Category Archives: Relationships

The Curiosity of Perception

On February 26, 2015, this photo became an Internet sensation as people argued about whether the colours of the dress were blue and black or white and gold.  People in my workplace at the time, defended their position and couldn’t understand how others didn’t see what they did.

According to the Wikipedia article on this item, the phenomenon revealed differences in human colour perception which have been the subject of ongoing scientific investigation in neuroscience and vision science, with a number of papers published in peer-reviewed science journals.

Unfortunately, some perceptions aren’t as black and white (or white and gold!) as the dress conundrum–or as easy to understand.

What is Perception?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perception as the way we think about or understand someone or something.  It’s the ability to understand or notice something easily.  Perception describes the way that we notice or understand something using one of our senses.  It’s part of being human, and one of the ways that we make sense of our world.  But how does it play out in daily life?

Perception in Practice

If we are always using our sense of perception, do we ever run into problems? Unfortunately, yes.  Our perceptions can lead us down the path of judgement–which can encourage separation from others rather than inclusiveness.

An Exercise

Take a moment and imagine that you are on a crowded bus.  It’s the beginning of the day and you’re travelling to work.  On the bus is a father with two young children.  The man is starring into space as his children run up and down the aisles, yelling at the top of their lungs. The boys appear to be unkempt–dirty faces and rumpled clothes.  Their father ignores them as they ask a woman sitting near to them if they can have a bite of her muffin.

Many people’s first perception could be that the “father is incompetent”.  Why isn’t he parenting his children?  We may think that the children are badly behaved and neglected. We  wonder if there is a need to call Family and Children’s Services.

How does our opinion change, if we know the story of this small family?  What if we were able to read this man’s mind to discover that he had been at the hospital all night sitting with his dying wife?  That this visit would be the last time that the boys would see their mother?  Suddenly, we see the situation from a place of compassion, and a desire to help may take hold of us.

It comes down to perception.

Perception in the Bigger Picture

There is a concept about perception that I encountered years ago in the Utne Reader.  The writer was exploring how the citizens of one country could be convinced to wage war against the people of another.  She suggested that the first step was to change the population’s perspective of the proposed enemy–a movement from seeing them as people to “Them”.  “Us” were the ‘good guys’–honest, hardworking, family-focused, ‘in the right‘.  Over time,  “Them” became demonized–a ‘not “Us”‘.  The writer posited that it’s easier to be willing to hurt others when we don’t see them as human.

Again, it comes down to perception.

Perceptions and Thought Patterns in Health

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book Full Catastrophe Living:  Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness writes about the connection between perception (thoughts) and health.

Kabat-Zinn states:

“Although we are often unaware of our thoughts as thoughts, they have a profound effect on everything we do and they can have a profound effect on our health as well, which can be better or worse.”

The writer goes on the explain that in his opinion there are two basic filters on the world–optimism and pessimism.   Individuals who are more pessimistic tend to blame themselves for negative events in their lives and see them as lasting for a long time.  When encountering a negative event or failure, pessimistic thinking may look like:  “I always knew I was stupid and this proves it; I can never do anything right.”.

Individuals who have a more optimistic perception of negative events tend not to blame themselves and if they do, see them as short-term ones that will be resolved.  Rather than catastrophizing, i.e. having sweeping global statements about the event, they see the event as having specific consequences related to the incident.

From a mental health perspective, Kabat-Zinn cites research showing that individuals who have a highly pessimistic perception/style are at a significantly higher risk for becoming depressed when they encounter a negative event than are those who have a more optimistic way of thinking.

It appears that our perception of the world and what we think about those perceptions has an effect on our health.

Working With Perception in Therapy

One of the gifts of therapy is the opportunity for a change of perspective.  Often the binds and broken relationships that we find ourselves in can be connected to judging a person, place, historical event or situation and then creating stories based on our perceptions. These stories become the narrative that runs through our lives.  Changing perspective helps us to change our stories.

