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Quit being so sensitive
August 17, 2014 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I need some tips on living with a sensitive temperament. More inside.

I've been known all my life to be overly sensitive. Whether to it's criticism, jokes, sarcasm.. etc. My therapist and I have been trying to tackle this issue; to see where it's rooted. Problems with self-esteem and confidence seem to be a contributing factor. I'm currently working on that.

I find myself to be a very introspective and open person. Whenever I meet new people or become romantically interested in someone, I usually become very open with them in the beginning (talking about life, goals, passion, political and philosophical subjects). It's thrown a lot of people off it seems. I'm never intrusive or weird about it, I just enjoy trying to make a genuine connection from the start. I loathe small talk.

I don't know if I'm just meeting the wrong type of people, but I'm starting to feel like it's a real flaw. And I'm starting to feel like there's no one out there that feels the same.

Can anyone help me feel less alone? Or should I hold back?

Thanks
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune to Human Relations (30 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
This seems like two separate but related problems.

It might help to think of holding back on disclosing personal information as a way that most people protect ourselves. Part of getting to know someone is learning if they're trustworthy -- do they follow through on promises, do they apologize if they've done something wrong, do they refrain from bringing up things they know we're sensitive about in poor settings for it -- and that learning process takes time. Trusting someone with sensitive information very early in a relationship gives them a lot of ammo to use if it turns out they're not trustworthy.

Related, since most people do withhold more sensitive or private information until there's more of a foundation of trust established, many people also assume that information shared very freely very early is not at all sensitive or private to the sharer, and so therefore assume that that information doesn't need to be treated as respectfully as they might have done had it been withheld longer.

It has helped me enormously to realize that small talk isn't "fake"; it's a way of slowly laying a foundation for a deeper friendship. I tend to think that people who try to skip it often seem to be trying to build three-story houses on a bed of quicksand and then wondering why the floors aren't level.

(The very few people I've known who are able to quickly launch into deep-ish friendships that do continue to deepen are those who have been the most secure in themselves and those who are able to sincerely laugh about any personal mishaps or sensitive information they've shared, no matter how early in the friendship. Those people are great, but I'm not one of them, and it sounds like you're not either, and that's ok. So don't use them as guides for what works for you.)
posted by jaguar at 9:27 AM on August 17 [33 favorites]


Hi there. I'm sorry that you are suffering.

It seems like there are two, related, issues here. First, you tend toward taking things personally; second, you tend to open up quickly upon meeting new people.

I think each trait has its plusses and minuses. I would encourage you to try not to think of either as flaws. For example, sensitive people sometimes have an easier time than others with kindness since they are acutely aware of how a comment might be taken, and people who are open may be better at creating emotional intimacy with their partner.

However, it sounds like these aspects of your personality are currently interacting in such a way as to cause you pain. So either you will have to become less sensitive (easier said than done!) or you will need to protect yourself at the initial stages of a relationship.

One way of doing the latter is to rethink what it means to connect with someone you have just met: connection need not be based on shared secrets or private desires. You can connect by learning more about the other person, discussing some current event, or doing things together. Also, small talk is not all trivial or shallow. People can reveal all sorts of important things about who they are as they discuss, say, their favorite restaurant or the weather.

Good luck!
posted by girl flaneur at 9:27 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]


Okay, look, every single person in the world loathes small talk. Really and truly. You're not alone there.

But the reason why small talk exists is that it serves a purpose: it gives people a space to start interacting that is neutral and safe. "But I hate neutral and safe!" you cry. Well, yeah, see line 1. You and your 6 billion closest friends all do. But not everyone has matching expectations of 1. What makes for appropriate or interesting conversation, and (in the particular kinds of conversations that I think you're describing) 2. How much emotional intimacy they want, and how quickly. Small talk is supposed to be a jumping-off point to negotiating that. I understand the feeling that underlies "I loathe small talk", but I always get a little antsy when someone says it, because sometimes what people mean by it is "I want to be the one to dictate the content of our conversation and the speed of our emotional intimacy," which is a red flag statement. Consider if you're coming off this way.
posted by kagredon at 9:29 AM on August 17 [19 favorites]


Usually small talk is how you get more familiar with someone and build up to bigger, more personal subjects, so maybe you're just sharing too much too soon? Sharing every little detail about yourself with someone you don't know well can be weird and intrusive to lots of people. Especially with sensitive topics like politics or philosophy.

