anxiety · family · life · social anxiety

Anxiety in the Family

I attended my first day of group therapy on Friday at 11 AM. A feeling of sickness (clenched stomach, tightened jaw, dry throat, increased heart rate, restlessness) overcame me every time it was my turn to speak on whatever topic we were discussing. Somehow I persevered, although I often had to dig my nails and press my palms into my knees as I spoke as a way to hide how terrified I was. Good thing the table blocked everyone’s view of my hands.

One of the session topics was talking about where we believe our anxiety originated from. Many people, including myself, briefly spoke of experiences that influenced us when we were children. More specifically, one common denominator mentioned again and again was how their parents treated them significantly contributed to their anxiety.

I know how the last sentence must sound. So everyone in the therapy group blames their parents for their anxiety tendencies? The answer is yes and no. Everyone there recognized that at least some of their parents’ actions had a negative impact on them whether their parents intended them to feel that way or not. But, I also felt everyone understood that people can say things to others or react in a certain way to somebody under the pretense they are doing it for valid and necessary reasons without realizing the recipient is reacting to it as a bad thing.

An example that I feel might fit in this category is when one of the therapy attendees spoke of his parents constantly criticizing him, which in turn he perceived as very negative. This feedback from his family caused him to be unconfident in his own abilities, yet his parents tell him they criticize and yell at him for his own good. While his parents believe they are acting in a manner that benefits their son, it is actually having the opposite effect by giving him anxiety and insecurities about himself. Then again, I am certain there are people out there who may have received similar criticism from their parents but it didn’t lead to them into developing intense anxiety. Why is that? Are some people just mentally stronger or more mentally balanced than others?

In my opinion, I think I was already genetically predisposed to being more susceptible to anxiety in addition to exposure to some environmental factors. I have almost always held this belief about myself, but it wasn’t until sometime last year that I observed and noticed things about my own parents’ behaviors when they are in what appears to be a state of worry. Only today, at this moment, it has hit me as a very real and solid idea that my parents have their own forms of anxiety. However, I am more certain that my mother has anxiety while I suspect my father also does but his anxiety might be milder.

Once, my mother was preparing to leave for an outing with her younger brother and I noticed she took a whole hour just to get ready. I used to think she simply likes taking her time with things and maybe she does if she knows no one is going to rush her. Had my father been the one to go out with her that day instead of her brother (who was apparently patiently waiting for her in the living room for that whole hour), he would have started hollering for her to hurry up once ten or fifteen minutes had passed. I was in my room when I heard her come upstairs to use the restroom and then go downstairs. I heard what sounded like clothing being shuffled around downstairs and assumed she was putting on her jacket. I was confused when the noise continued. I wondered to myself, How long does it take for someone to slip on a jacket? Perhaps five or eight minutes passed and I still did not hear the front door close to signal their leaving. Instead, my mother came up again on her way to the restroom. She actually said out loud, “Why is it that I feel worried?” I got the impression that she was experiencing anxiety but that she mistook the discomfort for a phantom sensation of a bladder that wasn’t actually full. How do I know her bladder wasn’t full? Because she already used the restroom several minutes earlier. I would also rule out the possibility of a bladder issue because if she did have a condition like that, I’d know about it.

My mom is very paranoid about having our house broken into. I do think this is also linked to anxiety. She always insists on having the ground level floor windows and doors closed when no one is present on the ground floor itself. I can remember a time either from last summer or two summers ago that she and my father were going out on their usual evening walk. I decided not to go with them and stayed in the basement where the temperature was a lot cooler. I didn’t even know until I came up to the ground level that all I noticed the windows were closed. In the moment, I did feel upset because her behavior was irrational and ridiculous in my point of view. It’s not as if the windows are being left open when no one is home, which might be a situation reasonable enough to warrant a lockdown like that. She’s been like this for as long as I remember and the handful of times my father has tried to reassure her there is nothing wrong with leaving the windows open as long as someone is home, his words have gone unheeded by her and she does as she wants anyway. Now my father doesn’t bother to say anything when she starts shutting all the windows. Another time, my brother was upstairs in his room while my parents and I decided to go out. A different circumstance with the same problem. She still ended up closing everything on the ground floor just because my brother was not on that floor. It was frustrating for me in the past to try to understand why she is like this, especially during times when it was quite easy to feel annoyed at her and thinking she was being a total nuisance for no reason. It didn’t enter my mindscape to consider then if she has anxiety. I don’t even think my mom recognizes her own behavior as anxiety and a very real issue.

