Mirror, Mirror: Healing Our Earliest Reflections

Posted by on October 19, 2017

Our parents are our first mirrors. As we grow, we look to our primary caregivers to give us feedback and help guide us through a world unknown. What gets reflected back to us is the basis upon which we form our first self-impressions. Based on these reflections, we begin to develop a self-concept as we identify ourselves more with certain attributes, less with others. This initial self-concept doesn’t take into account that our parents may not be all knowing and that they might have their own filter based on their experiences. Nevertheless, these early reflections can largely influence our self-esteem, as well as being a determining factor in our overall sense of worth and our propensity for resilience. We believe our mirror to be reliable, the source of greater knowledge, and our compass. If our mirror shows us that we are deeply flawed, it must be so. That’s why if our parents reflect back criticism, disapproval, or ambivalence, we are more likely to feel insecure, unworthy, or ashamed. On the other hand, if our parents reflect back warmth, encouragement, approval, and acceptance, we learn that we are worthy. We learn that mistakes are inevitable and that they do not determine our significance and self-worth. As life presents its challenges, though we may struggle, we have the fundamental belief in ourselves that we are capable of getting through it. In addition, we are less likely to tolerate mistreatment because we are better equipped to consider the source of the mistreatment, rather than blindly believing it because it parallels the messages we received in childhood. So, what do you do if your first mirror was less than ideal? Consider the Source Keep in mind the environment in which your parent was raised. It is likely that he/she received the same messages. This is not an excuse, but it helps to separate what isn’t really about you, but is instead a product of your parent’s past. The most scarring messages personally attack the other person rather than respectfully addressing the problematic or undesirable behavior. These criticisms can make you believe that there is something profoundly wrong with your character and who you are. De-personalizing messages that have been deeply hurtful can liberate you from a lifetime of faulty beliefs about yourself. Evaluate Your Relationships When you believe damaging messages, they color the way you view yourself and what you think you deserve in relationships. This makes you more susceptible to abuse, because you’re more likely to tolerate mistreatment. It’s not a far stretch to enter into and stay in relationships that reinforce those negative early messages, believing that if more than one person says them, they must be right. While constructive self-reflection is healthy, recreating a toxic environment is not. Give Yourself What You Needed and Didn’t Get What age were you when you were neglected, criticized, or shamed? What messages did you long to hear? What did you need in order for you to feel safe, accepted, loved and cared for? Write these things down and begin to look at them every day. Recite these words to yourself, over and over again, especially during particularly difficult times when you feel most vulnerable. It is never too late to examine the messages that were reflected back to us during childhood. Most often,...

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Setting Boundaries Is an Act of Self-Respect

Posted by on October 19, 2017

Establishing healthy relationships means establishing healthy boundaries and clear and respectful guidelines for how we want to be treated by others. ________________________________ If you’ve ever been to therapy or read self-help books, you are likely to have come across the term, “setting boundaries”. In the past, I would skim over those words or nod my head in agreement with my therapist without giving this idea much thought. It wasn’t until I found myself exhausted from pouring so much of myself into everyone else, and resentful when I felt mistreated, that I realized I needed to perk up and learn what I could do to set my own boundaries. A boundary is a physical or metaphorical line between ourselves and others. Setting a boundary means requiring better treatment by others and not allowing someone else to run us over. A boundary provides a protective parameter around us, allowing us to operate comfortably within it. Depending on our personalities and life experiences, some of us have stronger boundaries than others. Women, in general, tend to struggle more with setting healthy boundaries. Often there is an underlying fear of rejection or fear of being unloved if a boundary is set, which feels like it could easily threaten closeness. In order to avoid jeopardizing that closeness, many of us will sacrifice our feelings, needs, and wishes. The problem with foregoing boundaries is that we invariably invite and tolerate mistreatment. We may not understand why we feel irritable, angry, sad, or resentful. Or, we may wonder why we’ve developed depression, insomnia or a shopping addiction. However, if we look more closely, we may see a consistent pattern of neglecting ourselves in an effort to appease others. This can happen in any type of relationship: spousal, parent-child, between siblings, friends or co-workers. The more we are afraid to say, “No, that’s not okay,” the more permission we give the other person to continue behaving as they are. If you’re thinking that setting a boundary will make you come across like a mean, selfish witch (like I was) — it won’t. There are many ways to start commanding respect without losing the softer qualities you like about yourself. As for the fear of losing closeness with another if you set a boundary, relationships actually tend to improve when clear guidelines are in place. I am not saying that it is easy for the other person to adjust to your new boundary, but as long as you are consistent, he or she will learn to adapt with a little time (unless you are in an abusive or controlling relationship wherein the other person punishes you for speaking up). If you have a hard time believing me, think of it this way. Although it is a slower process, over time your irritability, anger, sadness and resentment corrode the relationship. When you actually speak up and set the boundary, you are creating space for your needs to be met. After all, you’re not giving an alternative. As time passes, your overall happiness increases and you (as well as the other person) experience greater satisfaction with the relationship. Everyone is clear because the standard for treatment has been established. Often, by the time you’ve realized a boundary needs to be set, you’ve already been the recipient of mistreatment. It’s important for...

