Category Archives: compassion

One Reason We Fail to Parent From Where We Want To

We have a bad habit in our society of saying that societies standards are the problem. In fact, society is what keeps all of our most base desires in check. While the many certainly influence us, the small cultures that we’re a part of have the biggest pull.

We absorb our larger culture and our more particular culture. Whether we say pop or soda. Whether we take our shoes off at the door. Whether 80s music is classic or trash. Whether screaming at your kid is normal or looked down upon.

Immediate Return Environment

As humans, we respond largely to the incentives right in from of us. Like lions on the savannah, our ancestors had an urgent need to figure out what was going to bring them pain or gratification now, not in a month and certainly not in 20 years. We lived, for most of our evolutionary past, in an “immediate return environment.” This means a lot of our brain’s coding pressures us to favor the present over the future.

This is why people smoke when they know it will kill them, don’t save when they know it puts them in a bad position, and scream at their kids even when they know it is damaging.

Game Theory

Somehow, though, our ancestors did manage to save. Large scale civilization isn’t possible without some savings. But if our hardware told us not to think about tomorrow, how did we?

One of the few things that we understand clearly in the past, present, and future is our relationships. The prisoner’s dilemma shows the importance of the tit-for-tat function that we use when interacting with other people. Working with others produces the best outcomes for humans. This is why we like other people and need to be liked by them.

If we do defect—if we do bad things that people don’t like in social situations, we will no longer have a social situation. Social rejection, ostracism, and exclusion are tools used by our primate relatives. They mean stress and, if taken to their extreme, death.

So, we developed social emotions to help us override our desire for instant gratification. If you let me have of your food this time and I don’t give you mine next time, that might be the end of our exchanges.

If, instead of just keeping my food for myself, I can see that giving you food will benefit me in the future then I’ll want to share with you.


Social Emotions

To give long-term choices the boost of instant gratification, we developed a host of pleasant emotions that we get when we’re pro-social. Dr. David DeSteno goes over the three big emotions in his book, Emotional Success.

Gratitude: This emotion makes you feel pleasant when someone does a nice thing for you. Emotionally salient things are easier to remember, so you’ll be able to keep their favor in mind in the future.

Pride: This is the feeling you get from contributing in a meaningful way. We feel good when others acknowledge our work.

Compassion: This helps you feel connected to others, motivating you to make their lives better.

We also developed an emotion to feel bad when we do something that hurts others: guilt. It stops us from repeating behavior that is likely to get us punished from the group in the future.

Putting it Together

Looked at from an evolutionary psychology point of view, we never do things in the future for ourselves. If there aren’t others around, we are dead. There is no reason to plan for the future.

That’s why you can’t stick to your habits. That’s why you don’t yell when friends are around but do when you’re alone.

That’s why finding a tribe of people who believe in the same parenting ideas as you is so important. When you don’t have anyone around to value the future for, you live in an accountability vacuum. That is something that we just weren’t designed for.

You need people around to get you to accomplish your long-term goals. While you may be able to persevere in the short run, you’ll never get to where you’re going alone.


Taking Action

Ideally, you would have a large group of people who all held each other equally accountable for following specific, desirable norms. You can start trying to build that, but in the meanwhile, make do with what you have.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my writing.

I have one partner to hold me accountable for my exercising.

I will add more partners as I need more help developing different skills.

Eventually, some things will become part of your identity and you need less help. Eating healthy is part of who I am and I don’t need help being me.

Other things can be automated—that’s how I save. Still, other means of accountability can be outsourced through technology like the app Stickk.

Whatever it is, recognize that not accomplishing your long-term goals isn’t a failure of character. It’s a failure that happens to anyone who doesn’t have a community who share their values—and that is something you can take control of.

Try to spend more time around the people who act like you wish you did. Who parents the way you wish you did? Give them a call today and ask to set up a lunch together.

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness

Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It


Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method


Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.


Attention Isn’t a Reward


I don’t even know if I have the capacity for normal emotions or not because I haven’t cried for a long time. You just stifle them for so long that maybe you lose them, partially at least.”

That is a punch to the gut for anyone who feels like they have to hide their emotions or “true self.” Science continues to affirm that concealing your emotions is destructive. Dismissing our feelings makes us less able to maintain our sense of well-being. Our inner, ignored swamps create a distance between us and those we love.