As for my father, I suspect he has anxiety but I’m also unsure. What I notice is the times I’ve helped him fix stuff on his phone, he can’t just be patient and wait. Instead, as I am actively working on the phone, he keeps asking me questions like, “what’s the problem?”, “can you fix it?”, “how is it now?”, etc. This in itself can be a trigger for my own anxiety because I don’t like being prompted with so many questions when I’m trying to do something. Another thing I see he does is he is unable to keep quiet when he is seemingly anxious. Like a few days ago when I had gone out to have breakfast with my parents and brother for Father’s Day. My brother was driving me directly from the restaurant to the subway station since I had plans afterward to meet up with friends. On the way there, it appeared he was not content with letting my brother use GPS to navigate the car to the station. First, he prompted my brother to turn the car at a certain corner, but when my brother declined, my father said, “but you have to turn eventually if you mean to get to the subway”, almost as if he assumed my brother didn’t know which way to go unless he told him. His tone made me think he was afraid we were not going to get to the subway in time. He still did not let the topic rest after my brother said it’d be fine to just follow the GPS route. Minutes later when the car already passed several streets, he asked my brother if he would be turning yet. At this point, I held back a sigh of irritation and could not help thinking, What is his deal? The driver knows where to go; he doesn’t need your constant suggestions. I felt more annoyed when he started counting out loud as the car continued to pass streets, “38, 37, almost to 36th street.” This is not the first time I’ve witnessed the “counting” phenomenon he does. If I could guess, it’s almost like when he is anxious, he can’t help but chatter aloud even if it’s to himself.

23 thoughts on “Anxiety in the Family

  1. It took me a while to accept that while my anxiety may be contributed to by my biology, I can now see that my mother suffers greatly from anxiety. This heavily impacted the way she guided me when I was young, and while there is no hateful blame there, it is now clear to see that I have to “unlearn” some patterns that I was directed toward. We can persevere in spite of what we were told and given, it just takes more time. It’s okay to identify with that ❤

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    1. Whoops! I think I missed reading your comment at the time so I’m replying now. I’m pretty late lol. It’s quite true… To understand that my own parents have different forms of anxiety and how it has impacted their behavior as well as how they raised me, it’s helped me to have more sympathy for why they are the way they are. It can sometimes still be a little frustrating on my end though. I recognize that what they’re going through is anxiety, but it seems they are unaware of it as such. I guess I can only work on changing myself.

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  2. It’s interesting about different school topics and such. I excelled in math and my mom gave the credit to her having studied math when I was in the womb. I was, now that i think of it, never given credit. I only excelled at math. I couldn’t write at all unless it was, for example, a descriptive writing exercise. Since I saw the world in detail that was easy but writing anything else was very tough. Now I have a blog, hmmm. I still can’t write anything past personal experience though. I have, in the past, written philosophical meanderings, if that’s what you call it, but my life has been utterly complicated so there’s been no time and sadly, no one really wants to read that stuff.

    My mother was an artist and poet, as is displayed on the memorial page for her on my site. I remember bringing home a picture I did when I was in early elementary school. She thought it was great, I knew it was horrible and never did art again if I could help it. It took years to even do anything and wonder if that is why I like art therapy. It forces me to access that artistic side that I’ve locked away. Now I can joke that I’m at stick figure level. Everyone nods and laughs. The thing I draw over and over is a tree, and mountains in a background. If you look at my moms art, you’ll see trees and mountains in the background. I was subconsciously copying her till I pulled her stuff out and saw it. I’m not an artist. I can’t think stuff up. I like doing collages which my mom would have been horrified it know. Having a real artist at home was intimidating. The poetry I write is just rhymes. It’s not considered poetry by poets. It used to make me feel ashamed and now I just don’t care. I like my poems and really, that’s all that counts.

