Confessions Of A Burnt Out Former “Gifted Child”

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woman stressed at work desk

When I was around five years old, my parents decided that I was a gifted child.

They came to this conclusion because I started reading at a precocious age, drew better than the average child, and had a capacity for academics.

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When I entered public school and quickly caught up to my peers, my teachers assumed this must be true, too.

Little did they know that while I was an early reader, that was mostly a coping mechanism. The faster I learned to read books, the faster I found an escape route from my unbearable day-to-day life.

Regardless of the reason behind my perceived advanced development (an obvious survival response to parentification and neglect), they snagged every book at my local Barnes & Noble about the subject and convinced themselves that they were parenting a set of low-key prodigies.

In their defense, they were people who have achieved very little in life. They, like many parents of seemingly extraordinary kids, saw their offspring as a ticket to the success-boat they missed.

Overachieving was the crutch propping up my collapsing world

Early on, I realized that I couldn’t meet any of my own needs. That’s usually a parent’s job, after all, and mine failed me in this department.

I could, however, control the number of boxes I ticked off on the achievement list.

This sense of agency appealed to me. It appealed to the adults around me who preferred to feign helplessness towards the situation instead of advocating for my minor, disempowered self, as well.

The few trusted adults outside my relatives promised that getting an education and being extraordinary would allow me to catapult myself out of my family’s circumstances one day.

I naively believed them and pressed full steam ahead towards that end.

I spent my teens and early twenties chasing after a moving goalpost

The constant buzz comforted me.

Having a long list of activities and accomplishments allowed me to avoid discussing the softer stuff — the painful events, unpleasant emotions, unspeakable horrors I’d faced.

It gave me the illusion of an active, full, successful life.

Even when I was homeless for a brief stint, I worked on being the star homeless person, securing housing and work as quickly as possible.

Meeting these goals did nothing to address the underlying issues that caused my housing insecurity, but they made my support system feel better.

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On the outside, it looked like I had everything together.

If people could only get a peek behind the shiny veneer, they would have seen that I was barely dodging danger on a daily basis. I was caught in an abusive cycle with no idea how to name what I was experiencing, let alone leave it for good.

So I just perpetuated the patterns set into motion in my childhood until everything came to a head in my mid-twenties and I had to take a hard look at where this path headed.

As a survivor, achieving helped deflect pity and doubts on my capability

No one wants to be the survivor who cycles in and out of psychiatric facilities without a resume or a bank account or relationships to show for their efforts.

While I don’t personally judge survivors for how they cope — surviving is the ultimate accomplishment, to be clear — society judges us harshly.

After a while of floundering, people wonder what’s wrong with you.

Achieving various goals kept people from asking what was wrong with me.

Instead, they admired how in spite of my trauma I could function as good or better than someone who had never been through my kind of ringer.

Can you blame me for preferring this kind of attention to the former?

It seemed the best way to avoid becoming the helpless traumatized person was to tirelessly work to become something else.

There’s a fine line between post-traumatic growth and pushing through the pain in an unhealthy way

A successful person’s history is irrelevant. Their accomplishments speak for themselves.

I know there’s a whole bunch of rhetoric about how we are “human beings” not “human doings” critiquing the Western world’s toxic productivity culture. I agree that we should be allowed to define our worth by our humanity rather than our contributions.

Still, I’d rather be known for what I do rather than what was done to me.

When I entered adulthood, I could score an opportunity but I couldn’t mop a floor

It was so easy for me to fall through the cracks because my various achievements made me seem like I was fine.

After all, if I could pull a 4.0 GPA, how hard could it be for me to learn how to cook, clean, care for myself, and manage my schedule?

Apparently, very freaking hard, according to my experience.

Typically, your family gradually teaches you how to do all of those things. When they don’t, you spend your young adult years picking up all these missed lessons on top of the normal “adulting” courseload.

It’s like triple majoring in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in the School of Life. It’s beyond exhausting.

Burnout was inevitable, especially since I also had bills to pay and no familial financial support to reduce the cost of independence.

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The effects of spending my childhood being pushed to excel in the externals while ignoring my most basic needs ripple out into my present life.

To this day, I‘m still working on earning a driver’s license and other basic adult rites of passage. My resume is average at best — a mix of retail and writing jobs that beget more entry-level retail and writing jobs.

In many ways, I’ve fallen behind my peers after adolescence where I seemed to best them in some areas.

Sometimes, I’m too tired to care whether I reach my handful of meaningful long-term goals.

I’m happy to simply survive and get another day to experience peace, joy, rest, and hope — things that were lost on me throughout my childhood.

At the same time, I frequently have to tell myself to slow down. I must pause and force myself to book the appointment, clean the kitchen, catch up with a friend instead of taking on another project at school or work.

I can’t help but wonder if other former “gifted kids” or parentified children of suspected narcissistic abusers have the same experience.

Maya Strong is a professional writer who has spent the last six years blogging about relationships, LGBTQIA+, mental health, lifestyle, and cultural commentary online.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.