Your Friends Aren't Therapists - Here's Why You Should Stop Treating Them Like They Are

Meeting up with a friend to vent after a tough day feels like the most natural thing in the world. After all, one of the benefits of friendship is having people you trust actively listen to your problems, offering empathy and even advice. That kind of support helps you process your experience. At the very least, it allows you to relieve yourself of heavy emotions. 


There is a line, however, between venting to a friend and unhealthily dumping on them. 

While both are emotionally charged ways of communicating, Psychology Today describes dumping as a more toxic, overwhelming experience for the recipient. While venting is more about getting something off one's chest, dumping generally fixates on a recurring issue and isn't receptive to finding real solutions. "It's simply making your painful experiences and devastating emotional setbacks the point to your conversations, wherein you do not have the ability to self-reflect or bring responsibility or accountability to your side of the story," psychotherapist Gina Moffa explained to Verywell Mind

Although it might initially feel good, dumping on your friends is harmful in the long run. Not only do you remain stuck on the same problem, but you also risk overburdening and damaging your friendships, leading others to think you might be a bad friend. It can get to a point where friends may distance themselves from you as an act of self-protection. Instead of getting heard and validated, dumping can leave you isolated and feeling more alone.


The unhealthy effects of trauma dumping

Opening up to friends can foster stronger and more authentic bonds, but we still need to maintain healthy boundaries with them. Unfortunately, dumping — also referred to as trauma dumping — doesn't respect these boundaries.


It's already annoying whenever a pal immediately starts ranting about some grievance every time you meet up. Dumping goes beyond that because it involves a troubling or traumatic experience "[being] shared without permission, in an inappropriate place and time, and to someone who may not have had the capacity to take in this information," clinical psychologist Carla Manly told USA Today. While it's not the sharer's intention, it's still uncomfortable for a listener to hear about someone's negative experiences, especially when they're not ready to do so. 

Your friends may not know how to react to your story, even if they empathize with what you've been through. Hearing unsettling details also builds on whatever stress they already have. "For someone who isn't psychologically stable, absorbing somebody else's trauma is generally what happens, rather than just listening to it," Manly described to USA Today. 


It's exhausting to listen to the same problem again and again too. Since dumping is focused on soliciting sympathy rather than addressing an issue, you disregard insights that could compel you to reflect on your own behavior and see what needs to change. The conversation thus becomes one-sided, leaving little room for anyone else to speak up and creating frustration and resentment.

What bad advice can do

Let's say you don't necessarily trauma dump on your pals but simply vent to them, like what most people do. You also try to hear them out when they offer advice or present a different perspective. For certain problems, asking for your friends' opinions can be helpful. But for more serious matters, you need to first decide if the topic is more appropriate for a therapist's ears and expertise. 


Your friends may be smart and understanding, but they're not stand-ins for trained mental health professionals. (And even if they are, your relationship with them can still color their perception. It's highly unethical for a therapist to take a friend as a client because the impartiality needed to develop trust in a therapist-client connection is already compromised.) 

"Friends can tell you what you want to hear just to keep you happy and avoid conflict," Healthy Place explained. "Friends also tend to give advice based on their own experiences, which therapists are trained not to do." Due to their subjective view, your pals could offer you bad and even harmful suggestions in their desire to help you solve a problem. Should these backfire and create bigger issues for you, you might end up blaming and resenting them for giving you crappy advice.


Avoid these pitfalls by not treating your hang-out and heart-to-heart sessions with them as "free therapy". Instead, be more discerning and understand when your crisis calls for professional help.

Find a healthier way of coping

Rather than being malicious, dumping is simply an unhealthy way of coping with trauma and stress — meaning you can adopt a better way of managing your thoughts and emotions so you get heard and supported when opening up to others. 


Start by changing your perception of your painful experiences. According to Verywell Mind, cognitive reframing is effective in developing a better reaction to stressors, including reminders of traumatic events. A helpful technique is creating a thought record, where you list difficult experiences and the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors they provoked. It's also good to avoid thinking in absolutes, such as believing that things will never improve. This lessens the intensity of negative thoughts and makes it possible for you to see your issues as challenges that can be overcome, rather than permanent problems. Once you're aware of your negative thinking patterns, you can catch yourself whenever you start telling the same old stories in your head and to your friends. This way, you avoid overwhelming them with repetitive, catastrophic narratives. 


Be mindful of your friends' bandwidth, too. Give them a heads-up when you need to talk to them about something difficult. Check if they're available and emotionally capable to do so. Respect their boundaries when they tell you they're no longer comfortable hearing sensitive details. 

Remember to do the same favor for your friends and ask if they need to vent, too. Engage them in a meaningful conversation and actively listen to what they're sharing.