    I think going to group is a great first step to socializing outside the group. Maybe it takes weeks, months, and the way I look at it, it seems like baby steps and forward movement. My therapist told me that the groups I go to in iOP are like microcosms of the real world. If I can learn to function in those groups, dealing with all the drama and such, then I’ll learn to function in the outside world more skillfully and with confidence. Does that help clarify the group function, the plusses about going?

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    1. Same as you, I can’t write unless it’s for a descriptive writing exercise and/or blogging. I often felt writing short stories was unknown and foreign territory for me although somehow I didn’t get bad marks in school. I guess I was good at essays but hated writing about extremely boring topics. I liked psychology though.

      Lol about the stick figure level. I suck at drawing realism stuff but if I had to draw today, I’d prefer it to be a still life object. I loved drawing as a hobby when I was younger although I eventually stopped after I got frustrated with seemingly not improving and realizing how unattainable it would be to be a real artist one day. I also loved making ceramic clay pottery but I have no idea where to find free classes now as I’m too poor to pay for classes. Yeah… It’s interesting how parents praise their kids for drawings. Can I ask what made you perceive, at that age, that your drawing was terrible? I seemed to have zero concept of flaws in my drawings then. I often drew a sun and clouds, grass and flowers, a tree, a house, and a butterfly on the same paper. At times I made it rain in the picture or added stick people to the outside of the house. I used black marker one time to draw a huge heart with flower accents everywhere and gave it to my mom. I thought it was perfect until she commented that I could have used a different color. I saw nothing wrong with using black even though the color is associated as a grim color.

      I agree, as long as you like your own poetry, other people’s opinions don’t matter. I used to do some poetry… I was not very good at rhyming so I wrote however I felt like to express a single idea or emotion. I believe I posted them on fictionpress or something. Not sure if they’re still there or if I deleted the whole batch lol.

      Probably the second hardest thing for me to overcome (besides showing up to therapy) is pushing myself to take the initiative in group discussions… During my first session, twice the woman leading the group asked if anyone would like to begin by discussing the topic. Twice I almost began raising my hand or signaled for her attention. Instead I was too slow and anothe guy went. Then I hated the anticipation I felt as everyone had their turn as we went around the table until it was my turn. Maybe I can be braver next time??


      1. Oddly enough, as with you, I got good marks in English. I am extremely good at editing punctuation and hate when I mess up anything in my writing, lol.

        My drawing was two people sitting side by side. Drawing faces, hands, etc, obviously are hard for anyone let alone a tiny child. If I did flowers and such I might have had a different experience but I grew up in such a critical and high expectation household, maybe not.

        One thing about groups, there’ll typically always be someone to jump in if you hesitate. In my group it’s the opposite because of all the crap I wrote about. A healthy group has a discussion or at least a cohesiveness eventually. My group has a long way to go.

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      2. Definitely, your experience of being in a household with high expectations is different from the upbringing I had in this regard.

        At my last group therapy session, I did it again lol… I still hesitated to raise my hand or verbally say, “I want to go first”. When I was in the moment of hesitation, it was almost like I simultaneously wanted to push myself to just do it but also was scared out of my mind over the act of drawing all the attention on myself if I had made myself go first. But I think my anxiety gets worse if I have to wait for my turn instead of voluntarily getting it over with from the get-go…

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      3. My anxiety definitely gets worse if I wait but it’s so hard to be first. Have you considered asking the facilitator about it? Maybe let them know it’s what you want to do but are overwhelmed, causing the hesitation, then let down one more time so to speak? I started maybe twice I think, terrified I did, but was surprised by the encouragement I got from a couple other members. With my group leader, if I make eye contact I’m chosen first which is why we all look directly at the table in the beginning of group, lol. It’s all rather frustrating, isn’t it?

