or dancing it out. “Emotion is always better in motion,” she says. It may also be helpful to journal about the feelings that bubble up in response to the emotional dumping. “Writing is another activity that can move emotions through and out of the body,” Moffa adds.
As you process feelings of irritation or upset in the wake of being dumped on, try not to judge yourself for not being able to take it all in stride or solve the situation. Remember, “it’s never your role to be someone else’s dumping grounds,” says Dr. Manly, “and it’s natural to want to avoid these energy-draining and highly challenging experiences.”
How to set boundaries with a friend in order to stop a pattern of emotional dumping
Even if you consider yourself to be quite an empathetic person or very sensitive to the feelings and suffering of others, emotional dumping can be a lot to handle. Most of the time, dumpers aren’t trying to cause emotional strife, nor may they even realize that that’s happening. As a result, it’s important to be upfront with how a person's dumping is affecting you, and to create clear boundaries around emotional conversations so that they know when they might be overstepping.
To gently share how you feel, choose a time that’s not emotionally heightened (so, not in the middle of a dumping session or right afterward) to strike up a conversation, says Stanizai. “You can directly address the fact that you care about them and want to support them, but that the way they’re dumping their emotions onto you is having a negative effect,” she says. “You can also outline the things that you can be there for—say, a particular period of time or discussions on certain topics—so that they don’t feel like you are rejecting them outright.”
"You can directly address the fact that you care about them and want to support them, but that the way they’re dumping their emotions onto you is having a negative effect."—Sara Stanizai, LMFT, therapist
In the same realm, it’s helpful to validate your friend’s emotions before setting a personal boundary, says Moffa. You might say something like, “I understand how much this hurts,” or “I know this is so hard and how much you’ve struggled,” before letting them know that you won't be able to help them any further on this issue because of the stress you feel being in that position.
In that case, you might also recommend they find a mental health professional whom they can always count on to help. “You could say, ‘I care for you deeply, but I think that this conversation belongs in the hands of a trained therapist. Would you like me to help you find one?’” suggests Dr. Manly.
Should all else fail, you can also simply set a time limit for deep emotional conversations, says Moffa—something like, “I’m happy to listen, but I only have ten minutes, and then I’ll need to go,” she says. “Making sure you stick to this time limit will help set a precedent that you are not available to them for unlimited or boundless support.”
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