Some of it could indeed be the wrong type of people too. You might have better luck if there's anyway you could meet people in situations based on mutual interests (like clubs/organizations, rallies, classes, etc.), which could make it less weird if you start talking life goals or politics.
posted by Kimmalah at 9:29 AM on August 17


One of the purposes of small talk is to avoid exposing your soft underbelly to all and sundry before you know whether you can trust them. You start off with light topics so you can gauge the other person's temperament and interests before you jump right into "here are the issues that matter a great deal to me. Poke here really hard if you'd like to hurt me." So if you're running into a lot of situations where you get your feelings hurt it's not unreasonable to suppose that practicing less emotionally laden chit chat might help reduce the chances of those situations.
posted by MsMolly at 9:30 AM on August 17 [6 favorites]


Sorry, I skipped a step in my answer. I meant to say: You are listing two separate but related problems. One idea would be to take the "I'm sensitive" part of it as a given and not worry too much about changing it (which is easier to do if you're not in a romantic relationship), and instead work on changing the second part ("I share a lot quickly"), so that your behavior protects yourself more.
posted by jaguar at 9:31 AM on August 17


You start off saying your problem is that you're so sensitive, which is indeed defined as having a difficult time with criticism, jokes, sarcasm, etc.

And then you say you're an "introspective and open" person who won't make small talk, instead going straight to the vein-opening. That is nothing to do with sensitive. That's not having boundaries or being interested in other people's boundaries.

The whole purpose of the "getting to know you" phase - which you are blowing off as small talk - is...getting to know people. It's about a dialogue back and forth, the sharing of information that may not be big important truths except that it's about the life that person leads every day. And it's about demonstrating one's understanding of the rules of intimacy - respect, for example, and listening instead of ignoring the other person while you queue up your next paragraph.

You say it's not intrusive and weird, but you don't get to decide how other people feel about it. If it's throwing people off, it's something.

A lot of people have been hurt or mocked or had their dreams and feelings used against them and so don't give them out to every passing stranger. And without the context of your life, your hopes and dreams don't even make much sense. You have to build the framework both of context and of trust before there's a place to start hanging those things.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:34 AM on August 17 [25 favorites]


Missing final paragraphs: you talk about how you want to talk about all these big things. Do you care about the other person's big things, or are you just in a hurry to have your voice heard?

If your therapist is framing this in the context of "sensitivity" and not talking about boundaries and intimacy, you may have a terrible therapist and need to get a new one.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:36 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]


I'm definitely not just in a hurry to get my voice heard. I'm always listening and I honestly care about other people's "big things". I'm a good listener and almost all of my friends rely on me for honest discussion and conversation.

I'm always mindful about people's boundaries. I never monopolize people's time or anything of that sort. And when I say it's throwing people off, I just mean that they just aren't as responsive for some reason. Which I can honestly understand if they're uncomfortable. In which case I hold back.

I understand the power of small talk. But when it's all there is and when I realize it's never going to evolve past that, I get disappointed.
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune at 9:49 AM on August 17


Re: small talk - you mention that you are working on self-esteem and confidence issues; IME that is closely tied to the disdain for small talk.

Why is that? Because as you've noted, small talk reveals little of a person's character, of who they are. This results in a sort of social ambiguity that can be difficult to tolerate if you are not secure in who you are: when you yourself don't feel confident that you are a worthwhile, likable person, it becomes an urgent need to confirm that other people think you are a worthwhile, likable person. At the very least, you need to confirm if they're the type of person (based on their goals, passions, etc.) who is likely to feel that way about you. Maybe it's not only that you enjoy making these genuine connections (most people do!); you also need to make these connections, and fast?

