Living the HSP Life: Tips for Highly Sensitive People

Positively Present HSP

 

Note: A lot of what I learned about Highly Sensitive People (aside from my own personal experience), came from Elaine N. Aron's book, The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You. If you want to learn more about the info that's not personal-experience-based, I highly recommend you check it out or visit her site here

 

WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE PERSON (HSP)? 

Basically, Highly Sensitive People (HSP) is a term developed in the 1990s to describe people who pick up on subtleties that most others ignore. HSPs are more sensitive to external stimuli (sounds, colors, movement, etc.); they have strong emotional reactions to what they experience (though they might not express these emotions outwardly); they notice things others would not; they are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in environments with a lot going on; they process things very deeply; they are very attune to others' emotions; they have a rich, complex inner life; and they need time away from the world to regroup. 

As with any trait, there are differences for each individual person, but there's an HSP test that explores a lot of the traits HSPs may have. (I answer yes to all but the last two questions, making me very HSP). High-sensitivity is a trait that about 15-20% of people have, and, while it's genetic, it can be influenced (for better or worse!) by circumstances, particularly those experienced in childhood. It might sound like it's a bad thing (and sometimes, believe me, it is!), but there are a lot of benefits to being an HSP, too. 

If you're not an HSP, it can be kind of hard to understand what it's like. HSPs might be labeled "dramatic" or "neurotic" or "anxious" or "fussy," when, really, we just see the world differently. For an non-HSP, I imagine experiencing a day in the life of an HSP would almost be like being on some sort of psychedelic trip. Sounds are louder, colors brighter, scents more pungent. Every detail is heightened so that everything from someone else's slight shift in mood to the slight flickering of a light is noticed and, odd as this might sound, felt. It's almost as if the boundaries between the internal world and the external world are thinner. Or, rather, they feel thinner. 

From the outside, it might sound neurotic or anxious behavior traits, but, while I personally am an HSP who experiences anxiety, high-sensitivity isn't the same thing as anxiety. High-sensitivity is about how the environment (both internal and external is perceived); anxiety is a feeling of worry and unease. They can overlap, but they aren't the same. 

I'm certainly not an expert on this, but I hope that gave you a bit of an idea of what an HSP is. Now, here are some of the pros and cons that HSPs experience. 

 

THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN HSP

  • HSPs are often creative and imaginative because they are so tuned into details and notice what others might not. This makes them great at creative career paths. 
  • HSPs are attuned to others' moods, making them potentially great friends and loved ones. (See the "Challenges" section for the flip side of this.)
  • HSPs tend absorb and learn info quickly, which means they're likely to be good students and to pick up new information at work easily. They're often life-long learners. 
  • HSPs are very aware of their own thoughts and often prefer to think very deeply about things. This self-awareness can be helpful for cultivating a world that suits the HSP.  
  • HSPs are alert to potential dangers; they're likely the first ones to smell smoke, to spot a rattlesnake, to notice a candle's still lit before leaving the house.
  • HSPs are experiencing a lot when they're out in the world and taking it all in, which often makes them open-minded to new ideas and ways of thinking. 
  • HSPs will pick up on the little details that others might miss. They'll spot the typo, notice that a shade of blue is off, or tell you that you've got a bit of pepper in your tooth. 

These are just a few of the many benefits of being an HSP. But, as well many traits, with the good comes the bad. Here are some of the challenges...

 

THE CHALLENGES OF BEING AN HSP

  • HSPs are likely to appear unhappy / moody, particularly if they are in a new or overstimulating environment. Frequently they are simply overwhelmed, but their mood can shift and it might not make sense to others. 
  • HSPs are alert to potential dangers, which, while this might be a benefit sometimes, can also be stressful for the HSP since they are always on the lookout for something amiss. 
  • HSPs are attuned to others' moods (as mentioned above), which can result in them being really empathetic and loving or, if they are too overwhelmed by others' emotions, can make them avoidant and distant. It's not that they don't care; it's often that they care too much, and don't quite know how to handle it. 
  • HSPs are easily overstimulated, making a lot of environments (particularly new ones) a lot for them to handle. This can be frustrating for loved ones who enjoy new things or lots of stimulation. 
  • HSPs, because they are so easily stimulated, are resistant to change, which can put limitations on they ways they live their lives (though this is something that can be improved with hard work and the right therapy!). 
  • HSPs might have physical challenges as a result of overstimulation (stomach aches in a stressful environment, difficulty sleeping after a highly stimulating event). 

