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Have You Ever Overshared On The Internet? You Might Be Trauma Dumping

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Trigger warning: mention of traumatic instances like death.

My favourite arc from Bojack Horseman is the one leading up to his mother’s funeral. A series of emotionally exploratory episodes preceded the climax. It showed Bojack’s strained relationship with his mother and how he navigated through the trauma of it, mentally.

In the funeral episode, he erupts during his eulogy—his eyes welling up with emotions as the attendees witnessed all of it. No one had signed up for that. But, what could have they done as Bojack broke down in front of them?

A still from the show Bojack Horseman, where the protagonist is delivering a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. Photo credit: Buzzfeed.

Every emotion he had repressed up to that moment spilt out of him as he finally put them into words. For him, it was a healthy and much-needed process of venting, but at what point did the sharing turn into trauma dumping? 

What Is Trauma Dumping? 

It refers to the non-consensual dumping of one’s emotional load onto an unsuspecting individual(s), without taking their headspace, emotional bandwidth, and boundaries into consideration.

Some psychologists have even gone on to describe it as “toxic oversharing”. It’s an instinctive tendency we all have… To feel so broken or sad in particular moments that we need someone to share our feelings with. We want to feel heard and maybe, a tad bit better. 

It’s basically what most of us unknowingly subject our best friends/lovers/family members to, because… well, they signed up for the whole package, right? 

How Does It Play Out?

To understand trauma dumping a little better, let’s look at the following situations:

Situation #1 – Arjun* has been experiencing depressive episodes. It could have been triggered by the fact that both he and his grandmother contracted Covid-19. Unfortunately, he lost his grandmother to it. He has been feeling extremely helpless since she passed away.

He often calls his best friend Ayush*, at late hours, to vent about how angry he was feeling about the whole situation. Ayush lost his mother to Covid-19 too but doesn’t prefer talking about it.

He also feels very uncomfortable when Arjun talks about Covid-19 and death. This is because it often leads him to spiral about his own situation, even though he has been trying his best to make himself feel better. 

Situation #2 – Swapnil’s* parents are going through the process of separation. It has been weighing on him a lot. There is certain childhood trauma that he carries from his father being violent towards him and his mom.

He has been wanting to see a therapist for some time. But, bringing that conversation up at home is difficult. Therefore, he turns to his friends. They are usually open to helping him deal with it. But, sometimes, it becomes extremely taxing for them to deal with what he is feeling. 

Moreover, they feel like they don’t have the space to talk about their own problems as Swapnil’s problems end up becoming the focus of almost every conversation they have with him.

It’s easy to forget the toll our words can take on another person. Representational Image. Photo credit: storypick.com

Situation #3 – Tara is an Instagram influencer. Apart from making content on various subjects, she also advocates for mental health awareness. She puts up stories about prevalent matters and issues in the field of mental health.

Sometimes, she will include stories about her own past mental health issues. But, she forgets to put trigger warnings. Many of her followers, therefore, unsuspectedly are subjected to content that might trigger their own past traumas and current issues.

No Warning, No Recourse

Most often, trauma dumping happens unknowingly… Think Bojack’s speech or Arjun’s constant venting. Both of them didn’t realise what they were putting their listeners through. 

Tanvi Sambrani, a therapist who works with a mental health organisation called Guftagu, shed some light on this. “The practice of going to a friend to share something traumatic comes partly, from seeking relief, and partly, from feeling safer in the company of someone you know.”

What can this lead to? “The listener can feel extremely burdened, without having the resources to cope with it.”

Are you getting the silent treatment from your partner? - Times of India
Those exposed to our trauma can feel burdened with the information. Representational image. Photo credit: smactex.com

When asked why people are unable to draw a boundary or stop someone else from trauma dumping, Sambrani said:

“Majorly, because they might not be able to tell the expresser that they don’t have the emotional capacity to hear them out, given that the expresser is sharing really personal and traumatic details i.e., details that generally end up making one feel protective of someone.” 

What About The Internet?

People often cross the line between sharing their trauma and dumping it, on social media. The common practice of ranting on stories, posts, reels etc. can often catch one off-guard.

Sometimes, people DM (direct message) another person who they see advocating for a particular issue, to unload what they have been through.