I also used to loathe small talk, but I've noticed over the past couple of years that as I've come to like myself more, my ability to tolerate the boredom and uncertainty that characterizes small talk-conversations has increased drastically.
posted by obliterati at 9:50 AM on August 17 [16 favorites]


I can understand what you're saying. I want someone else to like me for who I really am, and if I'm making small talk, then I don't feel "real". I can understand what others are saying about boundaries and building trust, but frankly I have been burned in the other direction: I thought I liked people based on the small talk we had, and then when I found out who they really were on a deeper level, I discovered that I did not like them at all. And then it felt too late because I had put effort into trying to trust them, and now they think they are my friend, and I just want to be away from them. So I want to be out with who I am quickly, so I don't get burned this way. Maybe that is selfish, but I do make friends with people who think the same way as I do.

I think you need to either agree with what others are saying about boundaries, trust, small talk, or else accept that the people who agree with those things may not see you as their type of person. For my own decision, I prefer to be myself and make friends with others who are the same way, or who at least accept the way I am.
posted by veerat at 9:51 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]


Without it being mentioned, I assume you are also introverted, and schmoozing and chit chat are boring to you, at best, and fearful for you, at worse. Establish your boundaries, and maintain them with others. Being open with your information is because of reciprocity and possibly expectations that the other will share. I am going to challenge you to listen to their story before you share yours. Then, with good sense, you can assess how much you want to share. That means being really comfortable in your skin. Comfortable enough to listen first.

Also, you probably have a sharing script. That means you tend to use the same stories often enough because of the expected reward you hope to gain in return. When you crave intimacy, you give intimacy first. Assuming you are unwilling to change your behavior, add one to your repertoire by asking the other party to share their story with you. Your self-disclosure imbalances the relationship and eventually sabotaging it. So, do you really want a relationship with this person or can you play the victim when they don't reciprocate their feelings back to you?

Develop a tit for tat strategy, based on Game Theory's Prisoner's Dilemma scenario, when they share, you share. You share first, and they don't share to balance out your sharing, do not share with them until they cooperate and share with you.

You ought to check your motivation for seeking pain, because there is a payoff for being a victim. Even when it is telling the story later to a trusted friend or potential lover to gain sympathy, attention and exert some leverage.
posted by choragus at 9:58 AM on August 17 [2 favorites]


I just mean that they just aren't as responsive for some reason. Which I can honestly understand if they're uncomfortable. In which case I hold back.

I understand the power of small talk. But when it's all there is and when I realize it's never going to evolve past that, I get disappointed.


Imagine yourself standing in a mostly empty room, and someone you barely know comes barreling up and hugs you as hard as they can, knocking you off balance, while kissing you open-mouthed. You give an understandably "WTF?" -- though polite -- reaction and ask them not to do that again. "Oh!," they say, "That's just how I get to know people! I can wait to do that later if that's what you prefer."

Would you trust them at that point? Would part of you keep holding back with them more than you would with someone who hadn't proven that they're perfectly comfortable violating social norms and personal boundaries, even if they're behaving "normally" now? Would part of you keep wondering why on earth they thought launching into physical intimacy upon first meeting someone was normal, and would you be worried they'd do it again at an inappropriate time? Would you start edging away from the relationship?

I suspect your "unresponsive" people are keeping you in the realm of small talk specifically because you pushed for emotional intimacy too soon and so they don't necessarily trust you to let you get any closer. If you display really weak boundaries, a healthy response from your listener is to define and enforce her own boundaries very strongly. (Unhealthy responses would likely be to prey on your obvious insecurities, or to enter into a totally enmeshed relationship that makes you both crazy.)

Pushing for intimacy too soon is one of the main behaviors that can create the lack of intimacy you're wanting.
posted by jaguar at 10:02 AM on August 17 [15 favorites]


Assuming you are not surrounded by insensitive jerks who say nasty stuff.....

whenever someone says something and you feel that burning sting of "ouch" say to yourself: This pain I feel right now is a manifestation of my low self esteem. In truth, that comment has no real bearing on my person.

Over time the sting will lessen and fade away.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:14 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]


I'm good at getting people to open up--I used to earn my living that way. But people who spill their innermost secrets to a near-stranger usually don't count on seeing that person again. I'd say that conversations that start out at an intimacy level of 90mph will sputter and die when the tone slows down. Small talk doesn't mean dull--there's other topics than baseball and the weather that don't require self-laceration. I can discuss my vacation plans without bringing up childhood trauma.