 

Again, these are just a few of the challenges HSPs might face. In addition, many societies don't value the trait of sensitivity highly. In some cultures, this trait is praised (and even revered!) but in Western culture, sensitivity is frequently seen as a detriment rather than a strength. Most "fun" activities portrayed in popular culture (parties, amusement parks, holidays, etc.) are often enjoyable for HSPs, making them appear to be unsociable, lame, stick-in-the-muds for not thriving in those environments. But HSPs can have fun, exciting, and amazing lives, too -- they just might look a little bit different from the norm, and that's okay. The key, if you're an HSP, is learning how to take what you've got and work with it. 

Here are some of the ways I've learned to cope with being an HSP. (Again, I'm not an expert, but I always like to share what I learn in case it might help someone else too!)

 

HOW TO COPE WITH BEING AN HSP

 

Recognize when you're overstimulated.

This has been such a huge game-changer for me. I used to just feel frazzled and panicky and it felt so out of control when I was overstimulated. I didn't know why I was suddenly feeling cranky or upset. Now that I've identified this HSP trait, I can usually (though not always) pinpoint that I'm overwhelmed because I'm overstimulated. This knowledge sounds basic, but I can't tell you how transformative it's been. While before, I would just become moody or feel this intense pull to return home, I can now recognize my HSP-ness, try to evaluate the situation from a less emotional point of view, and do my best to determine how to lessen the stimulation or cope with my feelings if, for whatever reason, I cannot reduce or avoid the stimulating experiences. Self-awareness takes practice, but once you identify yourself as an HSP, it'll become a lot easier to notice because you'll discover that the slightest little things can be a trigger for overstimulation. 

 

Pay attention to how you define a situation.

One of the best things that Aron talks about in her book, is reframing how you think about a situation. A "terrifying crowd" at a concert could be seen as "a bigger group than the concerts I've been too before." How you talk to yourself and the thoughts you repeat have a big impact on how you see a situation and, potentially, how overstimulated you feel. While HSP is a very real thing (no, you're not crazy; you are actually experiencing the environment in a more intense way than others), the mind is a powerful tool, and you can use it to work on lessening your emotional response. Not every thought you think is a fact, and you have the option to challenge you thinking and consider whether or not something actually is as overwhelming as it initially feels. (You might find that it is, and that's okay -- but it's good to check and to consider whether you might be able to reframe the situation!)

 

Know what soothes you. 

If you've spent time trying to reframe a situation and it's still deeply overwhelming, it's time to identify what's soothing to you. Aron talks about treating your HSP self like a baby (an analogy I'm not a big fan of, but admittedly it kind of works). When you're incredibly overstimulated (as a baby often is), you can't just tell yourself to get over it. You have to take action. Knowing what works to soothe you might take some time to figure out. Some things that might work: breathing exercises, going for a walk, stepping outside, a cool glass of water, thinking of something very safe and calming. Every person has unique things that will help them tone down the overstimulation in the brain to feel more relaxed, and once you start paying attention to what works for you, you'll be able to turn to these tools when feel uneasy or overwhelmed. 

 

Trick your mind with your body.

Your mind often gets cues from your body, and you can sometimes use this to your advantage if you're feeling overstimulated. See, if you're super overwhelmed, your body is in that fight-or-flight mode, ready to take on a challenge or get the hell out of there. Your muscles are tense; your vision is focused; your blood is pumping to the places that need it most. But if you actively make an effort to breathe calmly, to unclench your fists, to relax your shoulders, your mind might get a message that there's nothing to be afraid of. This doesn't always work, of course, but it's worth trying! You can also trick your mind into believing you're more relaxed and less alert simply by shifting your body in subtle ways. Stand with confidence, even if you don't feel it. Uncross your arms and leave them loose at your sides. If you're frequently jittery, try to stand still. If there are too many lights, close your eyes for a minute. Too many sounds? Step outside or cover your ears. These small physical things can actually help you feel a bit less overwhelmed. 

 

Identify intangible sources of safety. 

