Are You Just Venting or Are You Emotional Dumping? 


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Sometimes I’ll call my mom to talk things through when something is bothering me. After about 10 minutes of me explaining and her saying she’s sorry that I’m upset, I can feel my heart rate slowing.

Only when I hang up does it dawn on me that I haven’t given any thought as to how my mom is feeling. Often, I haven’t asked her a single question.

Many of us would consider this venting, but psychologists refer to it as emotional dumping.

What is Emotional Dumping?

“Emotional dumping is an act of unloading an emotional burden or problem onto another person without their consent or consideration of their feelings,” explains Daryl Appleton, a New York City-based therapist and head wellness consultant for Brown University’s general surgery department.

A dumper tends to monopolize the conversation and rarely seems to consider that their timing might be inappropriate or that the content might be upsetting or burdensome for the listener, says Appleton.

Other signs of emotional dumping include blaming others and refusing to take accountability for their role in the situation, Appleton says. Those who engage in this behavior aren’t interested in fixing the problem through talking it out. Instead, they tend to overshare and overwhelm the listener with opinions and complaints.

How Does Emotional Dumping Differ From Venting?

Venting and emotional dumping can each provide a release for the person complaining.

Venting can be a useful way to express your feelings. In a productive exchange, the person venting will typically ask for the other person’s consent prior to airing their grievances and is aware of how the conversation partner feels. They are open to feedback and may even seek advice, says Lienna Wilson, a New Jersey-based licensed psychologist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy. Meanwhile, the other party is actively listening and has opportunities to share advice without receiving pushback.

Conversely, a dumper will position themselves as the victim and seek out empathy and validation. “Venting can turn into emotional dumping when the speaker’s emotions take over and they no longer care how much time has passed or what the listener has to say in return,” Wilson says. Emotional dumping often happens without warning or regard for another person’s emotional state and tends to make the listener feel burdened.

The essential difference between venting and emotional dumping is that dumping tends to be one-sided and unsolicited. 

How to Recognize When You’re Emotional Dumping

Emotional dumping can start entirely innocently as an attempt to process your feelings. Perhaps you’re trying to gain perspective through voicing your concerns or feel seen and heard by others. But it can easily spiral.

When you understand situations in which emotional dumping might happen, you’re more likely to notice when it veers away from simply venting. Typically, it happens when people need to quickly release built-up emotions that they couldn’t during the triggering event, explains Wilson. Someone is more likely to unload onto others when they’re experiencing frustration, anger, and resentment.

“This becomes unhealthy,” says Appleton, “when we try to crowdsource compassion or don’t allow others to have a moment to share their struggles.

We can also cause harm by sharing experiences that are inappropriate for the listener. For example, we might complain about our current romantic interest to someone who just lost their spouse.

What Can You Do to Stop Emotional Dumping?

In order to stop emotional dumping, you first need to be aware that you’re doing it—and understand the effect it has on yourself and those around you.

You may have heard yoga teachers mention a concept known as “ahimsa.” This is an ethical principle in the tradition of yoga that refers to non-harming of self as well as others. Valerie Lucas, senior master trainer at YogaSix, explains that “dwelling on negative thoughts or engaging in self-deprecating talk is self-violence.”

Consider alternate ways of expressing your thoughts and feelings, including movement and journaling. Practicing yoga or other forms of movement when you’re emotional—and before speaking to others—can help you navigate your emotional discomfort while also increasing self-awareness.

Also consider journaling about your emotions. Jot down what was taking place when you became upset and how you handled the situation. Appleton suggests asking yourself: what is the main issue causing you stress? What feedback are you getting from others? What do you need to do next?

“These ‘what’ questions allow us to be more self-aware and engage in action steps to move forward,” says Wilson. We can learn to go inward through journaling and practicing our yoga instead of retreating from these feelings or going outward by dumping on others.

When you feel the need to vent, try starting the conversation by allowing the other person an opportunity to share first, Wilson says. “It’s a good idea to ask ahead of time if they have the emotional energy and time to listen to a long story about a negative event in your life,” she says. Another way of saying this is, “Could I talk through a situation that’s been bothering me?” or “I’m having a hard time right now. Can I talk to you about it?”

You can also let your friends or family know that they’re free to interrupt or remind you when they need to leave the conversation.

If you’re feeling insecure about the situation, you’re also more likely to feel the need to release these emotions through dumping. Try to catch yourself when you’re seeking others’ approval or validation.

“Ultimately, awareness empowers you to become less dependent on the opinions and validation of others,” says Lucas.

What to Do When Someone Emotional Dumps on You

It’s okay to let someone know when a conversation feels overwhelming or beyond your problem-solving capacity, says Appleton.

You can still empathize with someone and validate their feelings and then politely state what your limits are concerning your time, energy, or emotions. “It’s important to set boundaries to protect your mental health,” says Wilson.

One strategy is to mirror what the person has shared without adding your opinions. Appleton suggests saying, “I hear you,” or “That sounds really difficult,” and then redirecting the conversation by asking, “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

Now the person has to consider what decision they’ll make. This also subtly suggests to the person that you have boundaries around how much you’re willing to hear them complain. “This approach not only safeguards your own energy but assists your friend or loved one in breaking the cycle of rumination,” says Lucas.

Here’s what this can look like in practice:

 

Scenario: A coworker repeatedly complains to you about your boss moving deadlines.

Response: I hear you. These last-minute requests are frustrating. I’d like to stay and listen but unfortunately, I have a deadline as well.

 

Scenario: Someone you know only casually discloses personal details about their divorce and history of depression and keeps bringing this up to you.

Response: I appreciate you sharing the difficulties you’ve faced. It sounds like it could be beneficial to speak to someone about it. If you’re open to it, I can share the names of some terrific therapists I recommend.

 

Scenario: A friend who broke up with their partner wants to talk about their ex every time you see them.

Response: I understand that this breakup has affected you in multiple ways, although when we get together, it seems like we end up replaying the same hurt. I’d like to support you in moving forward.

 

Scenario: A family member who was laid off around the same time as you wants to commiserate over your job losses.

Response: This loss is hitting me harder than I expected. I need some time to process my emotions so I can support you in the way you’ve been there for me.

When Emotional Dumping Happens…

Even after you become aware of your tendency to engage in emotional dumping, it can still happen. We all have moments when we feel overwhelmed and default to unhealthy coping strategies.

Or maybe you repeatedly find yourself on the listening end of the situation and are working to change how you respond to it.

Either way, you can learn to change how you show up, whether that means sitting with your uncomfortable feelings rather than unleashing them on others or drawing a conversation to a close.

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