        There is this one girl who just talks and talks. I get so annoyed. I’m also annoyed with the facilitator because she doesn’t stop her. Monday was 11 or 12 people but this woman gives no consideration to that. I’ve felt like I talk way too much too but literally the whole group assures me I don’t. I brought it one time by apologizing to the group for talking too much. And they emphatically said I didn’t so… our own perception, I think due to anxiety, seems to skew how we see ourselves. I’ve thought of pretending I was someone who can start, with coincidence, but haven’t tried it yet. You know, fake it till you make it meaning fake being confident till hopefully I find my voice.

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      4. I will consider talking it over with my facilitator, although at the same time, I do believe in giving myself a much needed shove by pushing my limits and making myself do it on my own. Sometimes testing myself in this way works. I have also thought of volunteering to go first but before I actually start talking about whatever topic the group is on, I could briefly tell everyone about how hard it is to take the initative. Maybe being honest to others about my state of mind will take off the pressure a little so I won’t be dealing with my anxiety all on my own in that moment when I start feeling very scared.

        How long do your group sessions last? Mine lasts about 90 minutes for each week. I can see how, if the group is on a schedule to discuss several topics and/or to allow every person to have adequate time to share stuff, it might be annoying for one member to hog too much of other people’s time.

        Self perception and the perception other people have of us can be vastly different. I always go for the negatives about myself. It’s such a minor thing but last week in therapy, I had picked up my bag from the ground to get my lip balm from one of the pockets. As I was applying the balm, I noticed a girl next to me seemed to be studying me. I did not look at her but I certainly felt her roaming eyes. The alarm was going off in my head, like, “Oh god, what have I done now? Does my hair look wrong? Is something on my face? Do I look ugly? Does she hate me for some reason I can’t think of?” Instead, she whispered to me that she liked my bag. Even after her words disproved my own theories about myself, it wasn’t until later that I had time tothink about happened that I could process how irrational my thought pattern was. I doubt I can stop from falling into the same thought pattern next time someone looks at me and my mind takes a nosedive again.

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      5. I go to iOP which is 3 hours a night, 3 days a week. The different group sessions are 2 hours, sometimes with a break, more times without one. The last hour we eat dinner and that can turn in to a continuation of the group discussion or it can be light conversation. Last night was a heavy topic for the full time! I’ve had to ask my therapist how to set myself in order afterward before I head home. It’s difficult to be open and vulnerable and then just leave. 🙁

        I always think it’s my fault for everything, even when it’s unrelated to me. No matter how many times group members assure me I’m not, I consider myself the problem person in the group. I was falsely accused of that and it stuck. Ugh.

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      6. Wow, those are pretty long sessions. I kind of wish my sessions were like that. In my case, spending roughly an hour with group members doesn’t really help all of us to become more comfortable around each other, I think. I get the sense if not for the facilitator, many of us wouldn’t talk at all lol.

        Bad experiences can stick even long after they are over with. 😦 I feel similarly, although I also tend to feel badly about experiences that weren’t even legitimately negative, like people could be praising me for doing something right, but because I feel embarrassed and afraid over having all the attention on me, the next time I face a similar situation, I’m fearful of feeling embarrassment and fear again if I do something noteworthy that warrants people’s attention.

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      7. Omg, right?! Yesterday I shared about always judging myself as “fat, ugly and disgusting.” Even though people said otherwise and the facilitator said I was beautiful (which I’m not as you can see by the recent picture I posted) I know they were saying it because I was upset, trying to make me feel better. It really wouldn’t be a big deal I suppose but I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be beautiful. It’s stupid I know.

        Is there any kind of iOP (intensive outpatient) program you could go to? The one I go to is a 2 hour drive away but it’s worth it to go. Thankfully it’s long term so the hope is I can slowly get better over time and ultimately be able to manage on my own. Developing a healthy group does involve trust according to my therapist, but it takes time. The problem with mine is we continually get new people. We just got 5 new people in the last week!

