I remember the young Lara who was the popular and jolly kid at school, participating in all sorts of school activities, be it in the choir, dance troupe, or other interest clubs. Always representing various competitions like quiz bees, campus journalism, public speaking events, among others. Not only did she represent but also won national competitions. Aside from her academic life, she had always been an active Girl Scout and a singer invited to gigs and intermission numbers for special programs. At that time, Lara would receive praises from teachers, family, and other people telling her how “gifted”, “talented” she was and how she had that “great potential”.
Seven years later, she might still be considered as an active student, balancing her academics and extracurricular activities in college, not to forget “adulting”, but she doesn’t feel that same energy like before. She is not as interested to venture into new things, finds it hard to focus, and is no longer certain of the things she is doing in life except for one thing: she knows for sure that she is tired.
I’m Lara. Yes, that is my story and I am part of what they call the “Sad Gifted Kid Burnout” Club.
What is Gifted Kid Burnout anyway?
The term “Gifted Kid Burnout” is not a medical condition but was made up by people, specifically youth, on the internet years ago. This refers to the stress and anxiety that they experience currently, because of their past academic accomplishments or simply how they were brought up at school.
I came across this term only last year, while I was scrolling through my favorite social media app back in the quarantine days: TikTok. There was this famous TikTok audio “I can’t talk right now, I’m doing sad gifted kid burnout s***” that people kept dueting to. The common themes for these videos were people having hundreds of inconsistent hobbies and interests, difficulty focusing on the things they do, obsession on collecting things, and perfectionist tendencies, among others.
I laughed hard at these videos because I thought they were so relatable but at the same time, there is a pang in my chest as I realized that burnout is real and how much I have changed from that “smart” Lara people used to know to someone who’s barely even trying.
Technically, by definition, being gifted is different from being smart as the former means naturally and effortlessly excellent in an area while the latter takes discipline and hard work to become one. But this difference blurs out in the concept of the “gifted kid burnout” syndrome. Take my story for example. I never considered myself as gifted, I just related to them. Although I am well aware how often I get praises from other people that I am indeed “gifted”, “talented”, “smart”, and someone who has “great potential”. Because I was so acquainted with these praises, eventually I believed them to be true. Not until I went to college, where I found myself as normal as anybody else is.
But why do we experience this burnout?
If you are one of those gifted kids who face social-emotional difficulties including anxiety, depression, and harmful perfectionism as well as feelings of constantly underachieving, difficulty sleeping, and issues with time management and procrastination, then you are confirmed overloaded, exhausted, and burned out.
Here are some concepts that we need to take a closer look at and openly discuss to understand why the “gifted kid burnout” things is not just a meme or a punchline on the internet:
1. Mental health
The stigma on various mental health concerns and conditions is still present even in these times despite advocacy campaign efforts. It is important to note that anxiety and depression are real conditions that need proper care and medical attention. Whatever these people are experiencing are valid especially in a time when things have gotten so overwhelming, almost uncontrollable. Gifted kids can manifest anxiety in many ways. Because of their overwhelming tendency for perfectionism, most gifted kids have become afraid of failure, therefore setting high and unrealistic standards for themselves. Gifted kids tend to be sensitive, so, any remark, even those constructive criticisms can become a big deal to them and they eventually begin to believe something is wrong in their work. Oftentimes, former gifted kids develop anxiety about not living up to the potential they were told they had, which can also lead to depression or low self-esteem.
2. Societal pressure is a big deal
Growing up as an only child in an average Asian household is quite exhausting because of the immense pressure put to me by my parents to excel and bring pride to our family. I don’t know, maybe it’s just another stereotype for Asian families to be conservative, but it is true for us that expressing my feelings and thoughts is indeed difficult. That is why I never had the opportunity to tell them that I no longer need and want that pressure they give me.
Aside from that pressure within one’s inner circle, gifted kids could also feel that force through operant conditioning or the method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. When kids achieve well in school, they are rewarded with praises that they would always look forward to having by achieving greater things some other time. And the cycle goes on and on until one gets tired and started to tie their worth to their achievements.
3. Campus competition and our education system
I attended “Special Science Class” and “Science, Technology, Engineering Program” in grade school and high school, respectively. It’s a thing here among public schools in the Philippines that these programs are like where the “cream of the crop” students enroll in. These programs require intellectually-challenging entrance examinations, so passing this means a validation of your “giftedness” or “smartness”. But to be honest, it is in this class that you will find the most competitive people and how that competition has put a lot at stake, even friendship and relationships of everyone in the class. The competitiveness of the students here also goes beyond the class. Usually, people see us as students with a superiority complex when we compete among different academic programs in school. I understand that a little healthy competition is good to sharpen and motivate everyone to do their best. But the system of our education now has given more priority to grades than that of actual learning.
4. Hustle culture
When a worker extends beyond his designated time at work, he/she is considered a good employee. A person is considered to be a good employee only if he goes beyond his designated time at work and receives more praise for it. When someone does beyond what is expected, we give them more worth and praise. This hustle culture, the idea of glorifying overworking may indirectly be a result of that gifted kid burnout. Yes, despite of being burnt-out, it is still possible for us to have that urge to overwork in this fast-paced environment and strive restlessly for our goals, most of which may be unrealistic because again, we were conditioned or maybe compelled to excel even if that means sacrificing one or two aspects in our holistic health.
How can we get out of this?
The goal here is not to reduce the number of gifted people in the world. We need them, but let us also give them a comfortable space in the society where they can express their true selves and enjoy their gifts without being compelled to adhere to the society’s standards to them that eventually, they could no longer commit to.
The discussion of the “gifted kid burnout” phenomena is more than just a trend, we have to look at it as a concern of our mental health and the culture we are accustomed with. It is time to break these norms that imprison our individuality. When you know a kid who’s gifted, start a conversation. It means a lot to them. Encourage them that they can be anything they want based on their potential and not to rely on what other people tell them to be. Expose them to various social settings so they will be acquainted also to the world outside of their own. Do not put them in a box and instead provide them with more opportunities to explore the vast world around them. Lastly, if you see any trouble or social-emotional struggles that these people are trying to battle with, encourage them to seek professional support for their needs.
For those former gifted kids out there, I believe that we will all get out of this abyss we are at right now. It would take us a lot of courage and energy to free ourselves from all the tiredness and emptiness we are feeling but eventually we’ll get there. For now, just hang on and remember that there’s always someone, like me, who understands you and believes in you that you can do this one step at a time.