Time does not heal all wounds; connection does. When someone you care for struggles with their feelings, you reach out a helping hand. Sometimes pain comes in the form of destructive behavior—as a society, we recognize this. We acknowledge that addiction indicates alienation and that the most aggressive among us are hurting.
So why do we admonish people for giving their children attention when they are having a hard time?

What are Rewards?

You shouldn’t reward behavior like that.”

If you pay attention to him, he will just keep doing it.”

Paying attention to someone isn’t a reward. Loving someone isn’t a reward. Love is an automatic reaction. We should not pretend to turn it on and off as a means to manipulate.

Are you a good person or bad person for feeling sad?

Are you an upright citizen or dreg for feeling anxious?

Does your regret make you admirable or awful?

These are of course ridiculous questions.

Rewards are something that you get for doing something good. Punishments are for doing something bad. Emotions are not on a moral spectrum.
Labeling feelings as negative or positive is destructive. Learning to accept a wide range of emotions contributes to our ability to self-regulate, an important life skill which you are teaching your child how to do (or not to do) now. When your child makes bids for your attention, that is an opportunity for you to coach them through their feelings.



It is easy for us to forget in today’s society what attention actually is. It is even easier to forget as adults because we feel and believe that we “take care of ourselves.”

Attention is our lifeline. Without the attention of others—in our evolutionary past and today—we either die or simply survive. In harsh environments, ostracism is used as an extreme punishment because we are social mammals; being ignored by your community is a threat of death and not an idle one.

Our attention and love are not rewards for our children. Once we recognize belonging as a fundamental human need, we can let go of the fear that we are rationing it incorrectly. You wouldn’t take away air, water, or food from your child as a punishment for their bad behavior. You shouldn’t take away your love.

Wanting attention is a legitimate need. If you find yourself thinking that the desire for attention is something that needs to be fixed in yourself, reflect on this belief, where you got it, and how to fix it. As trendy as pathologizing basic human desires and behaviors is, your family will benefit if you resist the urge.


In the name of authenticity, we should admit that we want to show our love for our children when they break down. Breaking down can be palatable—the shuddering of shoulders, the “blue zone” that Dr. Siegel talks about where our children clam up and avoid eye contact. Or it can be the dreaded “red zone—the tantrum, yelling, crying, screaming that everyone seems to think they will be able to avoid because they will parent right.

Both of these are normal human reactions to being overwhelmed. Children feel overcome with emotion more often and more easily and have outbursts to match.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum? You don’t need to tell them that their behavior is great. You certainly don’t need to actually reward the behavior with ice cream and toys. You don’t need to help them quickly get over the emotion. Stop harmful and destructive behavior (physically, if you need to), and just be with them. You don’t want to be alone in your tough emotions. Neither do they.

All behavior is communication. Sometimes that behavior is communicating, “I need your help to stop. I feel out of control.”


The Quote

The quote at the top was made by a really famous guy. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I’m not saying that your child is going to cannibalize people if you ignore their emotions. They could grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. They may learn how to regulate their emotions.
You are your child’s emotional coach. What are you teaching them?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Comment below: How do you handle your children’s tough emotions?

Bids for Attention


We took our evening walk at the park next to my house. There had just been a storm, so there were worms all over the ground. They were laying on the walkways, almost all of them dead from being stepped on. There was one survivor.

The boy was about 9 years old. He saw the one worm wiggling there, and it stirred some kind of emotion in him. He did not want to touch the worm, but he absolutely had to save it. He used his hands like two scoops and tried to quickly flick it back into the grass, hoping that the briefer the contact, the more limited was your exposure to worm germs.

It was a sweet. I’m not sure that it was helpful, but it came from a good enough place. After completing his mission, the boy ran up to his family to tell him the story of his heroic effort and success.

First, he tried his older sister. “Sarah,” he said, “I just saved a worm! He was on the street and I got him in the grass.”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He jogs up a bit further to tell his parents. He has added texture to the story in that short time. “Hey, guys,” he said, “I just tried to tell Sarah that there was a worm in the street. He was going to die, and I saved him.”

They don’t even look at him.

I hear him try for a third time. They nod in his direction.