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      8. Beauty can be subjective. I do believe in natural beauty, in that women don’t need to be glammed up to be beautiful. It’s a struggle to uphold my own standard of beauty in society. I find myself feeling like the ugliest duckling when I’m in a public place and I see other women looking more dressed up or stylish than me. Even if I tried to compete with that or emulate something similar, it’s possible I’d still end up having bad self-esteem because then I might feel like I need to look a certain way all the time to be deemed “beautiful”.

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  3. My mom called it “constructive criticism”. My dad wasn’t around so it was all her. It was much later in life when I realized that constrictive criticism is just criticism. I always thought everything was my fault. Every time I was corrected, criticized or controlled in some way, it was because I made a mistake or did something wrong (even if that wasn’t true) until I learned that I didn’t make a mistake, I was a mistake. I didn’t do anything wrong, I simply wasn’t good enough. No matter how well I did, it would never be enough. I got straight A’s in school, not because I was told to, but because I knew that was what would be expected. I never actually knew what was expected because I never asked. But the message was to excel at everything, be the best. How could a child not crumble under all the pressure?

    With eating disorders, studies found we are more sensitive then usual and so things like criticism are so much more damaging. They also found a genetic component. It would seem that both of those things would apply to anxiety as well, don’t you think? I’m certain my mom would probably have been very anxious if she hadn’t suppressed every emotion she had. She was a stone.

    I find it interesting that so many in your group have similar experiences. Oh, as far as feeling more comfortable, that ought to happen over time as you all become more familiar with each other. That’s how it was when I was in the program and also how it is in iOP. We are always getting new people in which makes it a little off balance but then that person gets integrated and it’s all good after that.

    Because of a terrible experience with one of the staff, most of my group anxiety is when she is leading, which is tonight actually, ugh. I’ve learned to turn her off, so to speak, but that diminishes what I can get out of group. My therapist is working on it with me. It’s tough.

    I commend you for going! I commend you for being willing to open your eyes to family dynamics. And I commend you for moving forward no matter how scary it is.

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    1. I can see how having your mother’s constant criticism, as well her as your only parental figure, while your father was absent, has done a number on you. 😞 I did not have the experience of a nitpicky mother, but she did have quite the temper. I have very mixed feelings when I think about how she acted towards me when she was in one of her “fits” if I had done something to incur her wrath. She wouls get very loud and say some horrific and intimidating things to me. I vaguely remember not feeling anxious at all when she first started being this way and then eventually I would feel anxious and afraid at the sound of her raised tone. I get the sense now that she felt it was her right as a mother to discipline me that way, but I also do not think she was right in the way she went about it. For example, the fact she would not only yell but actually scream at me. Does this sound like someone who has her emotions under control and who is rationally using reason or a calm attitude to work through an issue with her own child? And also, some of the select threats she’d often throw my way. The most common I recall were she’d threaten to leave or ignore me and that she would beat me to death. She never did beat me to death, although there was one incident where she hit me in a fit of pent-up anger that still traumatizes me to think about.

      My father was absent a lot too… I do not begrudge him for it because it was years later I learned why he was that way. The short story is my parents married and had children very quickly, in addition to buying a house and having the pressures of holding down full time jobs that weren’t necessarily ones they liked. My dad had to work at unseemingly hours. Many times he would be gone by the time I would be up to get ready for school and not even be home yet by the time I would be in bed. I actually have memories of thinking of my father has a mythical figure bc I saw him so infrequently. And yet I do fault him for the times I was around him when he was home but he’d be busy cooking or doing stuff around the house but never seemed to take the time to pay attention to me. I felt so ignored and unseen. My father’s older brother lived with us during this period and I even recall him giving me more attention and talking to me; so much that the line between reality and fantasy started to blur for me and I thought my uncle could be my real father. That is the funny thing about children. They do notice things and understand when they are missing something. I was like that, except it took me until years later to be able to look back and acknowledge what I had felt in those situations bc as a child, I did not know how to verbalize those things. Then later on my father started spoiling me with gifts. I know now that he did that bc he obviously felt guilty for not being around. For child, yes, maybe material items can buy happiness temporarily but honesty I think that was the wrong approach for my father to do.

