How to Drop Your Manual

Aug 01, 2022

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We all have a life expectations manual. It’s the unwritten one that dictates how we feel life should be. Our manual outlines internal expectations for how others should think, how they should behave, and what they should understand. We often don’t even realize our manual exists but it’s there. 

The problem with this manual is that it is often unrealistic. The truth is, adults have the ability and freedom to behave however they choose. I’m not saying that just because people can choose that any and all behavior is acceptable. Not at all. But outwardly harmful or not, all behavior is inwardly harmful to us when we deny the reality that people aren’t always going to act how we wish. The empowering reverse of this is to grasp hold of the control we do have, which is over ourselves, not over others. Let’s talk about all this and how to drop your manual. 

“No matter what people do or how they act, or what they say, we don’t have to give others the power to determine how we feel. Ever. I think this is amazing. I think this is a superpower.” – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • Realize your manual exists
  • Use your superpower
  • Abandon trying to control others
  • Change your focus
  • Clarify proper expectations, in appropriate situations
  • Execute the step-by-step to drop your manual
    • Identify your manual
    • Pinpoint your suffering
    • Let yourself off the hook
    • Turn around your rules

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

Get the How to Drop Your Manual worksheet:

Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach


I’m Dr. Sara Dill, and this is the Stress-Less Physician podcast episode number 25. Welcome to the Stress-Less Physician podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Sara Dill MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feels good to you, you are in the right place. 

Hey, everyone! Welcome back to the podcast. So happy to be talking to you about today’s subject, which is something called “The Manual.” Basically, a rule book that we have for other people’s behavior, sort of a mental list of how other people should behave. And the reason I’m excited to talk to you about it today is because this is one of those things that when I learned about it, I immediately recognized that, yes, I do this, I have this, which isn’t a problem, right? We all do this. We’re humans and we sort of have this idea about if only other people would do and say and act the way we wanted them to, then everything would be fine and we would be happy. And instead, what we often try to do is change other people’s behaviour so that we can feel better, right?

And the problem with that is that it doesn’t work very well. I wish I could tell you that I knew the magic rule to make everyone do what I want them to do, but I don’t. And instead, I found it’s just way more useful and helpful to drop most or all of my expectations of other people since I can’t really affect what they do anyway. And the reason I’m happy to talk to you about this today is because I think this tool, if you really start applying it to your life, has the ability to transform really, almost every aspect of your life: personal relationships, work relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, and it has one of those sorts of trickled down or trickle out effects where you just start noticing the ripples in so many areas, even in relationships that you didn’t think were problematic or challenging for you.

So also, I just want to let you know that I went ahead and created a workbook on this subject, again, because I think it is so useful. So, if you’re interested in getting the worksheet for that, one, you can find the link in the show notes, and otherwise, you can go to my website, under the podcast or episode list, it’ll have the link. I can also go ahead and post it in one of my emails. So, if you’re on my email list, which you can sign up for also my website, you can certainly grab a copy of it as well.

Let’s get started on this. And so again, this is a coaching tool that I learned about years and years ago called “The Manual.” And basically, just to sort of restate it, it’s an instruction guide. It’s a mental, usually, it’s in our head. We typically don’t have a written copy of it, but it’s an instruction guide that each one of us has for other people—honestly, probably everyone—in our life about how we would like them to behave, how we need them to behave so we can feel good and we can be happy.

People here, in the manual, would include pretty much everyone. So, our romantic partners, our friends, our family, our patients, our colleagues, our bosses, and probably even strangers. So, what am I talking about? So, an example of rule in our manual might look like a belief like patients should do what I, the doctor, tell them to do, right? Or patients shouldn’t expect me to address 12 concerns in one visit. My boss should listen to me. My boss shouldn’t send me last-minute requests. A good friend should call and check in with me every week, or people should respond to my texts within hours or minutes or days, I don’t know.

You could just notice, do you have a rule about that? And one reason it could look different is because we each have different manuals for people. We generally don’t tell other people what’s in our manual and we usually don’t even realize we have it. And we certainly, typically, before we start this work, we don’t see the unnecessary pain and suffering it causes us to have these rule books, these manuals for other people. We typically just sort of feel like the other person should just know what to do and how to behave. And when they don’t that, they’re sort of misbehaving or willfully misbehaving or letting us down.

