Discover more from Chris Damian writes
Christian influencers beware: sharing trauma triggers trauma
How to recognize the difference between trauma-informed sharing and trauma dumping.
CW: General discussion of trauma. Also a brief general discussion of school gun violence.
(Update: the original version of this piece included discussion of a controversy among particular individuals. After receiving feedback, I first removed references to specific individuals, and then removed that discussion altogether. I am open to continued feedback and will continue to reflect on how I can write on challenging issues in ways that are respectful but also clear and direct.)
Christian influencers are picking up general trends in the sharing of trauma. That is, they're sharing more of it. In general, I believe this is a good thing. We need more space to discuss the challenging aspects of our lives, including our traumas. Sharing these challenges can help others know they are not alone, and can also assist others in processing and healing. But not all sharing of trauma helps. Some of it may trigger others’ trauma. And at times, trauma can be weaponized in ways that does not reflect the deep tender thing that healing can create.
As I have explored challenging subjects, especially through my Instagram account, I have had a number of mental health professionals, and individuals who have worked through significant trauma, reach out with helpful insights and perspectives. They have shared thoughts and experiences on how to recognize problematic sharing of trauma on social media, how to share trauma in a way that takes into account the experiences of others, and how to manage dysregulation and enable processing when consuming trauma-related content. I'll begin by sharing what one mental health professional shared with me:
“I’m both categories of people [a mental health professional and an individual who has worked through significant trauma] so my thoughts are formed from both levels of experience:
- Detail of sharing is usually the key indicator for the first two questions. General statements like ‘I have trauma’, ‘I have ptsd’, even general categories like ‘I’m a sa survivor’ are usually fine and safe. Involving details of specifics or your subjective/emotional experiences begins to get iffy, especially if it’s your current state. More of this is usually less safe, less considerate of other people’s safety, and often a sign of a need for more support in the person’s life. There is some flex here depending on your role; if you run an advocacy or educational page, some more details of your process and experience may be pertinent.
- Being safe and also appropriate (aka not voyeuristic!) when consuming trauma-based content is so important and requires self awareness! Know your triggers, know your limits, and check in frequently. If you have your own trauma or tend self-destructive, limit trauma-based consumption. Be sure that anything you’re consuming is shared either directly by the survivor or with their consent. Keep an eye out for glorification/sensationalism in how things are being shared (trauma is not pretty, ‘fascinating’, or fun). A lot lot lot lot lot of true crime (or fake crime for that matter) media fails in these regards.
Some good reflection questions for both sharing and consuming when it comes to trauma:
What is my purpose in sharing my trauma? Is there a trauma-involved need that is not being met outside social media? Who do I want to see this information? Who do I NOT want to see this information? Is this something that could genuinely endanger me in the hands of unfriendly people? If I share, am I portraying myself honestly and appropriately in this experience? Am I considering my followers’ boundaries/triggers/comfort levels?
What am I trying to achieve by consuming this? What feelings, emotional or physical, come up when I consume this type of content? How do I feel afterwards? Would I feel comfortable with a friend/family member/partner knowing I consume this or consuming it with me? Do I feel that this accurately portrays the experience of trauma in the world? How would a survivor feel consuming/watching me consume this?”
I’ve had to realize that being traumatized does not make us an expert on trauma. And discussing our trauma in ways that are not trauma-informed can irresponsibly trigger ourselves and others. Just because we experience something does not make us an expert on it. It does not necessarily make us qualified to explain it for others or to be an authority figure on it.
Trauma often functions to inhibit our ability to recognize, examine, and understand it. That’s part of the challenge of processing and healing. It takes a lot of work. If we haven’t sufficiently done this work, sharing our trauma, especially on spaces like social media, can be impairing and distressing for ourselves and others.
Unprocessed trauma can also cause us to lash out and harm others when it is triggered. Trauma impacts the way we behave. When someone triggers our trauma, it might cause us to have a strong response. But trauma is not an excuse to behave in a way that harms or marginalizes others. The trauma may be an explanation for it. But it is not an excuse. I agree with the axiom “hurt people hurt people.” But the hurt we experience does not justify the hurt we cause. Just because we’ve been traumatized does not mean others have to just sit and take it when we traumatize them. We have a responsibility to respect ourselves, in part, by approaching and sharing our trauma in a way that is responsible towards those who may encounter it.