There is a story of a young woman who lost her memory due to a stroke.  Until her memory returned she had no judgments about anything from her past.  One day she met a man who introduced himself as her father.  Until that time, the daughter had chosen to end the relationship with her Dad due to a serious misunderstanding.  However, because of the brain trauma, she was able to look at everything from a place of ‘beginner’s mind’–i.e.  it was all new.  Because she didn’t know the history, she was able to develop a positive relationship with her Dad that continued once she became well.

In Life Review Therapy the therapist helps the client to look at past, painful events from the perspective of the current day.  Like the example of the young father on the bus, the client is able to fill in the pieces of missing information and in doing so re-frame stories that they may have been telling themselves.

When couples come to therapy, a lot of the work involves helping each partner to see situations, conflicts and past hurts from the perspective of the other.  In the process, each person can gain an understanding of how misunderstandings arose, the repercussions of shared actions and a greater love and respect for the resiliency of themselves, each other and their relationship.

At it’s core, therapy is mostly about stories–the stories that a client tells are the clay that is molded by the therapist and client together to create something new.  A thought that I’ve often heard clients express, sometimes in a state of bemusement is: “I’ve never thought of it that way before.”.

It’s all about perspective.

Now, for a lesson in perspective from childhood…enjoy!

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Jealousy: The Green-Eyed Monster

“The jealous are troublesome to others, but a torment to themselves.” 
William Penn

Jealousy.  Unlike joy, compassion and love; jealousy isn’t one of what we think of as the positive emotions.  In fact, it seems to carry such a stigma that we don’t even like to admit when we feel it.  However, if we can get past labeling emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and instead experience them as they are, what can be learned from jealousy?

What is jealousy?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve felt jealous.  M green-eyed monster puts in an appearance when my partner mentions a particular female co-worker on a daily basis.  Sometimes all it takes for my  monster to stir is for one of my children to say that Billy’s mom makes the best Halloween costumes ever–after I’ve spent weeks struggling to make a passable cow outfit.

I suspect that we all know the feeling.  The flash of heat, the wrench in our stomach as we see ourselves as not measuring up to the object of another’s praise or desire.  But what is jealousy?

Sara Eckel, in her article “Listening to Jealousy” published in the November/December 2016 issue of Psychology Today, defines jealousy as “the emotional reaction to a threat to one’s relationship from a real or imagined romantic rival”.  Eckel goes on to write that “To be romantically jealous is to recognize that your partner might feel attraction to someone else, that he or she might act on that feeling, and that you might be powerless to stop it.”

However, jealously doesn’t only occur in romantic relationships (such as my feelings towards the costume-making parent).  We can feel jealous during our friendships with others (Anne met Julie for lunch and didn’t include me).  Jealously between siblings for parental affection is also very common and can wreck havoc in family relationships.  A common experience of jealousy can occur when a new baby enters the family–as both siblings and a parent can feel jealous of the extra attention that a newborn requires.

For couples practicing ethical non-monogamy, jealousy can become especially complicated due to the number of relationships and combinations involved.

The Difference Between Jealousy and Envy?

The easiest way to think about the difference between jealousy and envy is that jealousy is about people and envy is about things.  We can be envious of our friend’s new car (I want the car that he has.) and jealous when this friend flirts with our partner.  Jealousy almost always involves a third party.

What Does Jealousy Teach Us?  Is It Useful?

Once we get over the shame and denial of feeling jealous, what can jealousy teach us?

Like anger, jealousy calls us to pay attention.  It’s a wake-up call in our relationships as we realize that our partners, friends, family members can be attractive to others. Perhaps we’ve been taking them for granted.  When people have been in our lives for a long time, relationships can become stale or less of a priority as we cope with family, work and other challenges.  Jealousy is a reminder that we value those people in our lives and perhaps something in the relationship needs attention.

From a relationship perspective, evolutionary psychologists see the purpose of jealousy as a way to help ward of mate-poaching, and preserve social bonds.  Nothing says “this is my person” as putting an arm around a spouse at a party!

When Does Jealousy Become a Problem?

The forms of jealousy that I’m writing about in this post, are those in the normal range of behaviour.  As noted in the Psychology Today article,

“In its most extreme form, jealousy can be exceedingly damaging–it’s the leading driver of homicide of romantic partners, particularly of wives, girlfriends and exes.  It can also compel people to attempt to control their partners in unhealthy ways–incessantly monitoring their whereabouts, cutting them off from friends and family, or trying to undermine their self-esteem and convince them that no one else would have them.”