Your home / car / spouse / pet might be your go-to for feeling safe, but sometimes they're not available, so it's good to have some mental retreats where you can go to calm down. When I was a kid and had a difficult time going to sleep, I would always imagine that I was in the Pastoral scene in Disney's Fantasia. I used to think it was so strange that I did that, but now I realize that, for whatever strange reason, that scene made me feel very calm and relaxed. Whenever I couldn't sleep, I would "go" there, and just thinking of it usually sent me off to dreamland. For HSPs, it's important to have things like that to refer to mentally when you physically can't remove yourself from an overstimulating situation. (My therapist once asked me to think of doing something calming when I was feeling really anxious and this helped a lot. If you ever see me sitting nervously in a doctor's office, I'm likely thinking, Imagine petting a dog. Imagine petting a dog, to calm myself.) Having intangible sources of safety is key because they're always available, unlike tangible safe spaces. 

 

Remove yourself from the situation if need be.

Sometimes things really are too much for an HSP, no matter how much self-awareness or reframing you try. While it's not always best to leave a situation simply because you're overstimulated (after all, the only way we ever become comfortable in a place is after we've been there awhile!), it sometimes happens that an HSP is just too overstimulated to be anything by stressed and anxious in an environment. If there's no way to find comfort or enjoyment in it (because, yes, I can be both overwhelmed and having a good time), it's often good to leave a situation. But balance is key. You don't want to leave every situation that causes discomfort or you'll never stay anywhere, but you don't want to force yourself to stay in situations that could cause long-term stress simply because you're trying to power through your sensitivity. Personally, I've found that the more I pay attention and the more self-aware I become, the better I am at knowing when it's vital for me to leave a situation. Sometimes I stay when I shouldn't, and sometimes I leave when I should stay, but overall I think I'm getting better at finding a balance that keeps me sane and (somewhat) social. 

 

Seek out inner / outer world balance. 

As an HSP, it's tempting to just say, "The world is too much! I'm going to shut myself away and live as a hermit!" But, the more you avoid stimulation, the more stimulating it becomes. You have to find a balance between being overwhelmed outside in the world and spending all of your time alone inside your own world. This one is definitely a struggle for me personally because, honestly, it's a lot of work to overcome the overstimulation of the world. It can be downright exhausting and, if I'm honest, sometimes I'm just plain lazy and don't want to do the work. But, after reading Aron's book, I'm reminded that the less I go out into the world, the harder it will be when I do. As with most things in life, it's all about balance and learning to do what's best for you. And "best for you" includes in the long-run. Yes, in the moment, it might be tempting for an HSP to decline an invitation, but just because it feels right in the moment doesn't mean it's the best choice overall. HSPs have to work hard to cultivate balance between the internal and external worlds. 

 

Set clear boundaries.

Boundaries are important for everyone, but especially for HSPs who can become super stimulated when boundaries are crossed. The key to setting boundaries is to pay close attention to the experiences that make you feel really overwhelmed. For example, one thing that can be particularly overwhelming for me is physical touch. I don't enjoy hugging. I don't want someone to touch my arm frequently when they are speaking to me. This boundary can be tough to set because I don't want to seem rude or cold, but it's important for me to speak up for myself in order to be comfortable. Other boundaries you might want to consider: the amount time you spend with others (balance is key! avoid isolation!); the number of people you interact with at one time (it's alright to prefer small groups); the environments you choose to spend time in (for example, I love concerts, but I wouldn't do well at a huge festival); the people who get your emotional energy (yes, even in your head!); the amount and type of news / media you consume (remember: you can be informed without being inundated). Sometimes you'll need to push yourself a bit on these boundaries (both for personal growth and because not everything in the world will adjust for your needs) but, more often than not, if you have clear and reasonable boundaries, you can use them to shape your experiences and make them more positive for you and those around you. 

