Sharla Dawn Gorder

Writer – Speaker

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© Jem Sullivan

What if your husband came with a “user manual”?  Or your boss?  Or even your new friend at the club?  What if you, yourself, came equipped with a little booklet of instructions designed to help others understand how you best function, what might cause you to short circuit, and, perhaps most importantly, what helps facilitate enjoyable or helpful “usage” of you (yousage, ha!) in the context of important relationships in your life? 

What if? 

Would your user manual resemble the tome issued with the 1975 Betamax video recorder, about 9000 pages—translated into every language but Pig-Latin?  Or would your instructions fit neatly on a label—machine wash, drip dry?  Or maybe it would be something in between?

For weeks I’ve been pondering the idea of a “relationship user manual” or “friendship user manual,” based on a business article that my husband shared with me last month about a guy named Jay Desai.  He is the young CEO of health technology startup, PatientPing.  

The article, entitled, “The Indispensable Document for the Modern Manager” really resonated with me, despite the fact that I am not a modern manager, I do not own a business, and I have no employees. I do have friends though—intimate ones, casual ones, and potential ones.  Lots of them.  And with them, I sometimes experience what is referred to in the article as FOMU. 

Desai admits to suffering from this malady, this FOMU—not FOMO (a fear of missing out)—but FOMU, a fear of messing up.  In his business he’s seen potentially great teams stall or fall apart because of misunderstandings on how to best work with each other. 

According to the article, (click here to read it)  Desai decided to write a user guide, “similar to the kind that’d accompany a rice cooker or bassinet—but this one deconstructed how he operated optimally, when he might malfunction, and how others could use him to their greatest success.”

I love this idea.  Just a couple of weeks ago, I lamented to my husband about a challenging new-ish relationship, “She just doesn’t understand what it is to be a friend,” which I quickly amended to a humbler truth: “She doesn’t understand what it is to be my friend.”  And the onus for the shakiness of this relationship came back to me.  Where it belongs.

I often quip that, “My dance card is always open,” when it comes to making new friends, and that is as true as it has ever been for me.  Ever since Myles and Taylor left home to begin “adulting,” it has become very important for me to seek out and foster healthy friendships, if only to distract me from the temptation to stalk my poor kids as they inevitably (appropriately) separate from Mommy and Daddy.

Yes, my dance card is open.  I am finding, however (and this “User Manual” exercise has led me to some interesting insights) that while I am enthusiastically open to that first dance or two, it might be a good idea for me to be a bit more selective about the people I leave the dance hall with.  Ha!            

Working on this article has been very enlightening.  And though I really don’t see myself handing a potential new friend a bulleted document to review and approve, I do believe that going through this process is helping me identify what is and isn’t important to me in my favorite and most important of all life endeavors:  my relationships with other people.   

Desai’s “User Manual” though targeted to the business world, applies beautifully to all kinds of relationships. Desai says, “What teams want from their leaders more than anything else is predictability and authenticity.  This leads to trust.  With trust you are unstoppable.” 

Children want the same things from their parents and vice versa.

Wives want the same things from their husbands and vice versa.

And friends too.  We want predictability (at least in the form of reliability), authenticity, and trust—that makes us “unstoppable.”  

I have a few “unstoppable” relationships in my life—but not 100.  I don’t need 100.  I couldn’t maintain 100.  That said, I do have space on my card for new friends, and I have several casual existing friendships that could potentially be more enriching for all concerned, with a little more authentic effort on my part.  And on the flip side, there are interactions that I engage in which (I see now) are in direct conflict with standards I have identified as personal core values.  This “document” is helping me see the folly of my ways, and free up more time and emotional energy for relationships that are mutually satisfying—mutually enriching and healthy.

This is what I’ve decided to do.  Working from a description of Desai’s premise, I’ve begun pondering three main ideas outlined in the article and answer the same questions that Desai considered when penning his user guide for business associates.  Only I would apply them to my personal relationships. 

  • How do I operate optimally?
  • When might I malfunction?
  • And how can others use me to their greatest success? 

Great questions!  I mean, I do enjoy “operating optimally,” but I also have character glitches or even benign preferences that cause me to “malfunction” at times.  And as far as helpfulness goes, it just so happens that my “word for 2018” (or phrase, actually) is “Creative Usefulness.”  I want to be an asset in the lives of the people with whom I interact.  I want to contribute to their “greatest success.” 