Our paths diverged at this point, but I could see a flash of the future. All four of them get in the minivan. David—I’ve now named him—is trying to get people to acknowledge his story. To listen to a cool thing he accomplished today. Something he maybe was only interested in doing because he wanted his parents to be proud of him.


He says (again!), ”When we were at the park, I saved a worm! I took my hands and…”

“Enough, David! We’ve heard enough about the worm, okay? Just be quiet!” his Mom snaps.

This is a common story. Parents refuse to acknowledge that their kids are speaking, and then they get annoyed that their children say the same things over and over again.

This is the exact opposite of mindfulness. You are not paying attention to where you are and being with who you’re with. Unsurprisingly, your child is disappointed that his bed for connection is ignored.

With a younger child, this won’t be just repeating the story. It will be ever-escalating attempts to get your attention. A good example of this is babies and breastfeeding. One of the ways you can have a baby that cries less is by acknowledging the early signs of hunger. This includes rooting and sucking on their hands. If you are mindful of these more subtle cues, then your baby will, not cry out of hunger, because you will feed him before he gets too hungry.

If you do not pay attention to the clues baby is sending though, you should not be surprised that after he has asked several times, he feels the need to scream and cry to get what he wants.

What would you do if you asked your partner several times to pass the mustard and he just looked at you, and then looked away? Never passing you the mustard.

Maybe you wouldn’t scream and cry. But what if it was a problem you couldn’t solve yourself? What if you kept asking your partner to help you by putting laundry in the basket instead of on the floor when they get undressed, and they never do it? This might turn into screaming.

When our early attempts at getting understanding and acknowledgment fail, we escalate until we are heard. Not just babies, not just children—all of us!


Bids for connection are extremely important in maintaining a healthy relationship. It is useful to reflect on this as an important tool not just in romantic relationships, but all of them. This may be a joke, a touch, a story, or any other gesture designed to communicate the desire for connection.

Poor David just wanted someone to look at him and tell him it was a nice thing he did. If they disagreed with him touching the worm, they could have said they appreciate his effort to be a caring person but that there are other considerations. They just have to acknowledge it.

I’m not saying your kid won’t tell you the same story three times. I just mean it won’t be five times. In a row.

If you get down and face them, listen, and acknowledge what they’re saying, you’re less likely to have a situation that is escalated to the point of a tantrum. But you have to truly listen, not just say the words as if you’re listening.

You’ll maybe hear the same story later that night instead of two minutes later. You will be building a stronger relationship with your child because they trust you to respond sensitively to them. You’ll be practicing your mindfulness.

As a parent, it is difficult to acknowledge but important to remember that your kids will grow up and decide whether or not they want to visit you and talk to you regularly. Build a strong, good relationship so that when that time comes, you’re a person whose bids for attention they turn towards.

The Best Way to Help Your Child With Difficult Emotions

Your child is hurting. She asked someone at the park if they wanted to be her friend, and they said no. She feels embarrassed, scared, and sad. She doesn’t understand why someone doesn’t want to be her friend.

You’re an attentive parent. You hold her while she sobs. You keep brushing her hair back, kissing the top of her forehead, and telling her that it is going to be okay.

She cries and cries until she stops. You don’t get annoyed at all. You don’t tell her to suck it up. You tell her that you’ll play with her. You play together and then it is time to go home.

This is a good response. It may even be the response that you’ve worked really hard to give. Perhaps you used to find crying weak. Or maybe you used to want so badly to distract her from her feelings. You’d give her candy or throw a toy in front of her face. It has taken a while to get this far—to not feel irritated or stressed by her feelings, to let her have them. You’ve done it.

And you still need to do more.

Always, there is more to do.

What your child needs is called emotional coaching in Dr. Gottman’s Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child. This means, of course, allowing your child to have their feelings. But we need to move beyond that. She needs to be taught the tools to regulate her emotions, not just sit and feel them.

For my part, I’ve been excellent at feeling my feelings my whole life. I wear them on my sleeve. And when I get depressed, I plop myself right down on my bed and feel that deeply and non-stop, every moment of it. In fact, I was so comfortable with feeling my feelings that for a long time I just couldn’t muster up any interest or energy to change them.

This wasn’t a bad first step for me. There was a huge difference between when I fought my depression and hated myself for it, and when I accepted it and worked with it.

But after having identified and accepted that it was a problem, I tolerated it.