Sambrani said, “This practice is largely followed by youngsters because the Internet is believed to be a safe space. One might think it’s a judgment-free space, but, that’s not the case. People often get trolled for opening up about sensitive issues.”

While it is normal to talk about minor and superficial troubles, casually dropping in traumatic accounts is problematic. Ironically, the process of expressing yourself in your so-called safe space can make another person feel less safe or burdened.

Even though the practice of putting up content or trigger warnings has become more common, not everyone does it. In reality, the Internet is not as safe a space as one would like to believe. 

We need to de-stigmatize the practice of seeking therapy so that people have healthier outlets to express their trauma. Right now, it is assumed to be the last resort.

Encouraging someone to seek therapy by redirecting them to a professional can not only help them but also the listener from dealing with something they are not equipped to handle. 

Small Town India Has Something To Say

What about the chote chote sheher jahan yeh badi badi baatein nahi hoti (small towns where these crucial conversations don’t happen)?

There are places where mental health is still an unapproachable subject. Who do people from such towns turn to, to express, when they are at their worst? 

I asked Kuhu*, an 18-year-old and a resident of Bihar’s Bhagalpur, about her thoughts on mental health concerns.

She said, “I first heard of these terms on social media. Depression was something that when I searched more about, I felt like I had experienced it. But, of course, there was no way I could know for sure… Maybe, seek a professional diagnosis.”

Why is that? “Mostly because I can’t talk to my parents about it. Everyone is closed off about such subjects. Mental health is not something that generally comes up. If and when it does, it only comes up with derogatory labels.” 

Bridget Yu | Stop mindlessly using the word “crazy” | The Daily Pennsylvanian
Conversations around mental health are often accompanied by derogatory labels, in spaces where such topics are taboo. Representational Image. Photo credit: thedp.com

I can rely on the Internet to tell me more about such subjects… But, to what extent can I trust the information I find there, I don’t know,” she admitted.

When I asked her if she would see a therapist, given the chance, she said, “Of course, I want to be able to talk to someone about all the pressures I am suddenly facing, be it to do with education or adulthood. They are getting to me and I don’t really have friends who understand me completely.” 

Such conversations beg me to ask the question: who do people like Kuhu turn to? Those who don’t have a Diane as Bojack Horseman did, or an Ayush like Arjun did, or a professional to count on…  

A Larger Conversation Needs To Be Had 

Trauma dumping is not just about people being more informed about their listener’s capacity to support them, it also spurs a larger conversation: one about the need for a new structure of mental health—with less stigma and more availability.

This is also about saving people (who are going through a tough time) from unknowingly being perceived as either “toxic”, “abusive” or even “manipulative”.

According to Sambrani, even though it might not be the expresser’s intention, they might come off as such in the process of turning to someone who does not have the capacity and hasn’t consented to deal with their issues. 

Mental health: What India must do to solve its mental health crisis?, Health News, ET HealthWorld
The urgency of providing mental health aid is rising, and the demand needs to be met. Representational image. Photo credit: Times of India.

It is important that individuals like Bojack, Arjun, Swapnil, Tara and Kuhu get an outlet to express their problems.

To stop the cycle of trauma dumping, we require both micro and macro-level changes. At the grassroots level, it will require larger cooperative action within families. The onus should not fall on the child to seek help from their parents, but on the parents to be aware enough, to offer it as an option. 

At a much bigger level, it will require state action. Broader missions need to be targeted at mental health de-stigmatization and accessibility. Missions are also required to kick-start these conversations in areas of the country where such topics are not talked about.

Centre launches 24/7 toll-free mental health helpline - The Hindu
While the government has launched various mental health helplines like Kiran, there is still a long way to go. Representational image. Photo credit: The Hindu.

Of course, there are no perfect models to de-stigmatize mental health. It will take as much social change as it will legislative empowerment.

However, the more such conversations are encouraged, the better it will be for the growing population of this country. It starts with small steps. One day, hopefully, the steps will transform into strides.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

Featured image is for representational purposes only. Photo credit: @kalakkii, Instagram.

Note: The author is part of the Sept-Oct ’21 batch of the Writer’s Training Program

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