 If you see yourself or your partner in these behaviours–seek help immediately by contacting the police, shelters specializing in abuse (if you are feeling unsafe) and a therapist to help you to deal with the situation–either as the person experiencing jealousy or as the target.

What To Do If You’re Feeling Jealous?

Jealousy itself isn’t the problem, it’s what we do with the feelings that are aroused. Jealousy can launch a cycle of negative behaviours such as accusation, paranoia, revenge and controlling that will damage a relationship.

What can we do instead?

  • Admit to your partner that you feel jealous and tell them about the underlying emotions–love of the partner and fear of losing them.
  • As a couple, look at what may be missing from your relationship.  As noted above, jealousy can be a wake-up call.  Perhaps intimacy has been waning or one or both partners is missing one-on-one time.
  • If jealousy is a current theme in your relationships (both romantic and platonic) check in with a therapist as this may be a longstanding challenge that you don’t need to continue to carry.

Jealousy doesn’t have to be a torment when you can see it as a teacher.

Now, for some vintage James Taylor.  Enjoy!

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The Other Side of Bullying

In last week’s post we looked at the affect of bullying on adults (especially in the workplace).  This week, we’re switching to the other side of the equation and looking at the bully.

While the research and knowledge about the effects of being bullied appear to be consistent, the data is not so clear about the effects of being a bully on the individual engaged in the behaviour.  There is also conflicting information about how bullies are created, and if they are unhappy individuals, as is commonly assumed.

Is There a Payoff?

When we think about the inner life of a bully, there is a common perception that the bully is operating out of a place of sadness or past trauma.  But is this true?  Are bullies miserable?

Not according to a 2015 study out of Simon Fraser University (cited in the National Post). When researchers surveyed a group of Vancouver high school students, they discovered that bullies were the least likely to be depressed. They also had the highest self-esteem in the survey group and the greatest social status.

The survey results were explained by the research study lead, Prof. Jennifer Wong, this way:  “Humans tend to try to establish a rank hierarchy.  When you’re in a very limited arena in which you can establish your rank [high school, workplace], and climbing the social ladder to be on top is one of the main ways…Bullying is a tool you can use to get there.”

These results seem to confirm the belief that our actions and ideas provide some type of payoff or fulfill a need.  Therefore, if a bully thinks that their behaviour is in their best interest, he or she will need to change their belief system in order to change their way of interacting with others.

Is Bullying Only a North American and Human Phenomenon?

In a guest blog published in the on-line issue of Scientific American, Prof. H. Sherrow (Assistant Professor in the Anthropology and Sociology Dept. at Ohio University) states that bullying occurs all over the world and in other animal species.  Citing various research studies, Sherrow concludes that there are no countries or cultures in which bullying was not occurring. As people tend to be people, I wasn’t surprised that bullying is world-wide and cross-cultural.

What did surprise me was that bullying takes place in other species.  Sherrow describes observations of bullying occurring in societies of primates (chimpanzees, baboons) as well as in groups of rats and mice.  Bullying behaviour appears to be widespread.

Being a Bully in the Internet Age

According to Professor Sherrow, bullying, both in the animal kingdom and in human society, can be a way to maintain social order–ensuring that no one acquires too much dominance, status or power.  However, the crisis comes when our modern language and culture are combined with bullying.

Before the Internet, bullying was confined to our social groups (school, workplace, neighbourhood) and was done by people we knew.  Bullies knew their victims, and that relationship alone may have been enough to limit the bullying activity as well as the number of people involved.  Now, with the opportunity for cyber bullying, we can be bullied on a global level, by strangers. Also, with the anonymity of the Internet and the creation of “virtual” relationships rather than “in-person” interactions, normal social inhibitions are removed.  When on-line, individuals can say whatever they want without seeing the immediate results of their actions.

Where Do Bullies Come From?

As with many things in human development, the creation of bullies is a question of nature vs. nurture.  Are bullies born or created?  It can be difficult to untangle the two parts of the question.  For example, one idea regarding the creation of bullying behaviour is that children learn these actions by observing family members.  However, is this method of interaction also passed on genetically from their parents or grandparents?