Not everything another person says is directed at you--sure, some people are clods and most of us have our awkward moments and blurt out some zinger that is meant to be amusing but ends up hurting another's feelings. It's okay to be hurt, it's okay to say that you're hurt, but dwelling on random remarks isn't positive, and that's where your therapist can help you learn to get past these moments.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:16 AM on August 17


I know you're just looking for connection, but has it occurred to you that your method of opening up so quickly to people may actually be hurting your chances at real connection with those people?

You say: when I say it's throwing people off, I just mean that they just aren't as responsive for some reason.

Sometimes when people are feeling uncomfortable but they are also trying to be polite, they stop being so responsive to their conversation partner in the hope that you will get the hint and dial it back, so that they don't have to say outright: "You're making me really uncomfortable. Stop." And if you start talking about uncomfortable things too often and too soon, a lot of people aren't going to consider you a safe person to talk to really, because will be clear to them that you're not so great with boundaries (which means that they may conclude that you won't be great at respecting their boundaries). It's crucial for someone who has been burned in the past to know that they can control the flow of information: to know they can tell you small parts of a big story without you digging hard to hear about the whole story all at once. People need to be sure that they can tell you stuff in their own time.

Relatedly, you also mention that you get disappointed when you realize that small talk is all there is. I would respectfully like to ask: how do you know that? How long do you wait before you decide that there's never going to be anything but small talk with someone? People move at really different speeds, and you might just be giving up on people too early because you get impatient that they're not working on your time line. And, frankly, your time line sounds like it would probably be way too fast for someone like me. And I like talking about the big stuff with people I trust. But it takes me a while to trust people. And if someone tries to hurry me and get me to open up faster, I will shut tighter than a clam.
posted by colfax at 10:22 AM on August 17


I probably look for connection at a fast speed because my mind will often think negatively if one were to take their time.

Thoughts similar to: "Oh wow, we've been talking/hanging for awhile. I don't think they like me. They're probably just pretending to be interested", "it's now or never" etc..

A connection will affirm their genuine affection for me. If I don't see it, I will assume the worst.

I understand all of this thinking is flawed and faulty. But years of loneliness and near social isolation contributes to this. I have to learn how to to lighten up and not be so hard on myself.
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune at 10:28 AM on August 17 [1 favorite]


But when it's all there is and when I realize it's never going to evolve past that, I get disappointed.

This is an expectation problem. Not everyone is going to be your best friend. 95% of the people in your life are going to be acquaintances, forced acquaintances like colleagues, or family. Every once in a while someone is going to come along who is a real and rare match as a close friend or romantic partner.

But also, sometimes it will evolve past that but not on your timeline. Some people are slower to warm, some people you're going to meet at a bad time.

I think your approach reminds me of the frustration I have with a lot of people's perspective on dating: they act like the first date is marriage and they're so hurt when it doesn't work out later, and scrabble so hard to hold on to that moment when the entire relationship existed in the imagination. If you start instead from a position of being open to the opportunity and building up over time with the understanding that time is a critical part of the equation, and that the connection is probably going to fall apart eventually - maybe before true intimacy is even achieved, or maybe after a few years of intimacy when the two of you outgrow it - it's easier to appreciate people exactly where they are and enjoy the relationship where it is instead of being constantly either unsatisfied or disappointed.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:29 AM on August 17 [8 favorites]


A connection will affirm their genuine affection for me. If I don't see it, I will assume the worst.

Relationships (platonic or otherwise) should not be a tool one uses to measure one's self-worth. Getting to know someone is about learning whether you enjoy spending time with them, not about tallying their vote on whether you're a worthwhile person. Encouraging other people to disclose private information in order to generate one's own self-esteem is, bluntly, manipulative behavior, even if it's not being done consciously.

So yes, lighten up, and start really interrogating the belief system that's fueling this behavior. It's not enough to say "I have faulty thinking, but XYZ in the past..." Dig in there and pay attention to how the current behavior is skewing what you want in the future (healthy relationships). If you wait for the anxiety to go away before you change the behavior, you're going to be waiting forever. Work with your therapist on how you can tolerate the anxiety while practicing healthier behaviors. (And if you two are still working out past traumas, then it might mean you should take a break from pursuing new relationships for a while until that progress feels more solid.)
posted by jaguar at 10:50 AM on August 17 [5 favorites]


This previous thread about looking for fast personal/emotional intimacy (and why this can be off-putting for others) may have some useful information/advice.
posted by scody at 11:45 AM on August 17


But when it's all there is and when I realize it's never going to evolve past that, I get disappointed.

