Gifted kid burnout part 2: The quest for academic validation

Everyone likes being praised and complimented, but gifted kids take this to a different level.

Academic validation is one of the main aspects of burnout in gifted students. Gifted kid burnouts are unsatisfied with themselves, so they look for satisfaction in academics. They feel the constant need to “validate” themselves through awards, praise, and good grades in school.

And although striving to do well in school is a positive quality, there can be (and too often is) too much of a good thing.

Get the context! If you haven’t already, read part one of this column series before continuing.

Craving academic validation starts young. [Photo credit: TikTok]

As a child, I was put in lots of categories by adults. I was a leader. I was a listener. I was an observer. I was a gifted student. I loved getting these labels, and I loved making adults proud.

But adults don’t hand out praise as easily later on in life, and so instead, I looked elsewhere for affirmation. I wanted to prove myself by being in the most advanced classes, having high grades, and getting accepted into incredible colleges.

I craved one thing: academic validation.

And this is where burnout begins.

Academic validation (n): feeling achieved or appreciated when receiving praise in school. While it can be a good motivator, constantly seeking academic validation… can lead to purposefully overworking yourself to feel that adrenaline rush that comes with good marks.

Urban Dictionary

This is part two in a column series by Makenzie Bird on gifted kid burnout. In this series, we will cover what gifted kid burnout is and why it happens, how individuals are personally affected by gifted kid burnout, and how to (hopefully) conquer it.


In this article I will focus on how individuals—including myself—are affected by burnout.

The need for validation

Learning, memorizing, seeing patterns and making connections has always been second nature to me. In middle school and elementary school, I never had to work or study to get good grades.

And then I made it into high school, and suddenly nothing was as easy anymore.

My report cards had “Outstanding Effort” or “A pleasure to have in class” written in the notes for most, if not all, of my classes. But not in high school. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

Everyone–adults, students, you name it–expected me to be smart. I was supposed to be the top of the class, have the best grades, and go above and beyond. In addition, I’m Asian, so being the smart, quiet girl in class is a common stereotype for me.

The workload increased, and the pressure doubled.

At first gradually, and then all at once, I hit burnout. Even today I still struggle to concentrate in class, feel motivated to work, and balance my school life with my social life with my extracurriculars.

My brain tells me that if I can validate myself academically and keep working, the struggles will go away. Yet working harder just enforces the burnout even more.

The worst part of burnout is the disappointment that comes with not achieving what you set out to achieve every day. Although I am doing good in my classes, I always feel like I can do better.

Bryce Longstaff, student
line of classic books - little women, where the red fern grows, the jungle book, the adventures of tom sawyer, alice's adventures in wonderland, the wizard of oz, peter pan, the hobbit, les miserables, anne of green gables
Between second grade and sixth grade, the books at my comprehension level were for high schoolers and college students. So instead, I read children’s and abridged classics. Above are a few of my favorites. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

The balancing act

My experience is not unique. I interviewed several other students who reported similar backgrounds and feelings.

I try to take the hardest classes and do everything at once. And I set unrealistic expectations for myself.

Grace McPherson, student

Why do we keep pushing ourselves to do the near impossible?

In my opinion, there’s so many reasons. To prove that we can. Because we’ve always been in the hardest classes. Spite, hope, parents, college applications. But it really boils down to academic validation.

You can’t drop out of the hard classes, clubs, or sports because what would your friends think of you then? That you’re a quitter? What about colleges in the future? “Oh man, this guy couldn’t handle this stuff. Get rejected.” And most of all, what would you think? There’s nothing worse than letting yourself down because that means you always have to live with it.

Nick Whyte, student
[Photo credit: Twitter]

But the effects of taking hard classes is that the overall workload causes a mass division of effort. Because I am juggling so many hard classes, I cannot majorly dedicate my time and effort to the areas I need to work in (like AP Chemistry. Sorry, Mr. Segall).

And when I cannot put forth enough time and effort, I do not understand the material, as well.

The material and tests in some of my classes stresses me out really bad because I don’t understand it, and it creates a block for me. Although I could work through it and understand it better, the fear and anxiety it gives me basically stops me from even attempting and I usually try to ignore the problem.

Caleb Christian, student

Several students contributed their opinions on what the worst part of burnout is.

Lack of sleep, even though I go to bed around 11 (unlike most). I still can wake up very tired and unmotivated for the rest of the day.

Euen Longstaff, student

The constant stress and dread that comes with it. The thought of people putting you on a pedestal so you wear yourself out trying to achieve that.

Remy Charleston, student

Sophomore Nick Whyte shared how he saw burnout as a vicious cycle.

Not having the energy to do something so you procrastinate it, then you cram it in last minute, or even past. Then your work suffers, then you start to beat yourself up because you aren’t perfect, so you have even less drive, so you start to procrastinate more, all while wallowing in pity. It’s a brutal cycle that I wish I could get out of.

Nick Whyte, sophomore
The worst weeks are the ones where I have multiple tests at the end of the week, and my workload doubles because I have to study as well. [Photo credit: Makenzie Bird]

I also hosted a conversation with Kayley Owens, a CHS junior who shared her experience with burnout.

  • Me: What does burnout typically look like for you, if you feel welcome sharing?
  • Kayley: Breakdowns over amounts of work and not understanding everything all at once. And once it is explained to me I don’t feel very smart because it wasn’t that hard but it was so much at once. There would be some nights where I would be like, “Wow, I’m glad this formula sheet is laminated because my tears would ruin it otherwise!”
  • [laughter]
  • Me: And do you know what contributes to this?
  • Kayley: I don’t do well teaching myself. I need someone to teach me, so the self taught things especially in AP science, are difficult to me.

Conclusion

Burnout stems from academic validation. And burnout is more clearly seen in individuals than as a whole group. Burnout also looks different for each individual.

If you’re a burnout like me (or Grace, Bryce, Euen, Nick, Caleb, Remy, or Kayley) you know it’s a lot to deal with. It is a lot to balance. And it feels like it never ends.

But have hope, even if it seems corny and pointless. With hope, you won’t suffer through school just as much.

Part three will discuss ways to overcome burnout, if there are any. Coming soon.

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