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What Does Self-Compassion Really Mean?

Posted by on February 25, 2017

For most of us, self-compassion is a theoretical concept that sounds nice if only we had the energy to ever get around to it. We know it’s something we should master for our own personal development, but what does it really mean and how do we truly get accustomed to incorporating this practice into our daily lives? Practicing self-compassion means slowing down and becoming actively aware of how we are talking to ourselves. Most of us develop a pattern of negative self-talk, engaging sometimes in an even abusive dialogue with ourselves. We replay these thoughts or words over and over again in our minds, tearing ourselves down in the process. The end result is that we feel insecure and unsure of ourselves, believing these negative thoughts to be true. When we talk to ourselves the way we would to our best friend for instance, we take ourselves out of the destructive critical looping pattern to which we’ve become accustomed, and we change the dynamic. Rather than obsessing over our infractions, beating ourselves up in the process, we begin to encourage ourselves. This gives us the strength and confidence to move forward with self-assurance, unencumbered by our self-defeating dialogue. If you find it difficult to get to a place of self-compassion, it may be helpful to visualize yourself as a baby. As a baby, you were completely innocent and pure. You were a blank canvas, worthy of love and kindness. Would you ever call yourself (as a baby), pathetic for being afraid or lonely, for instance? No. You would comfort a baby by reassuring her that she’s all right, that she’s safe. How would you talk to yourself as a baby? Start there. As we practice self-compassion and move away from self-criticism and judgment, we begin to view those around us more compassionately. The way we talk to ourselves is the way we tend to talk to or about others. This means that the person who is most critical of another is also deeply critical of herself. When we acknowledge that we ourselves are doing the best we can, we are able to acknowledge that others are doing the best they can as well. Rather than judging others for not being this or that (usually stemming from our own opinions about the way they should be), we accept who they are and can embrace it. Our own compassion for ourselves actually leads to deeper and more authentic relationships based on understanding and validation. Self-compassion is an ever-evolving practice. It is natural for certain circumstances to trigger negative self-talk, criticism, insecurity and judgment. Simply observing what is happening and becoming aware of how we are treating ourselves is actively practicing self-compassion. As we begin to treat ourselves kindly, our confidence grows and we find greater satisfaction in our relationships. The road to self-compassion is not a straight one, but it is well worth the...

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Learning: Exercise for the Brain

