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Updated: Dec 29, 2021

We all have unwritten instruction books containing rules other people should follow so we can be happy. In coaching, we call those manuals. The problem is, hardly any of us know we have them because to us, the rules all seem reasonable. Of course any normal person would agree these rules are common sense. But I promise you, there are many, many people who have manuals that say totally different things than yours. Here are examples of rules that might be in your manual.

  • If I text a friend, she should text me back

  • My husband should remember our anniversary

  • Children should listen to their parents

  • Teenagers should be respectful

  • Teachers should be fair

  • Grandmas should send gifts to grandchildren on their birthdays and at Christmas

  • Families should spend the holidays together

  • Wives should prefer to spend time with husbands over friends

Manuals are one of the most frequent subjects that I coach on. They cause so much hurt. When someone disobeys a rule in our manual, we make it mean that we're not loved, appreciated, respected, or seen.

Ironically, the reason for most rules in our manual is that we think they will increase connection with others, especially with those we love the most. But, the vast majority of the time, manuals create disconnection: the opposite of what we're so desperately seeking. Let me give you an example.

I have a sister-in-law who comes from a large family. This family loves to spend time together, and they often invite friends and casual acquaintances to join them. This is awesome!

My family is different. I also come from a large family, but when we spend time together, our family prefers it to be just our family -- grandparents, parents, spouses and grandchildren. We don't invite friends or anyone else to join us. We feel like we get so little time together that we really want to concentrate on being just with our own family. This is also awesome!

Neither of these manual "rules for spending time with family" is wrong, they're just different. Many years ago, though, I mistakenly thought that -- of course -- the way my family does it is the way everyone does it. To me, it seemed reasonable and logical. My sister-in-law of course thought that her family'' way was obviously the way all normal families functioned. This tiny instance of irreconcilable manuals caused family problems for decades. Here's what happened.

We had a cruise scheduled with these in-laws, and we met a day early in California to gather and get ready to sail. My sister-in-law had a lot of brothers and sisters in the area, and they all decided to go to Disneyland for the day.

My family also decided to go to Disneyland for the day.

Here's where the problem struck. Because our in-laws had family members from the other side of their family in town, we wanted to be respectful and allow them time alone together. After all, we were going to be on a cruise together for seven days, so of course we wanted to be super kind and allow them to have their one day of family time. My manual said that's what people should do to be courteous.

But our in-laws had a totally different manual. They had assumed that our family would tag along and spend the day with them and their other family members. When we went off on our own, they were hurt and decided that meant we didn't like them or want to spend time with them.

This issue festered for 20 years. We lived on different sides of the country, so it seemed easier to just ignore it rather than address it. Finally one evening a couple of years ago my husband asked this sister-in-law why she had been upset for so long. It all came pouring out that she felt rejected because of this one Disneyland day.

For years we had been baffled about what we had done wrong.

In those two decades, not only did the adults grow apart, but the cousins grew up without really knowing each other. All because our instruction books for how people should behave had different rules. What a waste.

Here's an easy way to know when you are having a manual issue. Anytime you use the word "should," you are likely applying a rule from your manual. If it's causing hurt feelings, put down your manual. You don't necessarily need to destroy the manual. It's not wrong to have these rules. But don't assume others follow the same rules.

When someone is doing something they "shouldn't" avoid the temptation to make it mean anything about you. I promise the rules they are following are about them and have nothing to do with you. If your feelings are hurt, ask them about it, but without demanding they start following your manual. Even when people do their very best to follow our manuals in hopes it will make us feel better, they are usually terrible at it, because it's not really who they are. Allow them to just be who they are and love them. Love always feels better.

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