I do understand, however, that with all human relationships, not just romantic ones, the role of “chemistry” or “spark” cannot be underappreciated.   There are people with whom we naturally and spontaneously connect, often independent of common background or interests. It can be hard to deconstruct these interactions. 

Also, a “Relationship User Manual” on the surface, seems very unsexy and even arrogant.  I mean, who do I think I am to put, in writing, instructions dictating the way I think things should be between us?  Or worse, to make a list of irredeemable transgressions that, if committed, would crash our friendship on the spot?

But when I really started to honestly (and humbly) consider Desai’s questions, I realized that, for me, there are very few (maybe three) infractions that are (as Dr. Phil so famously coined) “deal-breakers.”  And is it really such a bad idea to make those things known right from the get-go—even if only to myself?

I am also happy to learn (through this exercise) that my “optimal functioning” in relationships is pretty fluid, and I don’t require all the stars to be in alignment to have satisfying connections with friends.  In many respects, I am less set in my ways than I was when I was younger, and I am able to enjoy and learn from relationships outside of my “optimal” zone.   That said, there are circumstances and personality alignments in certain relationships that put me in a kind of exquisite “friendship flow.”  (You know who you are! I love you!) It was so much fun to think about the good times we’ve had for the purposes of this story and attempt to identify what it is about our friendship that makes it so valuable to me. 

So, here goes: Basic Operating Procedure 1.0 for the Sharla Dawn Classic. 

This is gonna be fun—except maybe the middle part, where I have to come clean about the things (rational or not) that irritate me to the point of short-circuiting.  But that’s next month’s post.

For this article, I’m exploring the first prompt—and I encourage you to play along.  This has been a great learning experience for me, and it really has been fun to think about—at least this question, because I get to ponder some of the happiest times in my life. 

How do I operate optimally in relationship with others? 

How do you?  Stop reading for a second and think about this. Maybe even get out a pen and jot down some responses to these prompts:

  1. List three of the most mutually enriching relationships of your life?
  2. What do they seem to have in common?
  3. How do you behave differently with these people than with other friends or associates?
  4. What qualities/attitudes/activities contribute to the success of these relationships?
  5. What differentiates this relationship from other less enjoyable ones?

I came up with five single-spaced pages of responses to these questions, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll just give you the cliff notes. 

I operate optimally in very small groups.  Actually, one-on-one, is my preference, but I do enjoy small gatherings in a calm environment or my home.  It surprises people to learn that I am actually more introverted than extroverted.  I am an “INFJ” according to the Jung Typology test. (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging—the weirdest of all combos, attributed to less than one percent of the population.  Read “Attila the Introvert” if you’re curious or want to take the test yourself.)

Big parties, banquets, even concerts—especially the kind without reserved seating—make me feel nervous and awkward.  Even my favorite restaurant (the Grand Marlin) on a busy Friday night is too noisy and bright for me to enjoy fully.  Even Bands on the Beach sometimes feels a little stressful.  That said, I will join friends in these venues, and usually find I’m glad I did, but I rarely come home feeling refreshed and connected.  For “optimal functioning” I will meet you for lunch at Wild Roots, or coffee at The Drowsy Poet, or a small dinner party at my house.  Or better yet, let’s do something physical like paddle boarding or bike riding or beach combing.  
(Your turn:  What environmental conditions work best for you in your relationships?)  

I operate optimally in the light of day, with a plan.  I am, to a fault, a morning person.  I rise—quite unintentionally—between 4:30 and 5:30 every morning.  I tend to nod off around 8:30 in the evening.  I realize that this is not the best schedule in most social circles, and I’m working on it.  But for now, I have super human powers of connection when the sun is shining.  When it’s not, I just wanna hide out on my bed—or under it, depending on my mood.

I also operate best with a plan.  I am not very spontaneous, though I would like to be.  If we make plans a day or two in advance, you can count on me to show up, and be on time.  Last minute invitations however, sort of stress me out.  I’m not sure why this is, but I’m reluctant to abandon my intended plan—even if it’s just to clean out the junk drawer—on short notice.   Maybe it’s the introvert in me protecting my alone time.
(Your turn: What personal traits, habits or routines influence the quality of your relationships?) 

I operate optimallyand this is the most important point—when I sense reciprocal vulnerability—that magic that happens in relationships when we feel trusting and trusted with the less than flattering aspects of being messy mortals in a busted-up world.  While I understand that not everyone has earned the right to hold my heart in their hands, nor theirs in mine, I do believe that someone has.  My “unstoppables” have.  And if I’m honest, this is a always goal for me with close relationships—to feel free to share the hard stuff, and not just the “bad luck” stuff that happens to me, but the stuff I, being human and flawed, seem to bring on myself.  I need people in my life I can safely talk to about these things, and I need that same openness from them.  This cannot flow just one way.  Sadly, I have had to learn this lesson the hard way.

