Neglecting your Needs is Not a Sign of Strength: What Happens When We Confuse Self-Sacrifice for Caring

For as long as I can remember, it’s been common practice for my family members to act as though any favor or deed, no matter how small, was an unconscionable burden to be born. I’ve said before on this blog, we used the term “martyr” liberally, and with harsh judgement. Anytime somebody did something that was in the vein of self-care, it was viewed as selfish and the person committing the act was made to feel as though they were inherently bad because of it.

From what I’m able tell, and since no one in our family ever spoke about how they were feeling, was that we felt resentment for other people doing for themselves. This is because we felt as though we were already giving everything we had to the other, so why would they need anything else. It makes sense in a way, but it is also monumentally unhealthy. And maybe also a sign of a codependent relationship.

And even though we were doing for one another, there was never a sense of feeling grateful for what was being done. It was almost always viewed as an obligation to be fulfilled and seldom were we happy to receive what was given. Looking back on it, the whole scenario seems so strange. Who wouldn’t be happy to have a loved one do something for them? Or the chance to make someone close to you happy?

Fear & Resentment in Our Relational Ties

From what I can tell, there was a fair amount of resentment tied into the experience of giving and receiving between us. And one thing is for certain, resentment will erode most all bonds in any relationship. So if we were all so unhappy with one another, on a consistent basis, then why were we still in the habit of doing for others?

I’m not entirely sure to be honest. But I’m going to take a few guesses at what our motivations were. Duty was a big one. We felt as though we had to because if we didn’t, our very belonging was in question. The fear of not belonging was quite possibly the one constant in all of our connections. There was a lot of validation happening, with rancorous overtones. We were willing to say pretty much anything if we thought it would make us look better than somebody else, no matter how mean spirited it was.

Also, self-righteousness was another trait that was in abundance. Making ourselves look good at the expense of somebody else was a lesson I learned very early on. In relation to how this frame of mind fits in with doing for each other, we always wanted to have something we could use to make the other person feel bad about themselves. Aka, emotional blackmail.

For example, “all the things I do for you and this is how you treat me?!” was very often the sentiment that was prevalent in our family. I’m not sure that we spoke those exact words often, but that was definitely the message being sent. No wonder there was so much resentment flowing so freely between us.

Why This Leads to Codependent Relationships

The ways we were treating our relational connections were unhealthy. One of the hallmarks of this way of being was by abandoning our needs altogether, to take care of those of another. We then expected the same in return from the other person. The reason for this was because we were never taught how to take care of ourselves.

It wasn’t until very recently that I even understood what self-care is. And even more recently since I’ve begun practicing it. But these were not values taught in my family. The values that were taught in their place were, the man takes care of the woman by making money and providing and the woman takes care of the domestic needs; feeding, clothing, cleaning… There was a whole host of life skills that as a man in my family, I was just never taught.

And anything outside of these constraints was considered to go against the natural order of what it means to be a family according to our unspoken rules. But really it was just a thin covering to veil the deep-seated fear of having to take responsibility for our own lives. The fear was of not being strong enough to live this life on our own. So we needed somebody else to do it for us.

This was true for me in the relationships that I chose to be in. I was usually with another who would make all the decisions in our “shared” decision making. I would complain about not having a voice in the relationship when we broke up, but I was secretly grateful that I didn’t have to accept that responsibility as my own. I was a coward in that regard. Life is most definitely not for the faint of heart. And what I’ve learned from my experience is, that there will almost always be someone to pick up those reigns for you in your stead.

So if we’re so used to neglecting ourselves for the sake of another, or because we just don’t want the responsibility of living our own lives, how do we take control of our lives again? For me, following the fear has been a helpful guide to understanding what I’ve been running from.

Self-Sacrifice: Pros & Cons

Self-sacrifice isn’t always a bad thing. If done with good intention and knowing how to recharge afterwards, it can be a rewarding experience. But done to often and without concern for your own emotional needs, it can leave you depleted, empty. The latter was what was most common in my family and led to unhealthy ways of relating to one another. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned from the unhealthy ways we would sacrifice ourselves in the name of taking care of each other.

Emotional Blackmail

As I’ve said above, if somebody was doing something for somebody else in my family, there was usually a catch. This is where emotional blackmail enters the equation. We were constantly trying to feel better about ourselves by making the other person feel bad for who they are by either not doing or being enough and making sure they knew it. What we didn’t realize is, that this makes both parties feel worse and leads to feelings of resentment towards one another. Trying to control each other using guilt and fear only breeds more guilt and fear. No surprises here.