Posted by on February 25, 2017

Everyone knows that in order for a muscle to get stronger it has to be exercised routinely, not only by incrementally increasing the weight, but also by exercising it in a variety of different ways so that it is consistently challenged. Our brains are no different. From the second we are born our brains are eagerly engaged, actively absorbing and processing what is going on around us. Throughout childhood, this continues as we look around trying to make sense of our world and how we fit in to it. Children are accustomed to continually learning new things, often failing at tasks until they’ve practiced enough to have them mastered. This is expected. But, as we get further along into adulthood, many of us lose our curiosity and excitement around learning something new. We fall in to our strict schedules and routines, primarily engaging passively in what we already know. Though our familiarity with our already mastered tasks is comfortable, we do not gain any of the fantastic benefits associated with learning something novel. The following are some of the top reasons why learning is so important for us. Learning is fun. Our children are good reminders of this. Remember when you were little and you first learned to skip? You didn’t care if you were perfectly coordinated, you just got excited at the idea that you could move your feet in a way that somewhat resembled a skipping pattern and you laughed at how fun it was! Because children are so much less inhibited than adults, they know how to have more fun. When we stop taking ourselves so seriously, believing we need to have it all figured out, we open ourselves up to unlimited possibilities for having fun by learning something that excites us. Learning Promotes Personal Growth. Learning something new reminds us how much we still don’t know. As anyone who has felt foolish as they tried something new for the first time can attest, attempting to master something in which you have no previous experience is certainly humbling! Remaining humble is important because it keeps us more open and willing to experience new things, which directly facilitates personal growth. Learning Boosts Confidence. Learning something new boosts confidence for a couple of key reasons. First, it gets us engaged with ourselves, fostering a deeper connection and sense of self. As we know ourselves better, and enjoy ourselves more, we develop more self-confidence. Second, when we learn a new skill, it gives us a sense of accomplishment. We have mastered something we did not know before and we can add it to our repertoire of knowledge. We take pride in our knowledge and accomplishments, both of which are associated with confidence. Learning Keeps The Mind Sharp. Current research shows that engaging in already mastered activities or more passive activities, does not yield the same positive cognitive benefit to the brain that learning something unfamiliar and mentally challenging accomplishes. In a randomly assigned study, Denise Park and colleagues found that adults who learned new skills showed improvement in memory compared to those who engaged in social activities or non-demanding activities at home. As Park puts it, “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside your enhancement zone.” * The benefits to learning something new are far...

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The Emotionally Polarized Couple

Posted by on February 25, 2017

Like many couples, Megan and Chris love each other, but they each admit to having communication problems. They recently had a second child and although they are overjoyed with their growing family, they are both handling the stress that accompanies it very differently. Megan describes feeling overwhelmed by taking care of two small children and all of the household responsibilities. She finds that she is increasingly irritable, she cries more easily than before, and often feels like she is failing to meet the growing demands of her family. Megan is hurt and angry that Chris is more distant than he used to be, but every time she asks him what’s wrong, he insists that everything is fine. Chris is frustrated that Megan is easily irritated since the birth of their second child and he doesn’t understand why she’s so weepy all of the time. He tries to say as little as possible because he doesn’t know what will “set her off” and make her start crying. When they try to talk, Chris offers suggestions to help Megan, but she only gets madder. He doesn’t want to make things worse, so he stays quiet. Chris and Megan are experiencing the stress that accompanies having a newborn, but the same breakdown in communication frequently emerges in couples, regardless of the stressor. Many men don’t know what to do with a woman’s heightened emotional response and they fear that if they “feed into” her emotions by offering her reassurance or validation, her emotional response will escalate. Men often mistakenly believe that if they jump in and fix the problem, if they point out the ways in which her feelings are illogical or irrational, or if they leave their partner alone, she will feel better. However, this approach has the opposite effect. She is looking to her partner to listen and to validate her feelings. She sees his suggestions as an insult; a clear indication that he believes she is incapable of handling things herself. She views his opinions of how she’s conducting herself as judgment and criticism. And finally, she views his distance as a rejection of her. All of these lead her to have an even larger emotional response and thus, perpetuate the polarization. There are some basic differences between the sexes when it comes to communicating. Generally speaking, men tend to turn inward when facing a challenging situation or when going through a difficult time. After he has figured out how to solve his problem or he has moved past his hardship, a man is more likely to discuss his experience. His partner may take this pattern to mean that he doesn’t feel close enough to her to want to confide in her. Sharing and confiding in her is, to her, the ultimate way of achieving closeness. She feels hurt or angry, believing there is a disconnection between them. Women, on the other hand, tend to have a need to talk about things as they are happening. As she is going through a difficult time, she finds comfort in discussing her thoughts and feelings with her partner. This makes her feel more connected to her partner and therefore, less alone in facing her challenge. For her partner, he may think that she is looking for advice, needs help solving the...