This type of mutual intimate interaction has to evolve over time.  We’ve all had the experience of someone we barely know spewing very personal, often very defamatory, “confessions” over cocktails.  I’m learning to run away with my hair on fire from such interactions, but even the opposite can send me packing.

Recently, at a party, I was drawn into a conversation with an attractive woman in her late 40’s.  She was prettily put together, articulate and friendly.  But I walked away from our encounter feeling gypped.  She only showed me her “uncracked side”—the metaphor I’ve gleaned from my years of shelling.  It’s not till you excitedly pick up the “perfect” seashell and turn it over in your hand, that you see that it isn’t indeed perfect.  Nothing is.

I don’t expect (or want) strangers to tell me unflattering things about themselves, but this encounter was so skewed toward perfection, that I felt like I had had an encounter with a billboard.  In a 10-minute conversation I learned that her job (head honcho at her firm) was perfect, her handsome husband is and always has been madly supportive of her every endeavor, and (here’s the clincher) her grown children had never ever given her a minute of trouble since conception.  All of that may or may not be true, but—and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this—I don’t want to be her friend.  Ha!  (Clearly I still have a little work to do.)
(Your turn: What emotionally, do you need to give and to receive in your most valuable relationships?)  

This stuff is really fun to ponder.

Or not.

The next question from the Desai article has gotten me thinking about some criticism (alas, valid) that I’ve been getting from my friends (the tried and true “unstoppable” ones) and even from professionals.  (I’ll tell you all about it next post.)

That question: What causes me to malfunction in relationships?  is a little juicier than the first one.  It’s also a little darker, in that it necessitates pondering the who-what-when-where-and-why of relationships that have crashed and burned, and my part in the disaster.  That’s not nearly as much fun as reminiscing about my “unstoppables”—my trip with Anna to San Antonio last December, or my lunch with Dawn at Wild Roots last week, or coffee on the deck with Lynas yesterday. 

No, this calls for what I refer to as “naked introspection” and, at my age, I’d really rather stay fully clothed.  Ha!  But in the interest of public service, I’ll do it—if I can leave my hat on. 

Stay tuned for part two of Basic Operating Procedure 1.0 for the Sharla Dawn Classic.  (The first Wednesday of the month, May 2nd.)

In the meantime, if you’re playing along, consider these prompts when exploring what causes you to malfunction—your relationship land mines:

  1. Thinking back on two or three relationships that ended poorly (at least one recent and one a long time ago), what did they have in common?
  2. Did the relationships end in a fiery crash or fizzle out like a damp sparkler?
  3. Are you glad or sad that you are no longer involved in these liaisons?
  4. Did your involvement in these relationships cause you to behave out of alignment with your own core values?
  5. Now that it’s over, can you identify your role in the “break-up”?

P.S.  Please, if you’re playing along, let me know your thoughts!  Reply here on this blog, on Facebook or Instagram, or contact me personally.  You’ve got my number. (Boy have you got my number!) 

Follow me on Instagram or Facebook @sharladawnstoryteller for images and musings from the beach at dawn.  Also, pick up a copy of Island Times from any of a dozen or more local Pensacola Beach shops and restaurants. Enjoy my new column—Sharla Dawn at Dawn.

“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99.  You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on  and entering the email address of the recipient.  Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website.  (Shop)

It makes a great Mother’s Day gift!

Books are also available from all these retailers:

At the beach:
         Geronimo’s Outpost

          69 Via DeLuna Dr.
          Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
          (850) 435-9555

In Gulf Breeze:
          832 Gulf Breeze Parkway
          (Publix shopping center)
          Gulf Breeze, FL  32561
          (850) 934-3436

In East Hill:
         Angel’s Garden
         1208 N. 12th Ave.

         Pensacola, FL 32503
         (850) 435-9555

Mall area:
Miles Galleries

           (at the front register)
           5109 Bayou Blvd.
           Pensacola, FL  32503
           (850) 607-6560

At Seaside:
         Sundog Books

         89 Central Square
         Santa Rosa Beach, FL  32549
         (850) 231-5481

In Fairhope:
        Page and Palette

        32 S. Secton Street
        Fairhope, AL  36532
        (251) 928-5295

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