Friendships have always played an important role in our lives. It is our friends that provide us much-needed support in times of trouble, whether it be to share a meal to celebrate our successes, to have a heart to heart when we need to share, or to help us with acts of service when we need it. It is also with friends that we share laughs and have fun as we talk about mutual interests and undertake common activities ranging from playing board games to the sport.
Indeed, many have credited their friendship groups for the support they needed to stay sane as the world went into various levels of lockdown over the global COVID- 19 pandemic.
However, there can be a fine line between being there for a friend and being leaned on like a perpetual crutch – when does a friendship cross the line from support to drain?
In a recent article, clinical hypnotherapist and certified life coach Marie Fraser told Stylist that while we all needed to vent and share our anxieties and worries, there can be situations when someone unexpectedly off-loads their traumatic thoughts, feelings, energy, and experiences onto someone else.
Instead of simply offering a listening ear like a good friend, you find yourself gradually sucked into that person’s burden with no opportunity for relief. Suddenly, that person’s problems become yours and you become bogged down by something that is not yours, to begin with. When this happens, you have become the victim of “trauma dumping” and boundaries will need to be drawn in order for the friendship to remain healthy.
Of course, this is easier said than done. After all, many of us will have been in situations where friendly meetups have felt co-opted by someone else talking only about their problems, without leaving space for anyone else to express their feelings. But, because we want to be a “good friend”, we sit through it and end up feeling utterly depleted energetically, emotionally and even physically.
“Trauma dumping without warning or permission can have a toxic and adverse effect on relationships,” explains Fraser. “Sharing deeply personal information can be very uncomfortable for the listener and leave them unsure how to respond. It can also trigger their own trauma, without allowing them space to navigate it.”
Oftentimes, the trauma dumper may be unaware that they are dumping. So caught up in the throes of their problems, they may not have the bandwidth to notice their own behaviour. This may drain you to the extent that you begin to resent the friendship or want to avoid the person. This is when you may wish to reevaluate your friendship with the person. Is this a relationship that you wish to maintain or have to maintain for whatever reason? If so, it might be time to draw some healthy boundaries.
Why are boundaries important?
Everyone has their own issues, triggers and problems to navigate and learn. If they are not given the opportunity to face these themselves, they will never overcome their challenges. Is this really good for them?
Secondly, while you may wish to be a good friend, you cannot pour for an empty cup. So, if you are giving more than you have time to replenish and look after yourself, you are not doing yourself or your friend any good.
Thirdly, there is also the issue of resentment. A wise person once told me that anything reluctantly given will always lead to resentment and if that is not resolved, will eventually lead to a breakdown of that relationship. So while you may think that you are “helping” in that instance, it could lead to a build-up of anger and resentment that will eventually boil over.
Further, if you are so focused on the problems of others, do you have time to deal with your own struggles and issues? And if not, are you in danger of similarly “trauma dumping” on someone else?
In addition, healthy boundaries make relationships and interactions much more straightforward and easy to navigate. You know where each other stands and there is less room for misunderstandings.
Last but not least, it is imperative to recognise that if you are not boundaried, you may not be aware of the limits of your own expertise and end up causing more harm than good. For example, it might benefit your friend a whole lot more to speak to a professional therapist who has the requisite training and mental bandwidth to help that person. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to encourage the person to seek help from other sources.
How to set healthy boundaries?
Firstly, it is important to recognise that everyone has different boundaries and that is totally OK. It does not make you a bad person or a bad friend. To set healthy boundaries, you have to be very honest with yourself. You have to invest time in truly understanding yourself.
Fraser recognises that setting boundaries with existing friends, especially when they are going through a hard time, can be difficult. No one wants to leave their loved ones in the lurch when their support is needed most. However, she suggests that it’s crucial, to be honest with yourself about your own ability and needs when supporting others.
“It may be helpful to set a time limit, for example: ‘You’ve caught me at a crazy time, I’m around for 10 minutes, does that work for you?’” Alternatively, if you are feeling overwhelmed, communicating this to your friend in a gentle way can help protect your own wellbeing, as well as giving the other person a reasonable expectation of your capacity. Fraser suggests phrases like: “You know I care for you, but I’m feeling overwhelmed and am not sure how I can help you” and “I know this is hard for you and I wish I could offer you support, but I feel I don’t have the bandwidth to support you through this”.
Like anything else, setting boundaries requires practice. The more you do it, the better you become at it.
How to prevent yourself from trauma dumping?
As you set boundaries with others, you will also learn about the boundaries of others. Just as you have no wish for your boundaries to be encroached, you will not want to encroach on someone else’s boundaries.
One good way of offloading your feelings without affecting someone else is journalling. Fraser suggests that just getting everything out of your head and onto paper is a safe way of expressing any negative emotions. “You don’t have to read it back and it doesn’t have to make any sense, but by extracting your emotions onto the page, you should feel some sense of release.”
Good friendships don’t just work when things are going well. They can be deep and weather hard times as well as easier ones, but the important thing to remember is that by prioritising your own wellbeing, you can show up stronger for other people. It also makes you much more self-aware.
Put it this way – if everyone owned their own shit, so to speak, there would be much less projection and consequently much less problems in this world!
By looking after yourself and setting healthy boundaries, you are looking after everyone else!