Though 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.
“Emotional dumping often happens without consent requested for a person to sit and listen to the barrage of negative emotions or complaints.” —Gina Moffa, LCSW, trauma-informed therapist
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 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.” 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.”
This shift of emotional weight often makes the entire 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.
How to protect your mental health while in the midst of being emotionally dumped upon
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 emotional dumping. “Writing is another activity that can move emotions through and out of the body,” she adds.
“It’s not your role to be someone else’s dumping grounds, and it’s natural to want to avoid these energy-draining and highly challenging experiences.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist
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 not 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 dumping
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.”
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 at the moment 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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