Of course, not everyone who speaks about trauma on social media or in other spaces agrees with or practices this approach. Here are a few things that others have helped me to identify as red flags when it comes to the sharing of trauma:
1. Trauma dumping
This can occur when people share trauma in situations where recipients are not prepared for it, or might be negatively impacted from hearing it. Trauma dumping has been discussed at length, especially with regards to the way trauma is discussed on platforms like Tik Tok. Many people want to share trauma, but their failure to use “trauma-informed” practices can trigger others and risks cultivating codependency. They share without proper care for the capacity of others to receive or interpret that information in a healthy way.
Signs of trauma dumping include:
Sharing the same story repeatedly or sharing graphic details;
Constantly interjecting mentions of past trauma into conversations;
Not knowing much about the people you’re sharing this with;
Posting detailed accounts of trauma on social media to a general audience;
“Venting” about the same feelings and triggers repetitively and not reframing;
Not letting others give their opinions or point of view about your experience; and
Spending a disproportionate amount of space on your experience when interacting with others.
Trauma dumping can also become abuse when someone uses it to exert power over and control others. You can learn more about trauma dumping here.
Those who engage in trauma dumping may not fully understand the impact of this kind of sharing, in part, because they are not currently suffering from PTSD related to that trauma (even if they may have been suffering from that PTSD in the past). As one psychologist shared with me:
“The fact that avoidance is required for diagnosis means that detailed trauma dumping and consuming triggering content are very uncharacteristic of PTSD. In general, my first hypothesis when thinking about people engaging in these behaviors is that they are likely experiencing other mental health conditions that interact with their trauma experience (of course, more assessment would be necessary to make sure they aren’t engaging in these behaviors to avoid other aspects of trauma).”
2. Bringing up trauma in arguments.
This can be a form of weaponizing trauma. If they’re in a heated argument and they bring up their trauma, they might be using their trauma to gain leverage in the argument. This is acting out of their trauma and potentially triggering themselves and others. It’s also unfair to the other party.
The weaponizing of trauma in this way can also be an issue of solidarity and empathy. One is able to weaponize trauma when one operates under a belief that they are alone and no one else can really understand them. Trauma can only be weaponized when one sets oneself apart from others. Coming to recognize that others might share similar experiences enables one to resist this type of behavior, and to see a world where others might be impacted or might share in this tender thing that should be treated with great care. Resisting the urge to weaponize one’s trauma is also a way of respecting oneself. It is an exercise and care for these deep parts of oneself which might lead to either our spiritual demise or our spiritual awakening. The ways in which one brings that trauma to the light draws others into that choice.
Of course, there are times when it is appropriate and good to bring up trauma in arguments, such as when parents who have lost their children to school shootings are engaging in advocacy to reduce gun violence. But the key here is context. Here, they are bringing trauma into the light where it should be seen. They are calling for a spiritual awakening and a move towards empathy enabling social change.
3. Using trauma as proof of how “unfazed” they are by something.
This includes saying things like, “This doesn’t effect me because I’ve already been through…”
Using their trauma to prove they are not sensitive can be a sign that they haven’t fully processed. By contrast, when they’ve done their healing work, they’re willing to let their guard down, and are no longer living in constant fight or flight.
4. When they give emotionally wrought play-by-plays of their processing of difficult emotions in real time.
This is the sharing of unprocessed emotions and can be impairing and indicative of codependency with social media.
5. When their trauma regularly functions to elicit very strong emotions from both them and their readers/viewers.
This can be a dynamic which draws on vulnerable emotions, creating an artificial high and a false sense of immediate community that bonds through emotions but in a space that is largely depersonalized. When this happens regularly, it can be a sign of an (unhealthy) experiential, rather than reflective, relationship to their trauma. And it can trigger codependency.