 

Phew, that was a long one! I've been putting off writing about this for probably a year or so because, honestly, I feel kind of embarrassed about it. While I understand it and experience it on a daily basis, I can imagine how, from a non-HSP point of view, it might just seem like I'm a fussy, anxiety-ridden, introvert who just wants everything to be perfectly aligned to my tastes. But, having lived with this my entire life and only recently discovered what it was, I knew I had to share my thoughts on it because maybe other people are also HSPs and don't understand why they're so overwhelmed and overstimulated all the time. Honestly, if you don't have a name for it, it can feel, at times, like you're just crazy. But, if you're an HSP, you're not crazy. You're sensitive. You're really, really present. You're paying attention. It can be a lot, sometimes, I know, but it can also lead to really cool, creative, inventive, interesting experiences. The world needs HSPs just as much as it needs non-HSPs, so keep being your sensitive self! 

 

 

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36 Truths from 36 Years


Positively Present - Age Is

Today I turn 36! Age is just a number, they say, and the older I get, the more I realize the truth in that statement. With every year, I feel both changed and exactly the same. There are parts of me that will always be and there are parts that will shift over time. One thing I know for certain is that, the older I get, the less I know. I gain wisdom, yes, but I also gain the realization that so much of life is a mystery (and so much is uniquely experienced in ways that are difficult to put into words). 

This time of year always puts me in a state of reflection, and this year I've compiled a list of 36 things I've learned (some of them just this year!). I might not know everything, but after 36 years in this place, I've learned something. Like the quote above implies, with age I've figured out a lot about how the world works, but I'm willing to get out of the way of what I don't yet understand. Miriam Makeba also said, "Age is wisdom, if one has lived one's life properly. It is experience and knowledge." Many bemoan getting older, but I'm thankful for it. Knowledge and wisdom is so important to me and the more I live, the more I discover. Here are just a few of the things I know so far...

 

  1. You are who (and where) you're meant to be. All of the time.  
  2. Opening your mind leads to more connection and contentment. 
  3. Being good at something isn't necessary for it to be good for you. 
  4. There's nothing wrong with enjoying being alone a lot of the time. 
  5. Healing (physically and emotionally) can take longer than expected.
  6. The fewer expectations you have, the more you'll enjoy it. 
  7. Wanting something (or someone) can be better than having it. 
  8. Paying attention to how people make you feel will provide clarity. 
  9. Laughter isn't technically medicine, but it is a kind of healing magic.
  10. It's alright (and normal) to have mixed feelings about those you love.
  11. Knowing the why of your moods can help you work with them. 
  12. Gratitude journals sound cheesy, but they actually do something. 
  13. You're allowed to say "no" -- yes, even to people you love. 
  14. The longer you keep doing it, the more you're going to learn
  15. What you focus on the most is what you will find.
  16. To deal with differences, try to seek out similarities. 
  17. When it comes to anxiety, try acceptance over avoidance
  18. Give yourself credit for the positive choices you're making. 
  19. Your thoughts are tinted by tons of things; they're not facts. 
  20. People usually want to help, so don't be afraid to ask. 
  21. Happiness and positivity are not the same thing. 
  22. Things you dread are usually not as bad in reality.
  23. Look out for the gray areas; very little is black-or-white.
  24. Creativity and worry are connected (for better or worse!).
  25. Doing absolutely nothing isn't always a waste of time. 
  26. Choose the words that follow "I am..." carefully. 
  27. A lot can change in a very little amount of time. 
  28. You're not obligated to be now the person you were then. 
  29. Just because something hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't. 
  30. It's okay (and even good, sometimes!) to be uncomfortable. 
  31. What you love doesn't have to make sense to everyone. 
  32. Telling your story can be healing, but it's not required.
  33. How people act is almost always about them, not you
  34. Productivity isn't a personality; you aren't how much you do.
  35. You can (often) control who you allow into your life.
  36. The way you feel now isn't how you'll always feel. 

 

It's my hope that this list has given you some new knowledge or insights. It's funny to write it because I know someday I'll look back at my 36-year-old self and chuckle at how little I knew. (Yes, I do this with my 26-year-self now.) I'll read things I wrote a decade ago and cringe, thinking how little I knew about what was to come. But that's the cool thing about life: we don't know what's going to happen or what wisdom we'll gain along the way. So, for now, I'll just keep sharing what I know the best way I know how. Thanks for following along with me as I keep learning (and especially as I'm working on my next book, which I'm so thrilled about but which is causing the blog to take a bit of a backseat).

If you want to help me celebrate my 36 years on this planet, consider supporting my work on Patreon, purchasing from the print shop, (use code "august23" for 36% off 'til 8/25/19), or checking out some of my digital products here. I appreciate your support! 