Much of the research seems to lay the blame for the creation of bullying behaviour on parents.  For example:

  • Bullies are seen to be a product of strained parental relationships due to parents unreasonable expectations around activities such as school, sports or social standing.
  • Bullies have experienced inconsistent discipline when growing up.  In the September 2016 on-line issue of Scientific American MIND, psychotherapist Toni Rodriquez writes that both harsh and punitive parent styles, as well as overly permissive styles, can lead to bullying behaviour in children.
  • Children who have experienced physical abuse and/or harsh physical punishment often become bullies.
  • Parents of bullies often model aggressive behaviour in front of their children by using more forceful rather than cooperative means to settle conflicts.

Other suggested theories as to why bullies are created include:

  • Watching violent television and/or playing violent video games raises individuals levels of aggression and normalizes anti-social behaviour.
  • Lack of supportive peer networks.  Children who are isolated or feel disliked by peers often use bullying behaviour to gain some social control.
  • Bullies have been victims of bullying behaviour.
Are You A Bully?

This is a difficult question, and somewhat insulting as no one likes to be perceived as a bully.  If you’re wondering, here are ten behavioural indications that you may be heading down that path–especially in the workplace.

  1. You expect others to run errands for you, such as picking up your lunch, coffee, etc., because you are in a position to do so.
  2. Your colleagues don’t look you in the eye–maybe due to fear.
  3. You often say “I paid my dues.”, and use that as an excuse to disregard the suffering of co-workers.
  4. You blame others for work problems–especially subordinates.
  5. You rarely take suggestions and often devalue the ideas of others.
  6. You actively ignore specific colleague(s).
  7. No one speaks at the meetings you attend due to their fear of sharing their opinions in front of you.
  8. You don’t listen to others as your feel that your ideas are the best.
  9. You go out of your way to make others uncomfortable–and enjoy it.
  10. Your peer group is made up of people who don’t/won’t disagree with you.

If you see yourself in some of these behaviours, you can make changes.  Awareness is the first step.  If you can relate to the causes of bullying (for example, negative experiences when growing up) or you feel that it would be helpful to develop more pro-social communication skills; talk to a trusted person or therapist that you feel you can work with.

After self-awareness, the end of bullying behaviour starts with apologies and forgiveness; as well as having compassion for yourself.

Now for something to make you smile.  Enjoy!






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Bullying…It Doesn’t Only Happen to Children

When I was in Grade 1, I was bullied.  In hindsight, I was a prime target–small for my age but with a big vocabulary.  I was new to the school and stuck out like a sore thumb.  This was a long time before the Internet so my bullying experience took the form of  teasing and name-calling.  I didn’t want to go to school and suffered from stomach aches.  My parents’ attempts to solve the problem involved telling me not to be so sensitive and to stand up for myself. I’m not sure if my teachers were aware of what was going on, but the common belief was that ‘kids will be kids’.  I can’t remember how the bullying ended–maybe my abusers grew bored or found another victim.  By second grade I had learned to blend in, and was always aware that the bullying could begin again.

Adults and Bullying

While there is much research and many resources available about childhood bullying and the effects of childhood bullying later in life (higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide), until the late 1980’s there appears to be few resources on bullying experienced by adults.  Thankfully that has changed.

What is Bullying?

Simply defined, bullying is various types of abuse (deliberate cruelty) aimed at another individual or group of people by another person or group.  While childhood bullying can be easy to see, adult bullies tend to operate subtly.  They may attack when no one else is around or find ways to justify their behaviour.  A clear sign that you may have encountered a bully is if you consistently feel ‘off’ or uncomfortable after interactions with this person.