This is a difficult habit to break though. Because you have to feel through the fear of what’s keeping your need for control so strong and present. Finding and confronting that fear is what will set you free from the cycles of using fear and judgements to control and manipulate others. What triggered my fear was feeling as though I wasn’t worthy of somebody else’s time, love or efforts.

For me, love and acceptance was constantly being held just out of reach, over my head. So when I start to feel as though I’m not worthy of love and attention, fear sets in. This is where I need to reality check my thoughts and beliefs. Because the fear is usually coming from a very young place of feeling rejected and I will want to act in unhealthy ways in order to feel belonging.

Now I’m able to take stock of the caring and loving relationships I’ve built and fostered with those closest to me. I remind myself that I can choose to build and foster healthy relationships. Instead of relying on a set of caregivers to provide all my relational needs for me, as was the case when I was a child.

Wanting to Feel Superior by Doing More Than the Other

This was another way we held love back from each other. The more we did for one another, the more material we had to feel as though we were better than the other. Because we were being so “selfless” in our giving and not asking for anything in return. But we never realized that we were expecting something. The feeling of superiority over the other at the expense of somebody else feeling emotionally indebted to us. Because we never asked for reciprecasion, we just made the other feel as though their emotional needs were a burden we had to bear.

We did this, I believe, because we didn’t understand how to feel valued in relationships any other way. We didn’t even know how to relax without having three or four drinks first! Feeling valued in a relationship for who you are might as well have been a trig course while we were still trying to figure out basic addition. And again, fear was behind our motivations. If we stop doing for the other, we’ll no longer be needed and our self worth would then cease to exist.

This is a sad, but terrifying place to be. I know I felt alone, isolated and without support. It’s no wonder we used each other the ways that we did. We built our relationships on a common fear of one another, all the while trying to feel loved and accepted by the same people we feared! Confusing for sure. So how do we untangle this mess? This mass of confusion?

It starts with understanding our own self worth, absent of the judgements of others. Your value as a person is not contingent on somebody else’s good regard. When we understand this, then we can take a look at the relationships we’ve been keeping. How do those we keep closest make us feel about ourselves? Are they overly critical of us and others? When you speak about other people, is it usually negative? These are some clear indications that the relationship may need some tighter boundaries.

But you don’t have to completely abandon the relationship. It’s possible to take care of yourself while connecting with someone who is acting from a place of being judgemental due to a fear of being rejected. You just need to know when to step away from the relationship, to give yourself time to feel strong enough, to be confident enough in yourself again.

Because these cycles are easy to fall back into, it’s best to keep an eye on how you’re acting in the relationship while interacting with these types of people. So as not to pick up where you left off. But try not to close off completely to them. From my experience, when I was acting from a place of fear in my relationships, I didn’t even realize I had an effect on others. I was so concerned about how I was being seen, that I was self absorbed to the point of being oblivious to the hurtful things I was doing and saying.

This may also be the case with others who seem to be self absorbed as well. They just don’t know what they’re doing. And that doesn’t change the fact that what they do can still be hurtful. But it helps to know that it’s most likely not out of malicious intent. So if you have the patiences, try to stay open enough to be connected without draining yourself completely. And most likely you’re going to need to set the boundaries in these types of relationships. Because the other person is literally incapable of seeing how they are abusing yours.

And don’t forget, it’s not your job to “save” or “fix” the other person. Whether or not they change is up to them and is in no way within our control. The best we can do is lead by example and by setting and sticking to healthy relational boundaries. And always make sure that you’re taking care of yourself and respecting your own boundaries first. Otherwise we’re back at square one with giving too much of ourselves without reciprocation.

And Don’t Forget, be Kind : )

I know that for me, one of the traps I used to fall into was by belittling others so I could feel morally superior. And those that I surrounded myself with fell right in step with me. This is why if we’re looking to make the change from finding belonging by demeaning others to feeling inherent self worth, we need to be kind. To ourselves and others.

Being petty and judgemental were some of the main foundations of my former relationships. In order to make the shift, I needed to be conscious of how I was speaking about others and also what I was thinking about them as well. Because being needlessly negative is a habit that gets stronger the more it is practiced. And it takes a great deal of willpower to recognize this habit as it’s happening and change its course.

