You Don’t Have to Worry About Trauma Dumping in Therapy


When Meredith Vitale, LMSW, first saw the recent viral video of a counselor complaining about a client “trauma dumping” on them (you can watch the full video here), she says she was disgusted, but not surprised. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who treat their clients like this, and that’s why a lot of people are hesitant to seek out therapy,” says Vitale, who works with people who have suffered from severe trauma.

Despite a surge of people starting or returning to therapy during the pandemic, 47 percent of Americans surveyed still say they see going to  therapy as a sign of weakness—which is why a video of a therapist shaming someone publicly after a session is partucularly problematic as it feeds that fear.  But if you’re unfamiliar with the expression “trauma dumping” or just want to understand it better, Vitale unpacks the issue below.

Starting with: What is trauma dumping?

To put it simply, trauma dumping is unloading about a traumatic experience on an unsuspecting listener like a friend or family member, which is not to be mistaken with it’s more common cousin, emotional dumping (aka venting) about something that’s bothering you like a difficult co-worker or bad date.

When you bring up your trauma with a friend, relative, or acquaintance who isn’t prepared to deal with it, Vitale explains that “they may not know what to do with it, they may react in a way that may exacerbate somebody’s anger or pain or trauma.” But you know who is trained to handle you talking opening about trauma?  Mental health professionals, which is exactly why you should not be worried that you’re oversharing or unloading on them during a session as the video insinuates. “By definition, mental health professionals are supposed to be able to handle trauma,” Vitale says.

What does trauma dumping look like? 

In a therapy session, Vitale says trauma dumping can look like “focusing an entirety of a session on a very traumatic event, usually combined with intense emotion in the session, either crying or bursts of anger.” But keep in mind, the context of a therapy session is, by nature, the appropriate environment to discuss your trauma: “If you’re talking to a therapist or a mental health professional, then you shouldn’t have to ask permission [to unload] because that’s part of the job,” Vitale says.

Finding a therapist to work through your trauma

All that said, it is important to keep in mind that different therapists specialize in different areas when it comes to treating clients—like interpersonal relationships, family, or childhood trauma, for example—so finding a therapist that focuses on your particular area of concern can lead to better outcomes.

Keep in mind that it can take time to feel comfortable talking to a new therapist, especially about traumatic experiences. But trust your gut, and Vitale also offers some red flags to look out for in a new therapy session to ensure you’re dealing with a well-trained professional. Ask yourself:

  1. Is the therapist constantly interrupting me, or trying to finish my sentences? “The client should be doing most of the talking, not the therapist,” she says.
  2. Is the therapist quickly trying to put their agenda on me? “Make sure the therapist is not saying that they pretty much understand your whole life [immediately],” she adds.
  3. Is the therapist saying or doing anything that makes you feel uncomfortable? “If you notice that something is wrong, then recognize that,” she says.

But even if a therapist isn’t trained in trauma work, or isn’t sure how to handle it, they still shouldn’t completely shut you down, says Vitale. “They should use active listening and be empathetic,” she says.

What’s more, a therapist who isn’t trained to handle the things their clients are talking to them about should always make a referral “to make sure that you’re with a person who has the skills to help you through this,” Vitale adds.

So, ultimately, the best thing you can do is speak up and share what you feel comfortable talking about when you do, as it’s the quickest way to figure out if your therapist is a good fit.

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