I could not have done anything else at the time. I did the best I could. I lacked the tools for self-regulation.

You are helping your child to accept their emotional world, which is a great foot to get them started on and far better than not allowing all of the “bad” emotions out in the world. Still, you can teach them more.

These are the five steps Gottman identifies in emotional coaching:

1. Become aware of the child’s emotional

Look at that! You’re already 20% there!

2. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching

30% there? 40% there?

3. Listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings

Oh snap, you’re awesome at that one. 50% there.

4. Help the child to find words to label the emotion he is having; and

70% there! I would add that you should help him identify the feelings are in his body, as well.

5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem at hand!

This last part is where most parents in the conscious parenting community slip up.

While Gottman’s work refers specifically to when the children are in conflict with their parents, the work applies universally. We can talk to our children about another person’s limits when they are having difficulty with someone else’s boundaries.

What does helping them find strategies to cope look like?

  • These are good times to practice mindfulness. Whether it is blowing out your finger candles or paying close attention to a tree, this is calming.
  • Talk about positive experiences. Discuss with your child something in the past or future that made them feel good. This doesn’t hide the negative thing that is happening; it allows them to step outside of the emotion for a moment to get a bigger picture of the emotional world they’re in.
  • Walking/jumping. Physical activity calms us down and resets us.
  • Calm jars. Shake these up! I like the idea of designing different ones for different feelings. This can aid young children in identifying the emotions they’re feeling.
  • Story telling. Story telling can bring us outside of ourselves, help strengthen our theory of mind, and transport us. They help us to see things from others perspective and make sense of our behaviors. Read your child a book, or tell a glamorized version of the story that just happened from one or both points of view.

At a young age, you’ll help children to identify their emotions and teach them ways to cope with them. As they get older, you can elicit the feelings from them and ask them how they’d like to cope. Feelings are difficult to handle. The decision-making part of your teenagers brain isn’t fully wired up, so they’re still relying largely on emotions to lead them. They still need your help. You’ll have to validate their emotions and remind them that they have these tools at their disposal for a long time coming.


  1. Pick one coping technique that you will practice with your child. For now, just one. The comfort of familiarity helps to calm us.

Please leave a comment telling me what other coping techniques you’ve taught your child. Have friends visit this post and tell us their techniques so that we can update the list and make it a resource.

Compassion, Not Empathy

In The Yes Brain, Daniel Siegel uses the acronym B.R.I.E. to stand for Balance, Resiliency, Insight, and Empathy. He says these are the skills that we need in order to thrive. His passion for empathy is echoed by other thought leaders in the parenting landscape.

While we often group sympathy, empathy, compassion, and sometimes even pity into one category, they are different emotions that behave differently in the brain.

When we talk about empathy, we are talking about the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is the mirror in the brain. When we empathize, we feel someone else’s emotions. When they do MRI scans of people who are trained and asked to empathize, they see the people processing pain. Regions of the brain associated with negative experience light up. This is empathy. We feel with the person.

When we are feeling compassionate, we are seeing people’s emotions, not feeling them. In MRI scans of people who were asked and trained to practice compassion, they see the person experiencing maternal love and decision making. Regions of the brain associated with positive experience light up. This is compassion. We feel for the person.

(You can read more about these studies from the original meditator who inspired them here.)

The part of our brain associated with decision making is the part that studies suggest gets more robust through mindfulness meditation.

In Buddhism, compassion is called karuna. The Buddha warned that there is such a thing as too much empathy (sentimental compassion), but not too much compassion (great compassion).

With empathy, we burn out easily. Participants in the studies mentioned above felt exhausted after empathizing. Feeling others emotions compels us to eventually shut down. We need to regenerate and we do it by cutting off connection with others.

In compassion, we do not burn out. We feel regenerated by the experience because we are feeling positive emotions towards the person instead of negative ones with the person.

Empathy is draining and calls us to do nothing. Compassion is uplifting, pro-social, and compels us to action.

Ajahn Brahm, an excellent public speaker who I highly recommend and from whom I have gained a large chunk of my insights on Buddhism, has an excellent metaphor for how we need to react to aiding others and meeting them in their emotions.

We are dustbins. All of the tough things that our children feel get swept into us. The anger, hurt, anxiety, grief. Our children need our help processing these emotions.

