Achieving for Love: How Gifted Kid Burnout Manifests in Insecure Adulthood (and How to Fix It)

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash

When I was nine, my parents received a letter saying that I had been invited into our school district’s gifted program, called Challenge. Only a small percentage of students were invited.

Immediately, I imagined standing on a stage, having to answer questions at a microphone to a mostly empty auditorium while a spotlight beamed down from overhead.

I’m not sure why I imagined that — maybe because Challenge seemed like some kind of quiz show or because I felt singled out in a small group of “smart kids” who would have to prove themselves.

But it’s indicative of the pressures that Gifted and Talented programs put on students from a young age.

7 Signs of gifted burnout

Gifted children tend to become anxious, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented adults.

Do any of the following feel like you?

You trade achievement for love.

As a gifted student, the education system conditions us to achieve at our highest possible level to maximize praise. Parents can also reinforce this by praising top achievements and suggesting that gifted kids can “do better” to “reach their potential.” Achievement becomes the pathway to praise, pride, and even love.

You are a perfectionist.

Perfectionism starts early, especially for students labeled Gifted and Talented. Because of all the messages about potential and high achievement, the pressure to not only do things at a high level but to do them without mistakes is enormous.

You feel stressed without a plan.

As students, especially high-achieving, perfection driven students, gifted children learn to follow instructions with precision. This can make it incredibly stressful to come up with their own ideas and outline goals and tasks without receiving directions for how and when to do things in order to finish on time and correctly.

You’re upset when you aren’t good at something immediately.

Being labeled as gifted and talented often leads educators and parents to expect that these children will be good at anything and everything. But giftedness and talent doesn’t work like that, and just because these students can do something doesn’t mean they should have to master it. However, the expectation of mastery that was installed at a young age can mean that former gifted kids stress out in adulthood when trying to learn something new, because they expect that they should be gifted and talented at everything.

You tie your value to your productivity.

Combining all these factors, gifted students tend to finish school and enter adulthood having learned to tie their inherent value and worth to their outside achievements and productivity. When this hustle for perfection inevitably burns them out, they feel less valuable because they can no longer work to their prior level of achievement.

You have trouble enforcing boundaries around your limits.

Many gifted students don’t learn to rest, pace themselves, or say no to excessive work — a direct result of being told they could achieve more if they applied themselves fully to live up to their potential. Entering adulthood, this continues in the workplace, helped along by capitalism, lean operation, and understaffing in order to extort more work and productivity out of workers out of a sense of duty (or, more realistically, fear of job loss). Former gifted kids don’t know when to say no, because their “no” was not respected as a child and they were continually pushed to achieve more and more because they were gifted.

You don’t know how to do things just for fun.

Because of the focus on achievement and mastery, gifted children may learn to reject their intuitive drive to play and engage creatively with their interests just for fun. This shows up in adulthood when former gifted kids end up stressfully turning their creative pursuits into side hustles or feeling pressured to sell or share their creative work for public consumption. Thus, the fun, creative hobby becomes another skill to master and perfect.

What does it mean to be gifted?

According to the National Association of Gifted Children,

“The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act defines gifted and talented students as ‘Students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in areas such as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services and activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.’ [Title IX, Part A, Definition 22. (2002)]”

Simply put, Gifted and Talented should mean that these students show evidence of high achievement capability and need additional support to fully develop those capabilities. Also note that these capability areas can include intellectual, creative, artistic, leadership, or specific academic fields.

How do we actually identify our Gifted and Talented students?

“…in practice, districts often still identify gifted children through IQ and other cognitive ability tests,” according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on education.

And here’s the problem with using IQ and test scores as an indicator of giftnedness:

It’s racist, classist, and ableist — and gifted education has not been able to untangle itself from these oppressive beginnings.

Racial inequity is baked into our education system, including Gifted and Talented programs.

The same Hechinger Report article referenced above highlights the following statistics about Gifted Education in the United States:

  • 60% of students in gifted programs are white, compared to 50% of the overall national student population
  • 9% of students in gifted programs are Black, compared to 15% of the national student population

The article also points out that “Admissions for gifted programs tend to favor children with wealthy, educated parents, who are more likely to be white,” and that “Wealthy schools identify more children as gifted than do poor ones. Black, Latino and Indigenous students are often left out.”

We are leaving students behind who could benefit from additional support to help develop their talents and gifts. Our education system continues to prioritize students who have historically been better supported, continuing to widen the education gap.

It’s important to understand the privileges and origin of systems like Gifted and Talented education, and education in general, for the sake of unpacking privilege and being able to take steps to dismantle white supremacy. You can’t fight it if you don’t know it’s there.

It’s also helpful to understand the problems in gifted programs to fully understand their impact on mental health and self concept so that you can recover as an adult.

Recovering from gifted burnout

Revisiting the seven signs of gifted burnout listed above, how does a former gifted kid recover from that lifetime of pressure and achievement-focused identity?

First, I want you to practice knowing that you are more than what you do, and your potential is whatever you decide it is. You do not have to fulfill a foretold prophecy of achievement or intelligence or wealth.

Second, unpack what went into your identity as a gifted child. You were selected based on things that are arguably arbitrary. Not to downplay your gifts, but the children who weren’t chosen had their own gifts and weren’t forced into an anxiety-inducing performance gauntlet because of them. It’s okay to separate yourself from the label placed on you as a gifted child.