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Moving Through Grief

Posted by on February 25, 2017

Even though we are all confronted with loss throughout our lives, the grieving process is not something that is commonly discussed or taught in our culture. There is an expectation that we are supposed to stay strong and return to normal within a few days to a few weeks. Many of us believe that if we allow ourselves to fully give in to our grief, we will never be able to move beyond it and we will be stuck in our grief-stricken state forever. This is not the case. In fact, quite the opposite is true. When we give ourselves permission to feel how we feel (sad, hopeless, lost, confused, worried, angry, etc.) we actually move through the grieving process, as opposed to simply avoiding it. Grieving is a very healthy response to any type of loss; even life losses such as a divorce, a move, the end of a friendship, illness or any life transition. We cannot expect ourselves not to have feelings around these types of events. There is no magic formula for moving through the grieving process, but there are some things that can help. Some things to keep in mind: The mind-body connection. Loss reminds us that life is finite. The stillness that comes from being alone can feel uncomfortable. Rather than drowning out the stillness with noise, try embracing it. Quiet your mind for a few moments and allow yourself to observe the sensations in your own body. This simple practice can help to center you when it feels as if everything around you is falling apart. Get out in nature. Nature has a way of lending perspective. It nourishes us in a way that nothing else can, while gently reminding us of the cycle of life. In addition, getting exposure to natural light can help our overall mood. Even something as simple as taking a walk or going barefoot in the grass can soothe us during a difficult time. Exercise. Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. The brain automatically releases more endorphins during grief to help us get through the initial phase of the loss. After about six weeks or more, the endorphin release wears off and we are left with more depressive symptoms. By exercising, we are tapping into the body’s natural healing system. Exercise can give us a clear focus as we become more in sync with our body. As we feel stronger, we begin to feel less helpless and more capable. A feeling of helplessness is a common experience after a loss. Grieving is not something we can intellectualize. In trying to do so, we only set ourselves up for prolonging the process rather than surrendering to it. Trusting the process gives us permission to surrender, which ultimately leads to acceptance. This article first appeared in Woodlands Online, The Woodlands/Conroe Bubblelife and The Paper...

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Letting Go: When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Posted by on April 10, 2016

Death is ultimately what many people fear, but we all experience other losses throughout our lives. Loss comes in many forms: our loved one dies and we are left with painful feelings in their absence, we go through a divorce and are left to navigate our lives without the partner we thought we would have, our children grow up and move away from us, or we identify ourselves with our job and one day it’s just gone. People understand the grieving process when it comes to death and typically rally around in support of the loved one who has been left behind. However, life losses can feel every bit as painful because many of us feel alone in our experience. We are taught not to burden others with our troubles or that we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Perhaps we receive criticism or judgment for the loss. We may even blame ourselves for whatever has happened. All of these things tend to make us feel more isolated and can exacerbate our sense of loss.   Grieving is a natural process that happens whenever we have an attachment to someone or something and it does not work out the way we want it to. Often we’ve become attached to the idea of something…that a person will always be there, that people will meet our expectations or that we will achieve certain benchmarks of success, for example. When it doesn’t work out the way we had hoped, we are forced to let go of the idea to which we had become so attached. The more attached we are to the outcome, the harder this is, especially if we’ve grown accustomed to identifying ourselves by it. Letting go of our expectations is a painful process and we can experience a wide range of emotions from anger, fear, and sadness to hope and acceptance. Grieving is not a straight line, and most of us bounce back and forth with our emotions as we wrestle with the issue at hand. When we accept this, and give ourselves permission to feel the way that we feel, we work our way through the struggle and naturally begin to let go.   Anxiety often arises out of fear of some future event; typically that we feel is out of our control. Life experience teaches us that there are many things that fall into this category. We know this for a fact intellectually, but work hard to avoid the emotional feelings associated with loss of control. Feeling helpless, like we don’t have the power to change something we are experiencing, is extremely uncomfortable. To deal with this discomfort we come up with various ways to self-soothe; some healthy, some not.   Most of the things we worry and obsess about are externally driven and have absolutely nothing to do with our wishes and expectations for ourselves. Attempting to change those things in an effort to achieve the desired outcome is an exercise in futility. Instead, it is essential to recognize when to loosen our grip. We don’t want to give up our power so we work hard to hold on, even at the expense of our own well-being. However, when we stop struggling against circumstances and allow ourselves to relax in the face of the...