And while it may seem justified to have these kinds of expectations of other people and while it’s a hundred per cent normal, if you ask other people, you know, what do you think a good friend should do? Or what do you think patients should do or not do? Or how do you think parents should behave or brothers or sisters or anything like that? You’ll notice, notice we all have these, right? It’s sort of a big book that we’ve compiled based on probably our culture, our upbringing, our family of origin, maybe books and movies, and other media that we’ve taken in our past life experiences, right? They all go into shaping these sorts of expectations and wishes and preferences that we have.

So, it seems totally justified to have these kinds of expectations of other people. And it’s very normal, but it can be very difficult when your emotional happiness is directly tied to other people behaving in a certain way, especially when they don’t behave the way you think they should, and they won’t, right? Because they’re other people.

And so this is the distinction. It’s fine to have preferences. It’s fine to want to be friends with people who maybe even share some of those expectations. But just notice if you’re emotional wellbeing is dependent on other people following these unwritten and unexpressed rules or manuals that we have for them. So, what I teach and what I personally believe based on doing this work myself, is that other people’s behavior has no impact on me or on us emotionally until we think about it, until we interpret their behavior, and until we choose to make other people’s behavior mean something. No matter what people do or how they act or what they say, we don’t have to give others the power to determine how we feel, ever.

I think this is amazing. I think this is a superpower, and the more I’ve put this practice into sort of work in my life, the more it feels like a superpower, right? The more it feels like I don’t have to overreact. I don’t have to experience a lot of drama regardless of what other people do say or don’t do, or don’t say. It’s such a powerful skill to practice. And it is a skill. It is something I don’t think we’re born with it. I think some people maybe are innately or inherently a little better at it. But this is a superpower that you can really develop for yourself, the ability to not need other people to be a certain way for you to feel okay, for you to feel good, for you to feel happy, for you to feel however you want to feel.

So, what’s the problem with having a manual in the first place, right? Let’s talk about that first. So, as I’ve mentioned before, adults have the ability and the freedom to behave however they choose to behave. This includes you. This includes me. And I really want you to think about this, there’s nothing you ever have to do, and there’s nothing anyone else has to do for you. I know this goes sort of against what we think of all the things we have to do or other people have to do, but really, we do have choices. And I’m not saying there’s not consequences for what I choose to do and what other people, other adults choose to do or say, or how they choose to behave. But I just want you to think about like, what if there’s nothing you have to do? And what if there’s nothing anyone else has to do for you?

In particular, in terms of relationships, I know this idea goes against a common practice in a lot of current couples therapy that you might be familiar with where you sit down and you discuss maybe your relationship or what has happened and then you share with each other, what your needs are so that they can meet them. And then they might share with you their needs and then how you can go ahead and meet those needs. The problem with this is it creates a setup for disappointment and even disaster, in the long run, I think. Because how long can you do that before you start feeling resentful? How much better would it be if each of us is just responsible for meeting our own needs? It doesn’t mean that we don’t make requests of people, but this is about not putting your emotional wellbeing on the line, whether or not someone agrees or disagrees with you.

So, when you’re in a relationship of any sort where you feel responsible for meeting someone else’s needs, and they feel responsible for meeting yours, there’s usually a lot of manipulation or people pleasing, in effort to try to control the other person. And in the end, I think nobody really wins because of that. And that’s going back to that truth is that you can’t really control another person. You can try, and I’m sure most of us have, but I would just check in with how well that went.

And I would also say that there’s nothing that another person could do that will make you as consistently happy as you want to be. All of the power to feel happy lies within you at all times, even right now. So, although your partner or your colleague or your sibling or your patient may do things that then give you some positive thoughts and feelings at times, they won’t be able to do it all the time and they probably don’t want to, right? So, this is true, not only of our personal relationships where this work can really be transformative, but this is also the same with work relationships and friendships.