      Sorry if I went into too much detail about my parents… This might call for separate blog entry on this topic alone.

      I do agree that it makes sense for criticism to be more damaging to a person. I don’t know if this counts as actual criticism I got from my mother, but I was having a lot of trouble learning basic math. I was struggling with school in general as well bc I did not like participating in class and had no real concept of reaching out to my teacher if I didn’t understand the lesson. I was also terrified of being shipped off to after school homework help. The idea alone often made me anxious and I got so hysterical that I remember being on the verge of sobbing. So my mom tried to teach me at home. After many times in one day where I kept writing in the wrong answer, she got fed up and declared that I was stupid. She even commented to my dad how stupid I was. I felt both very hurt and angry and this was the first time I held back tears. I do not remember if my dad said anything in my defense, but if he did, it still was a poor attempt on his part to be anywhere involved with my upbringing. It appears he was comfortable letting my mother handle most of it.

      It is too early to say if I will be comfortable enough to ever engage with the other group members outside of therapy. Surprisingly, one of them is someone I previously met at one of the first social anxiety meetup events, but that Friday was my first time seeing him in over at least 6 months. I feel nervous over whether there is some expectation, whether from my own mind, his mind, or the minds of the other group members, that he and I are supposed to hang out together outside of therapy.

      Thanks for noticing that it definitely was a big step for me to go to the first therapy session. There is another one this coming Saturday and I admit I would much rather hide under my blankets and not go. I can’t say if I will give into my weakness by canceling. If I do, I still have to make up the session sometime before the next one. 😐

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  4. My parents are both super, super paranoid people. I’ve always known this, but only in the last few months recognized it as anxiety. I’m so glad my anxiety doesn’t manifest in the same way as theirs because it seems so sad to always be worried about someone breaking into their home, into their car, stealing from them, etc. But it did have a huge impact on me, making me feel like I always needed to be on edge and looking out for strangers, particularly when I was home alone when I was young. I’m hoping to have children in the next few years and I want to make sure my parents keep their paranoia somewhat away from my children so they don’t grow up with quite as much fear as I did.

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    1. I feel for you. I too am also glad my anxiety isn’t the same as my parents’ anxiety. It definitely is hard to acknowledge that your parents act or behave has influenced you while knowing they likely didn’t mean to contribute towards your anxiety. I hope the best for you if you have children. If I didn’t feel as emotionally unstable as I do with my bouts of anxiety, I might be open to the future idea of children of my own. Unfortunately, I know my limits. Sometimes I feel as if I can barely care for myself, let alone any past pets I’ve had. If I have to be responsible for another living being, it’s just more obsessive worrying and lots of anxiety on my part.

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  5. i wish i could press a love button then like, i’m starting therapy tonight for the first time and this post has really helped calm my nerves, and i totally agree i don’t blame my parents for my anxiety but it hasn’t helped x

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  6. Yeah, it’s hard feeling obligated to please someone. I often have to keep myself from getting angry at him and his stream of questions. It’s like… I’m already trying to help you right now and I get that you want answers because you want to know what is going on, but constantly badgering me is not going to make me work faster. I believe my father went through a similar incident at a hardware store where he tried to get help activating something on his phone and was pissed off that the guy there rebuffed his questions in a rude way. However, the way he described the manner in which he approached the guy and basically bombarded him with like 3 different questions at once, I kind of can see why the guy balked and probably felt overwhelmed, although it is true he could have refused to help him in a more polite way.

    Therapy is scary! I thought one on one was frightening but group therapy is a whole other level. I’m unsure if I will ever get used to having about eleven pairs of eyes (there are eleven other people in the group) staring at me as I speak. I actually almost chickened out at the last moment by not walking through the door because I was that scared. I don’t know if it’ll get easier for every week I go there…


  7. Hey Nat, my dad does stuff like that and it has ALWAYS been a trigger for me. If I can’t help him fast enough, he says FORGET IT which freaks me out. It doesn’t help that I’m always trying to please him. I can totally relate to this. I’m glad you’re going to your group sessions!

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