What is potential, when only some students are pushed to fulfill it?

What is potential, when teachers and parents define how it is fulfilled?

What is potential, when it was held over us to push us outside of our boundaries?

So all that internalized stuff about how you have to hold yourself to impossible standards because of your potential… you simply do not have to do that. Your potential is what you want to make of it.

And once you can start breaking down the arbitrary nature of labeling children Gifted and Talented, leaving behind other children who are also gifted and talented in ways not prized by the state, perhaps you can let some of the pressure go.

Because it’s not your pressure to carry. It’s something that was placed on you.

The help of a therapist can be extremely helpful, but not everyone has access to therapy. With or without a therapist, you can work on developing the following skills to reduce burnout.

Boundaries with yourself

Part of recovery from any abusive dynamic is establishing boundaries and feeling secure in enforcing them. That’s extremely difficult for people pleasers and people who have always tied achievement and helpfulness and doing a good job with receiving praise, love, and security.

Risking that praise, love, and security by telling someone no feels very scary.

So practice over time. Start with boundaries you keep with yourself.

Identify the level of energy and time you both CAN and WANT TO take on as part of your routine or workload. Begin to remove the other things. (Obviously care tasks that keep you and your space functioning are required, but you probably have more leeway on those than you’re used to giving yourself).

Set boundaries around your self care routines. If you’re prone to staying up late to do tasks, work on being more firm with your bedtime routine so that you learn that those tasks aren’t more important than the rest your body needs.

Boundaries are a practice, not something you either have or don’t have. Even if you think you have no boundaries, there’s a limit in there somewhere. This practice will start to bring the limit further away from the burnout side of the spectrum so that you realize you need to say no and pull back from overbooking yourself long before you hit the burnout point.

Boundaries with others

Brené Brown says, “Choose discomfort over resentment.”

Choose the awkward moment of saying no, rather than choosing to say yes and resent yourself or the person you said yes to.

You can explain your new boundaries to your friends and family. Let them know that you’ve recognized you take on a lot more than you can realistically handle, and for your own mental health you are going to start declining invitations and you won’t be able to be there as often for others if you need to focus on yourself. It will be awkward at first, but people who truly respect and value your mental health will understand, and they may even help you enforce those boundaries!

It’s a bit more difficult with people in positions of authority over you like a boss at work, or people who you serve and want to help, such as clients and customers.

If you get requests for additional work that aren’t in the scope of your job description or contract, gently push back. Tell them that you can do that, but something else will have to be removed from your workload to make the space for it. This models for them that you will only take on as much work as you can fit within your realistic capacity.

Identify high standards that can change

If you’re holding yourself to impossible standards and always expect top performance from yourself, that sets the stage for others to expect the most out of you as well. If they’ve never seen you have a boundary around your time, the assumption is that you are boundless. They don’t know what you are feeling behind the scenes, so setting those boundaries with yourself and others is crucial in recovering from burnout.

You might also be getting messages from outside of your own personal standards. Messages like “Write a bestselling novel in 30 days!” or “Take this course to create perfect social media!” or “You only grow when you believe in yourself!”

And of course, this is marketing. Marketing is designed to sell you a product that will solve a problem in your life, whether that problem is wanting to write a novel or master social media marketing or believe in yourself.

As overachievers, we see a message like “become the best at this thing, really fast” and think “I need that!”

Because our identity has been becoming the best at a thing, really fast, for most of our lives.

Separate yourself from that high achievement standard, whether it’s a commercial on TV selling you instant mastery or it’s someone important to you saying that you’d make a great accountant and you could make a lot of money.

If it were up to our brains, taking an assignment and following the instructions, we’d march off and become an accountant — without figuring out if we even want to be an accountant.

So if you find yourself feeling like you’re hustling toward a goal that doesn’t really make sense or feel right, is it possible that you’re trying to achieve a high standard in something that doesn’t even matter to you?

Where else can you identify high standards that don’t actually matter to you?

A friend of mine took on a new job and was immediately offered a promotion track. She declined, after a successful career of promotions and being an absolute badass in her field, because she needed a break. Her friends told her she’d get bored if she didn’t have something to challenge her — but she prioritized her rest and stayed at a comfortable level of output in her role. Almost a year later, she’s finally feeling ready for a period of growth again.

That pressure to always be growing, always be achieving, always be on the cutting edge of your craft… what if we stopped? What if it was okay to rest? What if we sought to achieve contentment rather than accolades?

Life has seasons. Sometimes you grow. Sometimes you rest. Sometimes you do a lot of work on your inner self, or your home, before you put that work onto your business, or education, or career. And that’s okay.

You can go at your pace.

There is no syllabus.

PS. I had a lot more to say about the structural inequities inherent in our education system, so there will be a follow-up blog that dives deeper into that topic coming shortly.

Please subscribe and listen

This blog is a companion to Episode 19 of Run Like Hell Toward Happy, “Recovering from Gifted Kid Burnout,” available on all podcast platforms. If this blog resonated with you, it would mean the world to me if you would subscribe to the show and listen!

You can also get a copy of my free eBook, “How to Achieve Your Dreams Without Burnout,” with several burnout busting exercises to help you go unpack your perfectionism and go for your goals at a pace that makes sense for you.

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