Types of Adult Bullies

While bullies come in all shapes, sizes, ages and genders; they can be placed in one of the following categories:

  • Conceited Bully: This type of bully is egotistical and shows little or no mercy for others.  They feel good when in control or hurting others.
  • Imprudent Bully: These bullies lash out at their victims and have no emotional control.
  • Somatic Bully:  Bullies in this group aren’t always violent, but they may threaten physical harm.
  • Verbal Assault Bully: These bullies use words as weapons.  Verbal bullying can lead to feeling negatively about your life and ultimately to depression.
  • Ancillary Bully:  While these people may not actively bully others, they side with the bully to avoid being bullied themselves.
A Real-Life Story

Stewart (not his real name) worked for a mid-sized company.  The employee demographic was mostly male between the ages of 25-40.  Stewart was a little older than the other men.

Stewart, married with two children, was the sole wage-earner for his family.  There wasn’t much extra money available for Stewart to buy the latest gadgets or go out for lunch with co-workers.  He wasn’t able to afford contributions to the endless fundraising opportunities that circulated around the office, and usually had to decline buying chocolate bars, muffin dough, or other items that co-worker’s were selling on behalf of their children.  Stewart appeared to be different from his colleagues.

Over time the other men in the office stopped asking Stewart to join them for lunch or coffee.  They didn’t include him in discussions about the latest technology.  Stewart began to be isolated at work.  Eventually, a new employee joined the company and the overt bullying started.  Stewart was an easy target because he was already separate from the group.  While previously, the other men may have thought Stewart was ‘different’, but wouldn’t have voiced their thoughts to others; with the bully’s encouragement, it now became ‘acceptable’ to openly be cruel.

Stewart’s time at work became increasingly difficult.  A long-term employee, Stewart had always received stellar performance reviews.  However, once the bully arrived, his job performance began to decline.  Stewart started calling in sick on a regular basis.  With his doctor’s support, Stewart took some time off of work on stress leave.  Over time, and with support, Stewart was able to talk to his supervisor about his experience and changes were made.  Eventually, Stewart decided to leave the company and found another job where he could start again in a new environment.

Signs of Workplace Bullying

Many instances of adult bullying occur in the workplace.  According to the writer at, these are the signs of workplace bullying.

  • Being excluded from on-the-job social events
  • Co-workers excusing themselves from the work area when you come in
  • Others being late or absent to meetings you call
  • Receiving the “silent treatment”
  • Having your presentations ignored
  • Colleagues refusing to assist when you ask for it
  • Having co-workers spread lies about you that no one refutes

Sound familiar?

If You’re Being Bullied…

If you’re being bullied, what can you do to stop it?  Bullies enjoy the results of their behaviour, so they often don’t have an incentive to stop.  While you can’t change how they act, you can change how you respond to them.  As bullies don’t usually choose to pick on people who can fend for themselves or fight back, here are some ways to regain your power.

Keep Yourself Safe
Safety is the first priority.  If you feel uncomfortable with a situation, leave.  You can also ask for support from a trusted colleague so that you are not alone with the bully.  If necessary you can contact police or other emergency services.

Tell Someone You Trust
Find a safe person and tell them what has been happening.  Be open about who is doing the bullying and give clear examples of the occurrences.  Document what has been going on so that you have details if needed.

Confront the Bully
Bullies victimize those who they see as unable to defend themselves.  Either alone (if you feel safe) or with support (colleague, supervisor, police, lawyer) you can expose the bully and hold them accountable for their actions.  Having clear, documented evidence of the occurrences will be useful at this point.

Avoid Being Reactive
Bullies feed off the non-assertive reactions of their targets.  Depending on the situation, an assertive response is needed while others may be handled by you being ‘unimpressed’.  Humour can often be useful…”I can’t believe you just said/did that”.

Use Effective Communication
Avoid personally interacting with the bully unless necessary.  Whenever possible, communicate with the bully either by putting things in writing (clear and concise language) or by having a third-party present.

Identify If There Are Other Victims of the Bully
Bullies often have more than one target.  If there are other people being victimized, consider a joint, formalized response.  There is power in a group!

Being A Target Isn’t Your Fault

Being the target of a bully isn’t your fault.  Often it’s a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bully is looking for a victim.  The responsibility for the negative behaviour lies with the bully.

Next week, we’ll explore bullying from the perspective of the bully.   How and why does the behaviour start?  Is it possible to stop being a bully?

In the meantime, here’s a video showing a social experiment about bullying.  Warning…at times it’s difficult to watch.