Again, if your emotional life is tied to your partner’s behavior or anyone else’s behavior, you’ve given away all of your power and have set yourself up for disaster. But if instead, you all can both be responsible for your own happiness, right? Your happiness is your business, someone else’s happiness and fulfilment is their business, then you can just show up as yourself and just enjoy the other person, right? And they get to show up as themselves.

So, I think this is how the best relationships can function. And I have to say that my relationships, whether personal relationships, work relationships or friendships have improved so much as I’ve sort of burned up my rule books, or dropped my expectations, I’ve released the manuals that I have for people. So again, the same is true. I think if we need patients or colleagues to behave in a certain way for us to feel good, why should we outsource our own emotional well-being to other people who probably are more focused on themselves and their own well-being, which is appropriate, rather than us learning how to be responsible for how we feel and how we show up at all times. So, I just want you to think about that.

And again, as with everything I teach, I would just say, try it on, test it out, see what you think. If it works for you, great! If it doesn’t, take what works. You don’t have to take everything I’m offering. This, however, I would say, try it out, test it out, see what you think.

So, let’s talk about how to let go of your manuals. So, the very first step is to realize that you have one and to start to sort of identify it, right? Start to realize that these manuals we have are based on other people and start to maybe just recognize or wonder about what would be the benefit to you of taking responsibility for your own rules, right? What would it look like to create your own personal operating manual or rule book for yourself? What if that’s really what these are?

Again, I would say the truth is that controlling our own behaviour is challenging enough for most of us, right? I think that’s what a lot of this work is, is becoming aware of our own behaviour, our own patterns, our thoughts, and our feelings. Trying to control other people is not only frustrating but super ineffective.

Can you start to take responsibility for how you feel, regardless of the behaviour of other people around you? I have found that this is a super empowering way to live and creates better results in my life, in all areas. This doesn’t mean that you stay in relationships that are harmful or not serving you well. You need to do what’s necessary to protect yourself. You can have boundaries that are appropriate, but boundaries aren’t about trying to control and manipulate other people so that you feel better. That never works.

Trying to control and manipulate other people so that you feel better is just not a good strategy. Instead, it makes you feel out of control because we can’t control other adults in their behavior. It makes us act sort of crazy sometimes or feel crazy. And you’ll notice if you feel resentful a lot or you’re sort of trying to say certain things to have people do certain things, that’s sort of a sign that you’re wanting other people to behave differently so that you can feel differently versus just asking for what you want, but not needing them to say yes or no.

I want to just pause and bring up an important caveat here. As we talk about these rule books or manuals that we all have and getting rid of them. So, the caveat is if you’re a parent or if you’re a boss or an employee or you manage people. So if you’re a parent, you likely have expectations for your children. And if you’re a boss or you manage staff or other people, or maybe you teach residents or anything like that, you have expectations for your employees or the staff that you manage, or the residents that you might be instructing or in charge of if you’re in an academic or residency program .

This is different from the type of manuals we’re talking about here. If you are setting clear expectations for your children or employees or staff, and have clear consequences for not meeting those expectations, you should not have any reason to be emotionally hurt if or when they fail to meet them. It’s appropriate as a parent or as a boss or as a manager or any role like that to have expectations. You might literally have a rule book or a manual. The key is that you want it very clearly spelt out the expectations and the consequences. And then you can notice if you are needing either your children or your employees or staff to follow through so that you feel a certain way. That’s the part to let go of.

So again, you’ll know if you have a manual for your children or employees by whether you’re emotionally affected by their behaviour. If you’re managing or parenting from a clean space, the emotion is really removed out of the equation and your job becomes simpler because it’s not about you any longer, it’s about the employee or the child. So you don’t have to get angry when your children or when people don’t comply with what you wanted or expected, you can always check in with, “Did I make it very clear, and are the consequences clear?" And then you just have to follow through with the clearly stated consequences you’ve outlined, and you’ll notice there’s so much less drama and it becomes much easier and more effective in the end for you and for others, as a parent or as an employee, or a manager of other people.