6. Sharing the details of traumatic events.
This can also be a sign of trauma dumping, but is worth some elaboration and is problematic on its own. It can be retriggering both for the speaker and for listeners. The more details that are shared, the more problematic it can be. Trauma-informed approaches are very cautious in the sharing of details and do so rarely and only in the proper contexts. Here, consent is key: did the listener consent to hearing about these details, such that they are in a place to receive them well? Or are they being shared without a regard for the person/people who will encounter them?
When discussing traumatic events, it is also important to consider others involved and whether they have consented to the sharing of various details. The sufferings of others especially should not be made into “content” or weaponized. Again, consent is key here.
7. Engaging in the trauma ladder.
There’s another dynamic that I have experienced and which I think is worth some consideration: the race to the bottom of the “trauma ladder” (in some settings, referred to as “trauma olympics”).
In one version of this dynamic, you say something. The other person criticizes you for the statement. You disagree with what they say. In response, they bring up their marginalized status, their traumas, and say—whether implicitly or explicitly—that you will never understand, that you need to stop and just listen to them, because you don’t share this experience. This can be a form of weaponizing trauma, as mentioned above.
In another version of this dynamic, one individual told me about a time when they had shared in a group chat a challenging story of a straight white person. Then another person in the chat expressed frustration of the story, by expressing how much worse are others’ sufferings (and that person’s sufferings in particular) because of their traumas and marginalized status. The person said, “Why should we be expected to support them, when they benefit from so much privilege that others don’t?”
This mode of engagement encourages a sort of race to the bottom of the trauma ladder. It’s a use of suffering that makes it seem as if the only thing that will be taken seriously is responding with your own suffering. You will only be taken seriously if you can “one up” their trauma. You are left feeling as if you have to prove by sharing trauma that your views and experiences matter too, as if you have to prove your right to speak by reference to your own suffering. (What I am talking about here is not when someone is in a space dedicated to sharing their story of harm and seeking support. Rather, I’m talking about when that story is brought into a conversation on another topic.)
I myself have seen those kinds of messages, and then my traumas and the dimensions of my marginalized status immediately come to mind. It’s important to note that, to the extent I have unprocessed traumas, this dynamic is retraumatizing to me. I feel like I need to share them in order to have a place in the conversation.
But our traumas are ours to share, if and when we decide. We are each worth more than having to dig into our bag of hurts and put them on display in order to defend our views, to be heard, to be of equal value in a conversation. When this dynamic comes up, it’s normal to feel angry, to feel angry because of the way some drag out their traumas and use them as leverage, without any knowledge of what others have experienced, to feel angry because of their presumptions about the ease of others’ lives, and to feel angry because this is most irresponsible towards survivors. It is extremely irresponsible towards survivors to pressure us to dig into the well of our sufferings and pull out the worst things that we’ve experienced to put on display.
Each person’s trauma matters. Each person’s sufferings matter. Recognizing the reality of one suffering does not diminish the reality of more significant sufferings. The race to the bottom of the trauma ladder as a way to prove that others need to be silent in a conversation, or that someone else is not worthy of support, is indicative of a need for more processing. This is also indicative that what is occurring is not actually a conversation, but the movement towards a monologue. It is not a discourse, but (ironically) a forcing of the other into a victim status.
People who have truly processed their hurts will have greater, not less, empathy for those with less significant hurt. Processing always expands our empathy and compassion and ability to respect and support a variety of stories. Someone who hears one person’s challenging story and immediately responds, “What about my worse story?!?!” still has processing to do. Processing helps enable us to hold loving space for those other stories, while still respecting the significance of our own.
The expansion of empathy
Certainly, there are times when sharing one’s sufferings is very helpful when discussing a particular topic. It just needs to be done in a way that deepens (rather than restricts) the conversation, validates others’ experiences, and expands empathy, solidarity, and empowerment for everyone.
Just because someone does one or more of the above does not mean that their social media account is problematic generally. Most of the above are not bright line rules, but are general principles and flags to watch for. The thing to consider is the extent to which these things occur, whether there is a pattern, etc. Just because someone has not fully processed their trauma does not mean that they must be silent about their lives. Being able to talk about trauma safely is a learned skill that requires practice and continual improvement.