I can picture it now. You and your best friend sit in a secluded corner of the dining hall, catching up between bites of Veritaffles, Red’s Best Catch, or some other HUDS classic. Maybe it’s midterm season, and the pile of papers or excess of exams has been gnawing away at your happiness. You start to rant about how hard life has been recently. Before you know it, the floodgates are open. That toxic thing your parents did or the unluckiest day of your life so far is unearthed. Seeing your friend’s shell-shocked stare and palpable discomfort, you realize that you just trauma-dumped.
Not to be confused with ranting or venting, trauma dumping is much more serious. It often involves oversharing intense information without consent, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, with a person who is not prepared to absorb the information — which could explain your hypothetical friend’s uneasy reaction. This definition makes it seem like trauma dumping only strains your relationships with others, but it can also nourish them. Being vulnerable and spilling your guts can bring people closer, making trauma dumping an essential part of friendship-making for some people. Trauma dumping doesn’t have to be awkward or upsetting, like the common definition suggests. With just a few simple steps, you can pull off a better version of a trauma dump: one that maximizes positive vulnerability and sharing, without triggering any embarrassment, shock, or discomfort.
The first step for better trauma dumping is to determine why you want to overshare. There’s surely some deep psychological reason for why you’re looking to unload your life story in general, but what are the social cues of a given moment that make you feel inclined to let the emotional avalanche out? Did your friend just now share a story about their childhood? Did they just finish trauma dumping themself?
The answers to these questions may show that you’re engaging in unhealthy trauma politics. Trauma politics at Harvard, where many students arrive having already sold their life before Harvard as a tragic essay for the admissions office, are complicated. For students that come from less privileged backgrounds, hardship can feel like their only distinguishing factor against wealthier, more well-connected peers. If hearing about your friend’s childhood evokes a strange sense of covert competition before the urge to trauma dump, you might be using your trauma to prove your worth. Although these manifestations of impostor syndrome are powerful, do your best to ignore them. You have value outside of your trauma; you don’t need to relive pain to justify your existence here.
The only right reason to trauma dump is for your own benefit. Perhaps you hope to find catharsis or believe your friend can help you cope. As long as the motivation for trauma dumping centers on you, and you alone, proceed to step two.
Now that you have looked inward and believe that trauma dumping will help you, look outward and consider how trauma dumping will impact your friend. The classic definition of trauma dumping has you oversharing without consent, but a better trauma dump necessitates getting permission before beginning to dump. Today, trauma is a nebulous concept: For some people, it constitutes minor inconvenience, but for others, it carries a much heavier significance. Give your friend a sense of the gravity of your incoming trauma, and ask if they are prepared to listen.
It is possible that your friend is not ready. Listening to another person’s intense emotional experiences can be draining, especially when one is already low on emotional bandwidth. Perhaps the subject you want to talk about is one of your friend’s triggers. If your friend declines to listen, for whatever reason, be understanding and do not push the issue. At this moment rife with strong emotions for yourself, it’s important to have empathy for others’ emotions as well.
Now, imagine that your friend agrees to hear you through. You divulge the details of something in your life. The trauma dump ends. But even though you finished speaking, guilt grips you. You are seized by the impulse to apologize for oversharing.
Stop. You trauma dumped for the right reasons. Your friend declared their willingness to participate. The final step of a proper trauma dump is to not apologize.
Vulnerability is scary: Opening up your insecurities to the greater scrutiny of more eyes feels shameful and thus impossibly difficult. These feelings can protect you from harm in uncertain social situations, but they can also isolate you. If you trust your friend enough to have made it this far in the guide to trauma dumping, do not give in to the temptation to take it all back. You can be open, honest, and authentic around the people you trust without owing them an apology. If you absolutely feel that you have to say something, try gratitude: Instead of apologizing for yourself, thank your friend for their kindness and patience in listening.
With that, a successful trauma dump ends, avoiding any awkwardness, uneasiness, or thoughtlessness. You have gained the benefits of trauma dumping without the harms associated with the typical process. If you want bonus points (and you’re a Harvard student, so I’m sure you do), a final, final step is to be kind to yourself. You are on the cusp of childhood and adulthood, navigating classes and relationships, and still figuring out how to synthesize your experiences to become a capable, functioning member of society. If trauma dumping responsibly while eating Veritaffles makes that any easier, go right ahead.
Libby E. Tseng ’24, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is an Integrative Biology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.