Learn to enjoy the acquaintances in your life and don't tie your self-worth to whether they evolve into something more.

They're the people you invite to parties, get drinks out with other friends, see casually at those venues where you first met.

I know someone like you, and she is SO EXHAUSTING to the point where I can't handle dealing with her emotional needs, whereas I would have been perfectly happy to continue keeping in touch with her casually and had it evolve into a closer friendship later. Like every time I don't respond on her preferred level or don't keep in touch enough, she tells me how upset and disappointed she is that she's being rejected.

On the one hand, I hate to promote a transactional view of friendship. On the other hand, we generally keep people in our lives because they bring more benefits to our lives than costs. When a person's presence in one's life becomes costly without the buildup of benefits and foundation of good will that accumulate over time, people re-evaluate how much closer they want to get to you.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 11:57 AM on August 17


I'd hazard a guess some of the comments upthread may feel a little stinging to you..? I can relate, certainly to some of what you say. For me I think the openness has in part been a reaction to coming from a home where a lot of important and real things weren't said (I think families are often like this).. openness is a very real part of who I am.. but it is a 'blurse' (a word I once found here). It's one of the things I like the most about myself yet paradoxically one of things that's got me into the most shit (at other times).

Rather than being seen as some deep flaw maybe try to view warmth and openness as something quite precious... and that offering it up is a special thing.. that not everyone, frankly, is going to deserve.

You may find the book 'Highly Sensitive People' interesting.
posted by tanktop at 12:07 PM on August 17 [3 favorites]


When I acted like that, I was trying to "buy" the other person's decency with my intimations. I was hoping that as decent people they would have to be nice to me now, or even reciprocate now that I had exposed my soft underbelly. Even when it worked, I cheated myself out of the real connection that happens when the other person actually wants to be close to you. But then, I suspected that no one would willingly become close to me if I didn't force the issue in some way. That was my insecurity talking, of course.

I banked on the fact that most people won't be mean to a puppy. But that also meant I would be deeply hurt and betrayed of someone, flouting this social contract, was mean, abrasive, dismissive or plain distant to me anyhow.

These days I am not looking for closeness as much as people who are pleasant to get along with. Because God knows, there are enough unpleasant and boring people I have to talk to! Intimacy comes by itself when we've been pleasant company to each other often, and find that we trust each other.

By the way, you're right to tackle this now: the older we get the less likely are those college party midnight intimate discussions that turn into equally strong friendships. These days, people who push intimacy are a red flag for me because they do not understand or care how these things really work, and I don't like being pushed.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:11 PM on August 17 [1 favorite]


Intentionally put yourself into situations where you know you'll be criticized. When it happens (i.e. you've successfully arranged the experiment), treat the criticism like a warm, lovely shower. Capriciously, arbitrarily, decide that in this specific laboratory circumstance (it's important to set parameters ahead of time), you will deem criticism to be nectar rather than torture. As a lark. As play. Just for the heck of it. Hacking around.

It will stick.

It's easier than people imagine to change a preference or reaction. For one thing, the original instilling of that pref/reaction was arbitrary/capricious to begin with (just something a toddler picked up, e.g. from a TV show). None of this stuff is all that deep. Once you hack around with these peccadillos a bit, you can start to see light behind them, and they stop feeling so intrinsically a part of you and your identity. That undermines their solidity, and it gets a lot easier.

What remains, however, is whatever deep fear is triggering this arbitrary response in the first place. That's not let go of so easily. But you can find something else to do with this fear (one trick: reassure an imaginary someone. The best way to handle fear is to flip into the role of comforter/reassurer for someone else, even an imaginary someone else).
posted by Quisp Lover at 1:15 PM on August 17 [1 favorite]


I'd hazard a guess some of the comments upthread may feel a little stinging to you..?