17 Factors That Make Up a Mood

Positively Present - Makeup Mood
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I'm in the midst of working on a very exciting project (can't wait to tell you about it soon!), and I've been listening to makeup videos while I work. I rarely even wear makeup, but there's something about these videos that just works so well as background noise! All that makeup talk in the background has had me dying to draw makeup things so I was thrilled when I thought of the mood makeup idea the other day. 

Once I started thinking about it, I realized just how many things factor into a person's mood! It's incredible! Obviously, some of these impact some people more than others. (For example, I get super cranky if I'm hungry, but not everyone is bothered as much by an empty stomach.) I planned on just drawing the makeup and identifying the various mood influencers, but as I was working on it, I decided I wanted to explore (and explain) each one in a bit more detail. So, here we go...

 

  1. SELF-AWARENESS

    The more you know about yourself, the easier it becomes to identify (and predict) your moods. When I was young, I was quite moody and it always felt like these moods came out of nowhere. Now that I'm older (and more self-aware), I'm able to better assess why I'm feeling a certain way. Of course, I still experience a full range of moods, but knowing why they happen helps a great deal in terms of lessening or heightening (or potentially avoiding them -- for example, knowing I get cranky if I don't eat, I make sure to have snacks handy!).

  2. LIFE EXPERIENCES

    What we've experienced in life can have a tremendous impact on our moods. For example, if you once had a horrific experience at a county fair, going to an amusement park, fair, or circus might impact your mood for the worse. This is an extreme example, but our experiences shape our points of view in subtle ways too. Certain smells, sights, or sounds might trigger a recollection and you might not even realize that your mood has shifted because a certain smell wafted past! 

  3. WEATHER

    The weather affects some people more than others, but a great many people I know have moods that are influenced by what's going on outside the window. Some people thrive on a hot, sunny day while others can't wait for the rain to arrive. Cloudy days (particularly if they come in week-long stretches) can bring down a mood in many people. Not to mention, some people can physically experience weather in their joints, sinuses, or other areas. Pay attention to how you feel during certain weather cycles. You can't control the weather, but you can use it to anticipate how you'll be impacted. 

  4. TEMPERAMENT

    Some people (like me!) are just more prone to moods. I know some people who are typically pretty even-keeled, no big highs, no big lows. I, on the other hand, can experience a huge range of emotions (and sometimes all at once!). When considering what influences moods, it's important to factor in temperament because most people have a general range of emotions. It's not better or worse to be more "moody," but it's something worth understanding (and accepting) about yourself and those around you.  

  5. GRATITUDE

    The more grateful you are, the easier it is to be in a better mood. (I'm pretty sure some studies have shown this to be true, but I know from personal experience that it's the truth, at least for me!) Keeping a gratitude journal can sound kind of cheesy, but ever since I started doing so years ago, I've found it to be so helpful for my mood. Whenever I feel really down, I think of what I'm fortunate to have in my life, and I immediately feel (at least a little bit!) better. 

  6. HUNGER

    Hunger levels and mood seem related for a lot of people. Not everyone notices a drastic change in mood when they're hungry, but I think it's human nature to be a least a bit grumpy when we have empty stomachs. (After all, eating is part of how we survive!) As someone whose moods are definitely impacted by my hunger level, I do what I can to prevent extreme hunger (lots of little meals) so that I can at least positively impact that aspect of my mood. 

  7. ENVIRONMENT

    The environment you're in plays a huge role in your mood. If you're somewhere you feel comfortable, relaxed, and at peace, it's going to be easier to be in a good mood. If you're in a place where you feel overwhelmed, hyper-stimulated, or uncomfortable, keeping an upbeat attitude is going to be trickier (though it's certainly possible!). We obviously can't avoid every environment that feels less-than-perfect, but it's worth noting where you are and what your mood is so you can at least be aware of what environments are more mood-boosting. 

  8. MEMORIES

    Closely tied with the environment factor is the memory you might have a certain place, person, or experience. Positive memories of a place will likely boost your mood when you're there, while negative memories might make it a bit tougher to feel happy in that place. Memories can change over time (fade, be replaced) and so they can be very complex and layered. They can't always be changed, but sometimes creating a new, happy memory in a previously mood-lowering spot can transform the way you experience it. 

