Confession: I love The Nutcracker. Since the very first production I saw, in 19-mumble-mumble, I’ve been under its spell, all incarnations included. (Even the weird film version (affiliate link), which boasted as its production designer none other than the great Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of beloved kids’ lit like Where the Wild Things Are. affiliate link)

It occurred to me a couple of months ago that my four-year-old niece was probably now old enough to appreciate it. So I got us a pair of front-row tickets, and told her about the show: the dancing! The costumes! Sugarplum fairies! Mice having sword fights with toy soldiers! As I talked, her jaw dropped, her eyes got bigger and bigger, and I thought she would jump out of her skin with excitement. She was so on board with it. Anytime it came up in conversation, she jumped up and down a little. She couldn’t wait.

Photo by oldskool photography on Unsplash

Then, the night before the big event, she sought out my mom, worriedly.

“Grandma, I just don’t think I can go,” she said.

Shocked, my mom asked her why.

“Well...I don’t know very much at all! I only know this and this,” she said, demonstrating the two ballet moves she’s probably learned from watching Peppa Pig, or some such. So dawned the realization that my niece thought she would have to perform the ballet. She was, of course, immediately reassured that no, she wouldn’t be expected to perform--she needed only to sit and enjoy the show.

What pressure! How she must have sweated over it in the weeks leading up to that day!

And it was entirely self-imposed.

How many times has each of us done that -- taken on overwhelming tasks because we think it’s expected of us? How often do we assume that agreeing to a pleasurable thing also means agreeing to something arduously stressful? And perhaps worst of all, how often do we say no to a fantastic opportunity because we assume that it will involve something arduously stressful?

The answer, of course, is to clarify. Speak up. Ask for details. Check in with yourself. We get so busy, particularly toward the end of the year, that it’s easy to assume. (And I think we all know what happens when we assume. If you don’t, feel free to email me and I can fill you in.)

Self-imposed expectations are a tough nut to crack. Give yourself and others the gift of clear and managed expectations, so you can sit back and enjoy the show. – Emma Alvarez Gibson