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An Introduction to Ethical Non-Monogamy

The following is a guest post from my friend and colleague Karen Grierson.  Karen is a Registered Psychotherapist, specializing in individual and relationship therapy with adults. She is experienced with a broad spectrum of relationship styles and power-exchange dynamics, gender identities, and sexual orientations, including almost 30 years with the BDSM, polyamory, and swingers communities in Southwestern Ontario. Karen has also trained as a support group facilitator for those who have offended sexually, through Waterloo Region’s Community Justice Initiatives.  For more information about Karen, please visit her website.

One of the many interesting issues our clients sometimes bring to us in the course of relationship counselling is the idea of contemplating “open relationships”. Opening a relationship generally means a transition from monogamy to an introduction of other (sexually and/or emotionally) intimate partners. This can mean a lot of very different things, because there are as many ways of opening a relationship as there are people considering open relationships, so from the outset, part of our work as therapists is to make sure everyone is on the same page with the language being used to describe intentions and interests. Continue reading An Introduction to Ethical Non-Monogamy

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How Well Do You Know Your Partner?

When people begin a new romantic partnership, everything feels new and sparkling.  For decades, movies, art and music has expressed the awe and fascination that is part of this stage of love.  As the relationship grows, couples often go through a ‘cocooning stage’.  Relationships with friends and family may temporarily fall away as they spend much of their time together. They want to learn everything possible about their new love-interest—favourite foods, earliest memory, most embarrassing moment—and the sharing of confidences are reciprocal.  At this stage of relationship-building, the couple is making up for lost time—the time before they knew each other.

Alas…This Stage Doesn’t Last

Contrary to popular culture, the cocooning stage doesn’t last.  People can only stay in this closed relationship for so long, before boredom sets in.  Eventually, one or both members of the couple may feel the desire to reconnect with friends and family.  Hobbies start calling and jobs demand attention.  While they want to spend time with their ‘person’, each partner may become one of the priorities instead of the priority.

Time Rolls On

Now, flash forward seven years.  This couple is still in a relationship.  They have moved in together and possibly married.  Children have been born, one or both of them has progressed in their careers and made new friends.  Each partner has developed new interests.

In an ideal world, the couple has been able to grow together as their lives have grown.

However, this isn’t an ideal world.  Often the complications of the life they have built together get in the way of their intimacy.  Weeks or months may go by before they are able to spend time alone together or go on a date.  Where once this couple felt they knew everything about each other; now it’s a struggle to remember each other’s schedules.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This

While the above scenario is common, it doesn’t have to be like this–and it takes work and intention to stay emotionally connected to your partner.

John M. Gottman and Nan Silver in their book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work:  A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert state that “emotionally connected couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world.”  They have kept in touch with what matters to the other person, remembering past history as well as updating information as their partner’s world changes.  Gottman and Nann describe this ongoing collection of information a “love map”.

Not sure about the state of your love map?  You and your partner can do the Love Map Questionnaire.

How Do We Update a Love Map?

I suggest that most couples already have a love map–it’s all that information that was gathered at the beginning of the relationship or until life became too busy to stay connected.  What happened is that the map became forgotten or out-of-date.  Just as using an out-of-date map can lead to getting lost when travelling, an out-of-date love map may lead to getting lost in the partnership.

Updating a Love Map Can Be Fun!

Updating a love map is an opportunity to spend some positive time with your partner! Think back to the intimate conversations that happen at the beginning of a relationship.   Gottman and Nann have created an exercise called the Love Map 20 Questions Game.  The goal of the game is to become reacquainted with your partner.  Each partner agree on a random list of 20 numbers between 1 and 60.  Starting at the top of the list each person asks the other the corresponding question on the set of provided questions.  Point values are assigned to each correctly answered question.   The person with the most points at the end wins–though both people win as it leads to greater emotional intimacy.

While this game is meant to be fun, if playing leads to conflict, it may be an indication that there may be deeper, underlying issues that are getting in the way of recreating intimacy.  If so, a therapist skilled in couple therapy may be helpful.

If you’re interested in learning directly from John Gottman, here’s a link to a series of talks that he has given on making relationships work.  Enjoy!

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