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Relationships That Hurt Part II

Posted by on January 3, 2016

Are you in a relationship with an abuser?   Abuse is not something that typically comes up in casual conversation. In fact, most people go to great lengths to keep it private. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner (1). In addition, nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (2). These alarming statistics are clear indications that this is an issue that needs to be discussed. Aside from the early warning signs of an abuser, there are some questions to ask yourself if you suspect you might be in an abusive and/or controlling relationship. There are some common patterns in any type of abusive relationship, and taking a few minutes to ask yourself some basic questions may be an important step in identifying whether or not there is an unhealthy pattern in your relationship. Being in an emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive relationship can be confusing and isolating. Remember that if something doesn’t feel right intuitively or if you constantly feel hurt by your partner’s actions, it means something is wrong. Pay attention.   Are the words consistent with the actions? Focus on the actions, not the words. Abusers are good with words. They are often charming, winning, and very good at twisting things around so that they are never to blame. Most of us mean what we say. Our actions are consistent with our words. This is not true of an abuser. It is easy to be led astray when you focus solely on the words and believe them to be true. The real issue at hand will not be addressed, and you will be left feeling confused and in the wrong. If you are able, try tuning out the words, and instead, focus your attention solely on your partner’s actions. What do his/her behaviors tell you? Someone may apologize all day long, but if they seem cavalier and like they don’t care that you are hurting, or they continue to behave in the same hurtful way after you’ve told them how it makes you feel, there is a problem. Their words are not consistent with their actions.   Is your partner empathetic? If your partner seems completely unconcerned by your suffering, it means that he/she does not have enough empathy for you, and likely, anyone else. A lack of empathy is common in almost all abusers, otherwise they wouldn’t abuse! If an abuser had empathy for their partner, they would feel badly about inflicting pain, and would stop the behavior that was causing it. Most of us have an innate aversion to inflicting pain on others. In the absence of empathy, an abuser does not.   Does your partner take responsibility for himself/herself? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes, say the wrong things, and act insensitively at times. What counts is the way in which we conduct ourselves after we’ve behaved poorly. An abuser does not own up to his/her wrongdoings unless he/she is completely backed into a corner. An abuser gets defensive and will work hard to twist the facts, making their partner to...

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Relationships That Hurt Part I