So, let’s start looking at your manual, and this is something you can do on your own time. I’m just going to go through the steps. And then again, if you want to get the workbook that I created, that sort of goes through this step by step, feel free to check out the show notes that’ll be posted in the link here. So, I want you to start by thinking about someone, maybe someone with whom you have a challenging relationship and think about how you want them to change. And then I want you to write down in detail what you would like them to do or not do. You might discover that you have a manual for someone that’s longer than one page. And that’s totally fine. I definitely had very extensive manuals with subcategories and everything.

So you probably want to do this person by person, but you could also notice often the patterns will be very similar. So the question is, "How do I want or expect this other person to behave?” Write it all down. So again, it might look like writing down what I mentioned before. Let’s say I have a friend who doesn’t tend to call me back very frequently or doesn’t text back or doesn’t ask me how I’m feeling. I might notice, oh, those are all sort of rules. I have friends who should call every week. Friends should text back within couple of hours or 24 hours. Friends should ask about how I’m doing. Friends should show up on time. Friends should want to get together in person.

It might be on a parent. My mom shouldn’t expect me to call her all the time. My mom should be more interested in her grandchildren. My mom should not feel so guilty all the time. My mom shouldn’t complain so much. My mom should want to come visit me more, whatever it is. You’ll notice because it often will be a relationship that we find somewhat lacking or difficult. So, that’s what I want you to start to look at. Just write it down. Try to do this without judging yourself. Try to be as honest as possible.

Often, we’re sort of embarrassed or even feel a little shame or self-judgment. As we start to notice all the rules we have. That will prevent you from really doing this work most effectively. So just notice if there’s a little judgment, if you’re worried that someone might discover it, you don’t have to put their name, maybe just do their initials, right? You can shred this. You don’t have to keep it in a journal or anything. This is stuff I do on paper and then get rid of honestly. So just start to write down all the details.

Can you notice how this manual or all these rules and expectations you have for this other person is causing you to suffer, right? Not them. Notice, what am I making it mean when they don’t do this? Why is it a problem for me that this person is showing up this way or doing this or not doing this or says this? If they did do everything I wanted them to, what would I be thinking about them in our relationship? How would I be feeling? Notice, is it possible that you could think and feel that right now without them needing to change?

Could you just drop the entire rule book, the entire manual? What would it look like if you just got rid of the entire thing? Are you willing to drop any of it? Is there a stress-free reason to keep any part of your manual regarding this person? A lot of the time, this is where my clients come up with this sort of idea that they don’t want to let someone else off the hook Which is such an interesting thing to look at because who’s really on the hook here? Who’s suffering, right? It’s you or me. It’s the person with the manual whose expectations are continually being unmet by this person who probably often our expectations are in direct conflict with how this person typically shows up and has shown up for as long as we’ve maybe known them. Could you let yourself off the hook? Again, is there any stress-free reason to keep any part of your manual for this person?

And then one of my favorite parts of this exercise is noticing, can you turn around these rules that you have for other people for yourself. So, if you have a rule that let’s see for a friend or someone that they should check in with you, are you checking in with them? Are you following your own rule book? And then also turn it around to yourself for yourself, are you checking in with you, right? Are you taking an interest in yourself? Is this someone that you want to keep in your life? Are you acting out of expectation? If you have an idea that your boss should respect you, are you respecting your boss? What would that look like? Are you respecting your boss in your head? Even if you are maybe right out loud and then are you respecting you?

So, really starting to turn it around to yourself, noticing how our rules of how other people should behave. One, sometimes they’re hard for us to fulfil, let alone, expecting other people to fulfil our expectations. And two, can we live up to our own sort of guidelines and expectations for how we should show up in the world, how we should behave? So, before we expect other people to do it, are we doing it? Not only for them but for ourselves.

All right, everyone. I hope you love this as much as I do. Again, try not to judge yourself, right? Try to do this with curiosity and interest, right? Notice if self-judgment or shame comes up, it’s not a problem. We could work through that. That’s we’re often doing this with someone else, right? Who’s done this work can be helpful. And again, if you want the workbook, just check into the episode, and show notes and the link will be there. Can’t wait to talk to you next week. If you have any questions, definitely send me an email and otherwise have a wonderful week. Bye!

If you are a busy practicing physician ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more, and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at That’s It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

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