Yes, to a certain degree. But I know a lot of these answers are coming from a helpful perspective. The thing is though, none of my intentions are malicious. Ever. It's pretty disturbing to me at some level that my behavior can be manipulative. I'd hate for people to think that it's intentional and that I'm only looking out for myself.

It's both exhaustive and frustrating to have to work on this. I miss close interpersonal/romantic relationships. And it's confusing to not know what's the healthy approach. Or figuring out whether or not I'm being too open or what I'm doing is pushing people away.
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune at 1:33 PM on August 17


The thing is though, none of my intentions are malicious. Ever. It's pretty disturbing to me at some level that my behavior can be manipulative. I'd hate for people to think that it's intentional and that I'm only looking out for myself.

It's not about your intentions being malicious; it's clear that your intentions are good. The issue perhaps to look at is to understand that your intentions are, to a degree, irrelevant to how your overtures at closeness are being received. When people feel like their boundaries are being crossed or disregarded, the experience is uncomfortable. That doesn't mean you are a bad person, or that you have bad intentions. (Correspondingly, it doesn't make them bad people or have bad intentions because they have different boundaries than you do.) This may seem contradictory to you, but I think it may be at the heart of what you're grappling with.
posted by scody at 1:43 PM on August 17 [8 favorites]


Hey, I like small talk. It can and does tell you a lot.

Talk to people-- I mean really talk to people, even in the small ways. I am guessing that you think and truly believe that you don't step on people when you talk to them, that you listen and engage. I don't doubt that...except that people tell you all about themselves despite themselves. While you are seeking that deep, open connection, the other person is still talking about themselves, how they feel, what they think, even in the smallest ways, and sometimes in a much more revealing fashion. This happens when talking about the weather or the Mets, or whatever.

Listen to them; people always tell you who they are. Stop planning for some cataclysmic connection with everyone everywhere and just enjoy.
posted by oflinkey at 1:45 PM on August 17 [3 favorites]


I think sensitivity often stems from not accepting yourself completely. I think insults only hurt in 'weak spots' so only when deep down you agree with the criticism to some extent. And the solution it seems to this is to accept yourself fully and wear your 'truth' as your shield.

E.g. if you know and accept that 'I'm sometimes awkward and overshare, but I'm also very genuine and thoughtful (and that's awesome)' then next time something which reinforces that you are awkward happens you can just be happy with it because that's who you are, and that's what makes you special and it's good.

A different approach is also to learn from criticism because sometimes there are nuggets of wisdom there and provided that you don't spend too much time self criticising, your sensitivity can be a powerful tool which enables you to learn and grow more quickly.
posted by dinosaurprincess at 6:11 PM on August 17


I see myself in you. I don't think there's anything wrong with either of us. There are many different ways to be a person. If you are an INFJ, there just aren't many others like us.
posted by macinchik at 11:09 PM on August 17


I'm wondering what you consider to be "small talk", and what you consider to be "real conversation". There aren't just two buckets, there's a broad spectrum. To me, true small talk is when I'm talking about something I care nothing about - the weather, the sports team, the upcoming election, someone else's weekend plans, something Dr Phil said on Oprah, etc. However, for a gardener, the weather is important; for someone who loves local politics, the election is interesting; and everybody loves to talk about their own weekend plans. What makes something not small talk any more is when there is personal information as well as general information, AND, when both people are talking about it with the same level of interest. If someone is telling me about their religious conversion experience, that is incredibly important to them, but very uncomfortable for me, and I am highly unlikely to say anything emotionally "real" about myself, making it sit more toward the small talk end of my personal scale; but a differently phrased discussion of beliefs that I am equally invested in might be a fascinating and emotionally open conversation.

The point being, you can't dictate whether a conversation is going to be small talk or not, that depends on whether the other person is interested in responding. If they don't know you well enough to feel comfortable hearing the naked truth of what's going on with you emotionally, then you could bare your soul and it still wouldn't be a real conversation.

Maybe you should aim toward the middle of the spectrum: not things that you consider small talk, but not things you take super-personally either. Your interests, things you've enjoyed recently, things that concern you a bit, two thoughts that collided interestingly in your head, things that you think will draw the other person out. But not things that don't truly interest you, or things that you feel super-deeply.
posted by aimedwander at 7:13 AM on August 18 [2 favorites]


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