  9. STRESS LEVEL

    Everyone handles stress differently, but, for most of us, the more stressed we are, the harder it becomes to be in a good, relaxed mood. Stress is, unfortunately, a part of life, but if we find stress greatly impacting our moods we can work to lower stress levels or, in cases when that's not possible, we can find ways to combat the stress. I, personally, find yoga, drawing, and being around dogs to be some of the best tools in my stress-busting arsenal, but it might take some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you! 

  10. MINDSET

    Your state of mind can significantly influence your mood. If you wake up with a good attitude, sure that everything is going work out just fine, it's easier to cope when conflict and struggles arise. However, on the flip side, if you're certain everything is terrible, you're going to have a tough time making the most of even the best moments. A positive mindset takes time and practice, but learning to be optimistic makes a huge different when it comes to any emotional state.

  11. HORMONES

    I could probably tell you, without a calendar, what day of the month it is based on my mood alone! Not everyone's mood is heavily influenced by their hormones, but, if you pay attention to how you feel at different times in the month, you might realize that your hormone levels do impact your mood. (While it hasn't been proven that men have monthly hormone cycles, they do apparently have daily cycles so, if you're a guy, pay attention to your moods during different times of the day.)

  12. OTHER PEOPLE

    Some people aren't greatly influenced by those around them, but most people are impacted in some way. Some people thrive around a lot of other people; others prefer not to have too many humans around. Some people are incredibly tuned into the moods of others (typically known as empaths) and are typically swayed a great deal by the way others are feeling. Other people are oblivious to the moods of others. Regardless of how you feel around other people, it's likely they influence your mood in some way (for better or worse!)

  13. EXCERISE

    Exercise is a mood-booster so the more you do of it, the easier it is to be in a good mood (unless you have an unhealthy relationship with exercise and overdo it). For the average person, even just a short walk or a few jumping jacks can lift a mood a little bit. If you're not a habitual exerciser (me: looks in mirror with raised eyebrow), it's worth incorporating into your routine for some mood-boosting benefits. It doesn't have to be a lot, but it can make a big difference (so I've heard...). 

  14. POINT OF VIEW

    At any given time, we can only see from one point of view (both literally and figuratively), so this obviously impacts our mood. If you can't see the whole picture (and it's pretty hard to, since we can't look everywhere at once and we have no idea what the future will hold so even if something seems terrible now, we don't know if it'll ultimately be great), you might be missing out on something that could influence your mood. Thinking about this can be frustrating, but accepting it can make it easier to cope with your current perspective. 

  15. HEALTH

    This is a big influencer because it includes both physical and mental health (which are very connected!). If you're going through health troubles or struggling mentally, your mood is likely to be impacted significantly. While we can't control every aspect of our health, there are things we can do to take care of ourselves so that our bodies (and minds!) are in the best possible shape. What we eat, do, think, and don't do influences our health (and mood!) so it's worth at least trying to be healthy. 

  16. MEDIA CONSUMPTION

    The media you consume (social media, TV, Internet, books, podcasts, etc.) can impact your mood more than you might realize. Not all media consumption is bad, so it's worth paying attention to how you feel when you're consuming different kinds of media (or when you're on different social media platforms). You have a lot of control over what you consume (you don't "have" to watch anything, unless it's part of your job to do so) and knowing how your consumption influences your mood is important! 

  17. SLEEP

    And, finally, sleep! Sleep, for most of us, significantly changes how we feel. A good night's sleep can completely transform a mood. Little to no sleep makes for very cranky, delirious, and (when driving, etc.) dangerous moods. Personally, I think the optimal amount of sleep varies a great deal from person to person (and by age group), so it's a good idea to tune into how you feel after certain amounts of sleep to know what will likely cultivate the best mood for you. 


When I first made this illustration, I really didn't consider just how many different factors go into a mood! Whenever I'm a good or bad mood, I can typically pinpoint one main reason why I feel the way I do, but now I'm starting to understand just how many aspects impact the way I'm feeling. Even though this is quite a lengthy list, I bet there are even more factors that go into a mood. If you can think of any I've missed, leave them in the comments below! 

 

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