As they get older, they will be able to manage more of them themselves, and will need us less. As newborns, we take all of their emotions and help them to cope. As they get older, they can may suckle their hand in an effort to soothe themselves in certain situations. Older still, they’ll learn how to handle situations with tantrums to get all of their big feelings out. Soon after, they’ll only whine. Eventually, they will know how to talk out or write out their feelings and barely need you at all.

But for now, we are dustbins.

We need to be dustbins with a big hole in the bottom. This will allow us to help others, to be dumped into and onto, without filling ourselves up. We need clear minds to help them solve the problems; not ones cluttered with their emotions and our own.

If we focus on compassion instead of empathy then we will be more effective leaders. In the book, The Mind of a Leader, Hougaard and Carter compile research which shows that leaders who practice empathy get burn out and make decisions that work for the short term in order to relieve themselves, while leaders who practice compassion are able to keep their heads on straight and focus on what need to be done in the long-term.

Focusing on the long term means focusing on our children’s needs, not on their wants. That is what true compassion and true leadership are.

How To Teach Children Gratitude


You imagine your well-mannered child saying “please” when they ask if they can use a ball. He says “thank you” whenever anybody gives him a present. His manners are peak and it reflects so well on you.

But what if these words are meaningless when he says them?

What is your goal with having your child say thank you? Do you want him to develop a deep appreciation for the things in the world and deep gratitude for the people who are kind to them, or to say words that you’ve taught him to say?

Think of all the things that honest gratitude takes. What does it take to feel appreciation towards someone for doing you a favor or giving you a gift?

There has to be an other. This rules out very young children.

Then you have to have a theory of mind: the ability to understand that people feel differently than you (age 3) and think differently than you (age 4 or 5). You have to be able to tease out intention. Why did this person get you this thing?

In Should One Return the Favor? researchers found that around the age of 11, children begin to understand returning a favor as a moral value. Age 7-10, children believe you should return a favor to avoid judgment or because it is what everyone does. Before 7, most children don’t understand you are supposed to return a favor at all.

In adult gratitude, there is an expectation of reciprocity. Doing things for each other is what holds us together as communities, and we don’t want our children to be takers. This is part of the reason we feel so attached to them saying “Thank you.” We want them not only to express this in words, but to feel it deep down and reciprocate. To be productive and valued members of their community.

gratitude infographic thin1

Having token words that we use does not teach a child any of these skills. You can say thank you a million times and not mean it once, and you certainly don’t need to have followed through on any action to pay the person back. So what is the purpose of saying “Thank you”?

I think the answer is to calm the anxiety in the parent and the benefactor. Which isn’t wrong. But it isn’t what our stated intentions are. It isn’t working towards the goal that we say we are.

Will you kids learn to be grateful by themselves, though?

No. This is a skill that can be developed by the parents by fostering the abilities that it actually takes to show gratitude.

This means, of course, modeling. Modeling is always important. Not just when you think children are looking.

But we can do more than that. Modeling doesn’t work for all skills. Dweck’s research on growth mindset has shown this. We sometimes need to actively encourage modes of thinking in our children, as well as avoid inundating them with the wrong kinds of thinking.

On the Your Parenting Mojo podcast—which is exceptional and I cannot rate highly enough; host Jen Lumenlan comes from an RIE perspective and each episode is packed tightly with research about child development and parenting—there was recently a guest, Dr. Jonathon Tudge, who discussed his work on developing gratitude in children and adolescence.

Here were a few of his key points:

Do not say thank you for the thing but instead thank the person. Gratitude is about relationships, not materialism.

Encourage mindfulness: When somebody gives our child a present, ask them how it feels to be given a nice thing that they want.

Encourage empathy: Ask your child to think about why people give them presents, even when they don’t like them. What was the person trying to accomplish?

Encourage recall and reciprocity: Whenever giving a gift to someone, try to help them remember a time that person did a nice thing for them.

Other studies have shown that mothers who talk about internal states help children develop theory of mind, which is necessary for the practice of gratitude.

I highly recommend you listen to that episode here.

Teaching your children to say thank you is fine. It isn’t destructive. In fact, if you are going to do nothing at all or do that, go ahead and teach them to say that.

But there are better tools at your disposal.

Please share this post, because more people need effective tools to teach their children this very important skill.

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