Posted by on October 28, 2015

Understanding Abuse, Misconceptions, and Warning Signs   “He’s not abusive, he would never hit me.” These are words I hear often in my practice. Women describe controlling or abusive behavior in their relationship and then follow up with something about how their partner would never cross that obvious line between verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse and physical abuse. Often these women will describe horrific, demeaning, and belittling behaviors from their partner, but shudder when I label it abuse. This article is not just for women who are in a physically abusive relationship. Please do not be turned off by the word abuse and think it automatically doesn’t apply to you if you have not been battered. Abuse is not a cut and dry issue, and often relationships that don’t feel right are confusing. It is imperative that women know what is acceptable treatment and what is not. Abuse is improper treatment, or mistreatment. The patterns of any type of abuse are similar. When I use the term “abuse,” I am referring to all types of abuse: verbal, emotional, psychological and physical. I have never seen a physically abusive relationship that was not also verbally, emotionally, and psychologically abusive as well. There is a common misconception that abused women come from abusive families and that they are just going back to what is familiar. Often these women think that what they’ve experienced in their childhood is normal and they don’t know that there is an alternative. Sadly this is true for many women. However, there are many women who’ve had perfectly happy childhoods and unknowingly walk into an abusive relationship. These women are often confused and don’t understand what has led to such a hurtful relationship. In many cases, the woman has no idea why she feels so bad in the relationship, because she can’t quite put her finger on it. Her partner may be perfectly charming to everyone else, making it all the more confusing to her. She may doubt her own sanity since everyone else thinks he’s fabulous. He may be gregarious, shy, ambitious, or laid back. He may have money and power, or not. Abusers come in every shape and size, which makes it all the more difficult to spot one early in a relationship. However, there are some classic warning signs that are important to pay attention to if your relationship isn’t feeling right. In his book, Why Does He Do That?, Lundy Bancroft highlights early warning signs of an abuser. -He speaks disrespectfully about his former partners -He is disrespectful toward you -He does favors for you that you don’t want or makes you feel uncomfortable -He is controlling -He is possessive -Nothing is ever his fault -He is self-centered -He abuses drugs or alcohol -He pressures you for sex -He gets too serious too quickly about the relationship -He intimidates you when he’s angry -He has double standards -He has negative attitudes towards women -He treats you differently around other people -He appears to be attracted to vulnerability Abuse includes any behavior that is designed to frighten, intimidate, terrorize, manipulate, hurt, humiliate, blame, injure or wound someone. Abuse can come in many forms including physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, or economic. This includes any behaviors that are controlling or isolating. Again, there is no profile...

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Depression and Anxiety: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Posted by on June 22, 2015

Depression and Anxiety “I told the doctor I was overtired, anxiety-ridden, compulsively active, constantly depressed, with recurring fits of paranoia. Turns out I’m normal.” –Jules Feiffer We all know about depression and anxiety. If we have not experienced it ourselves, most of us know someone who has. We have all basically accepted depression and anxiety as a normal part of life. But, what if it’s not? What if there’s an alternative? Someone who is experiencing depressive symptoms is likely to identify themselves as having low energy or fatigue, insomnia or excessive sleeping, irritability, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, memory or concentration difficulties, overwhelming sadness, helplessness, and in extreme cases, suicidal thinking, just to name a few. Classic symptoms of anxiety are worry, fear, obsessive thinking, compulsive behaviors, insomnia, panic attacks, helplessness, and heart palpitations. Obviously, this is not a complete list of feelings and sensations a person may have when experiencing depression or anxiety, but they are some of the most common symptoms. Despite the fact that depression and anxiety have some different symptoms, they are two sides of the same coin. Depression and anxiety go hand in hand, and when a person is suffering from depression, they are likely to experience some anxious feelings and vice versa. Often depression and anxiety coincide with a life event. There may be an actual traumatic event or the depression/anxiety may be a response to a prolonged stressor in one’s life such as a difficult relationship, financial worries, or health concerns. The common theme is that these stressors lead us to feel powerless and helpless. This is uncomfortable. Often people try to cope with these stressors by distracting themselves with work, parenting, alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping, or through food in an attempt to avoid the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing…and to avoid feelings of powerlessness. It is not uncommon to develop physical symptoms in response to our feelings about these stressors. Some people seek help and get on an antidepressant, which can help alleviate some of the symptoms of depression or anxiety. While this can be helpful, and sometimes necessary, it doesn’t address the root case of what the person is experiencing on a fundamental level. We all have feelings. Some of us are more comfortable expressing our feelings than others, but all of us know what it is like to feel happy or sad, for instance. Feelings in and of themselves are not good or bad, right or wrong, they just are. Feelings are there to tell us more about something. Fear is designed to warn us of potential danger, just as joy reminds us of the beautiful gifts life has to offer. Both of these feelings serve a purpose. They tell us more about what we are experiencing; they give us more insight and information. We have a tendency to label feelings as good or bad, positive or negative, instead of accepting them for what they are and how they serve us. We tend to avoid the “bad” or “negative” feelings, rather than embracing them and accepting what they are, and listening to what they are trying to tell us. We use many of the coping mechanisms listed above in order to avoid feeling sad, angry, lonely, or afraid. Often these feelings are indicating that something needs to change....

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