Why It’s Okay to Not Be Special - Humantold
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Why It’s Okay to Not Be Special

Cheryl Lim, LMHC February 11, 2022

“Former gifted kid burnout” is a real thing. Here’s how to tell if you have it.

Do you have incredibly high expectations of yourself, but also lack the energy or ability to make the effort to meet them? Did you excel in school and now find yourself extremely uncomfortable in adulthood when facing tasks that you’re not instantly good at? Do you find yourself working exhaustively to meet lofty expectations you’ve set for yourself that are much higher than those others have for you? If so, you may be suffering from “former gifted kid burnout.”

You may have seen on TikTok and other social media platforms that many adults who identify as “former gifted kids” are sharing their experiences of “sad gifted kid burn out” and having “gifted child syndrome.” While “sad gifted kid burnout” and “gifted child syndrome” are not clinical terms and you will not find them in the DSM, this experience is a valid and ubiquitous one in our day and age. Let’s dive into the idea of a “gifted kid” and how those who were labeled as “gifted” can experience unique stressors.

What is “former gifted child syndrome?” What is “sad gifted child burnout?” 

Typically, a gifted child is one with natural abilities which allow them to excel effortlessly in certain disciplines, distinct from succeeding purely due to hard work and perseverance. While one could make the argument that everyone is gifted in their own way, what we are referring to is a specific type of “giftedness” that results in academic accolades — but also, at times, emotional neglect and poor resilience in the face of failure.

Case in point: imagine you are a young person in a class where the work pace feels too slow, not challenging enough, and very boring. You might find yourself easily distracted and detached from the lesson, but still getting straight As despite finding the work unrewarding, repetitive, and under-stimulating. You might even find yourself skipping class and still getting good grades. For people who understand this experience firsthand, you also know that it can lead to having a sense of pride in the lack of effort required to excel, potentially promoting a habit of putting little effort into your endeavors. Over time, you might  cultivate a dependency upon external validation and reward, along with an expectation that things will always be easy and require minimal effort/time.

On the other side of the “giftedness” coin is the person who appears gifted precisely because they are so resolute and hardworking. They strive for perfection because they long for the attendant approval it brings. These kids are smart, but the level of excellence they achieve comes at a cost. 

Second case in point: imagine studying for hours more than your peers every night because your parents and teachers all believe you are gifted and have exceedingly high expectations of you. You may begin to believe that if you don’t score a high mark, others would be disappointed, so you pull an all-nighter. Doing this can elicit feelings of shame and the belief that your normal level of achievement would not be good enough. These industrious children may develop a fear of failure and often find themselves on a never-ending treadmill of achievement. This cycle can become exhausting while trying to meet the expectations of being “gifted.” In both cases of the “naturally gifted” and the giftedness accorded to hard work, individuals may receive ample praise and compliment — but this “gift” comes with many downsides.

How does this affect them as adults?

More times than not, children who were considered gifted may end up having unreasonably lofty expectations and a fear of being unable to attain their goals. Perfectionism is also prevalent. When things have always come easily and effortlessly to gifted children, they may become easily frustrated and quick to lose patience, giving up on things they are not automatically good at. Avoiding challenges can mean missing the experience of building a skill and pastimes they might otherwise enjoy despite not being automatically proficient.

Those whose perceived “giftedness” came from diligence may create a routine that is very structured, allowing few to no breaks just to meet expectations. This causes them to practice poor school-life balance, leading to an unhealthy work-life balance in adulthood. They are more likely to experience imposter syndrome (i.e. feeling like a fraud) and doubt their abilities due to low self-esteem. Due to the pressures they place on themselves, their anxiety and depression can increase.

Many former “gifted kids” I have worked with express how they experienced chronic stress from an academic setting that did not match their level of ability, which then followed them into adulthood. Many report that they have difficulty with time management and frequently have trouble engaging and concentrating, low energy, procrastination, etc., which in turn affects their work performance. My clients have also shared the experience of being a “big fish in a little pond” because they easily outclassed their peers in childhood, but now find themselves struggling in adulthood where they are “just another fish.” They find themselves looking for validation and “good grades,” causing them to experience anxiety because careers rarely have consistent grading to check progress. Additionally, there exists a tendency to fear not meeting their “great potential,” which society normalizes with the glamorization of “hustle culture.” When burnout becomes a badge of honor, those labeled as “gifted kids” find themselves expected to meet high demands (often self-imposed and higher than that of the organization they belong to), often at the cost of their work/life balance. 

Former gifted children often express that their self-esteem and identity was based on the praise they received when they excelled in grade school, causing them to become dependent on reassurance and validation. They experience confusion around an identity outside of their academic/professional proficiency, fearing being unimpressive or (God forbid) “normal,” suffering under the idea that they “peaked” in grade school.

While these things sound scary and unpleasant, not all people who are naturally intellectually gifted and/or hardworking will experience this. More to the point, let us remind ourselves that it’s okay to just be ordinary. The world is full of ordinary people who do magnificent and heroic things just by showing up to their lives, as they are, without perfect attendance ribbons and glowing report cards.

As we discussed, being a “gifted” person can come with plenty of unhealthy expectations, causing chronic stress and decreased happiness. Those who are thought to be “gifted” and worked hard to avoid being “ordinary” also struggle under the weight of these expectations. In both cases, they may become adults who start self-imposing unhealthily grand expectations. I invite you to check in with your expectations and reflect on whether they’re fair, healthy, realistic, and life-affirming for you. 

When we strive for being extraordinary, we can sometimes fall into the trap of believing that love and attention is conditional, dependent upon our special abilities and achievements. With that also comes the fear that we will lose what and who we care about if we cannot stop achieving. It is okay to not be special. It is okay to be ordinary. It may feel disappointing — but in giving up the façade of being perfect, you also become free to show up with integrity and authenticity. Being willing to own the vulnerability of “being ordinary” allows others to help you avoid the traps of perfection and imposter syndrome, doing wonders for your self-esteem. Imagine the life you could have if you freed up the time and space to simply be — not exceptional, just happily present. 

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