So when old patterns of negative thoughts do come up, don’t try to block them out. Recognize that they are there and reality check them. I’ve also been making it a point to pick out the positive I see in either people or situations. In hopes that the more I practice this habit, the stronger it will become. And this doesn’t mean I’m being nice to cover over the discomfort of the negative thoughts that do come up. This can turn into denial if left unchecked. Rather allow both negative and positive to coexist, but choose to practice the positive.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. Making positive changes in our life isn’t always easy. But if you’re looking, you can usually find help and support when you need it. I hope this has been both. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Ritual Sacrifice of the Gummulate Tribe!” by Grizdave is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Finding Support: When you Just Don’t Know Who to Turn to

I’ve been writing a lot about how I wasn’t supported and in some ways, I still lack emotional support. Luckily I’ve come to a place where I no longer blame those who neglected me. But that sadly doesn’t ease the pain of the lack of feeling supported. I’d like to explore this area of our relationships. The place where we are looking for help from each other and maybe coming up short, but also in connecting as well. What does it (connection) look like and how do we foster the sparks that build them. Let’s start with where it isn’t found.

For me, there wasn’t any emotional support, connection, intelligence or recognition of, happening at all in my family. From what I’m able to tell as for why this was the case, there was just too much trauma floating around in our family. All of it being covered over, denied and ignored. And without support from each other, it would be crazy to dive into all of our badly hurt and unattended, traumatic feelings alone.

Dissociating From Our Emotions

So we escaped from one another. The most prevalent ways we did this was through drinking alcohol. Ways to numb ourselves from what is happening in ourselves in real time while avoiding the emotions we recognized in others that remind us of our own hurt selves. We covered over what the others in our lives were feeling by telling them how they were/are feeling also. This way, we were safe from the unexpected ideas and opinions of others while not challenging our views about what we thought our relationships and ourselves should look like. We wanted control over the others experiences of us.

This was one of the ways we avoided change and growth. Another way was avoidant, dissociative behaviors. Drinking for sure is one, but I’m mostly talking about watching t.v. and reading as a way to escape from our own and the emotions of others. This type of self absorbed behaviour is a way to disconnect from the relationships in our lives and skirt personal growth at the same time.

And as maddening as it is, to be unable to connect with a loved one emotionally, it’s most likely not their fault. This was a hard pill for me to swallow. I had a series of emotional breakthroughs, resulting in my emotional world being more clear and well defined. But when I returned to those I had lost so much time with in neglected relationships, I realized that they were in the same place I used to be. Unable to recognize and attune to their emotional worlds.

This explains why I was never able to make the emotional connections I was seeking, but is still a difficult place to be left. So the question is, how do we start to rebuild the connections we’ve lost so long ago? Or build new ones if we’ve never had them in the first place? Short answer, I don’t know. But, there are somethings I’m trying in hopes that I can start building my relationships a fresh.

Reconnecting to Ourselves and Our Relationships

This has been especially difficult work for me to do. Seeing as how I’ve had no guidance or role models in the relational realm. Everything I’m doing is either something new I’m trying, or blind advice I’ve received from a trusted therapist or source. Here are some of the ways I’m practicing personal connection, in hopes of fostering healthy connections.

Being Consistent

This is an important one for me. I had zero direction from those who were supposed to be there for me in relational role modeling. Which means that I had no one to guide or model for me how to connect in a healthy way. I either took on too much responsibility for the other person, or none at all for myself. Now that I’ve recognized that I’m in control of my half of my relationships, I’m learning to be accountable for myself in them. This is also a standard I set for those I’m in relationship with. They need to be accountable for themselves as well.

For example, I have a standing date with a friend of mine for mondays. We’re both off during the day and it seems a good time to connect. But we’ve been getting a little lax about our Mondays as of late. This usually happens by not acknowledging our standing date and letting them go by without making plans.

So, I’ve set some new boundaries in the relationship. This is a person I want to spend time with, but if the relationship is one sided, i.e. one person doing all the work, it isn’t a relationship between two people. So the new boundaries are, every Monday, one of us will make a plan for the next Monday and we’ll switch off weeks. This way, we both have an equal role in making the relationship work. Instead of one person doing the work and building up a resentment about the lack of shared responsibility. Aka, being actively involved in the relationship.

But this doesn’t come naturally for some people. For those of us who have been severely neglected, the most basic relational maintenance and upkeep are a mystery. This is why practice, patience and persistence are of the utmost importance. We sometimes need these schedules to remind us that there is work we need to do. Because if all you’ve ever looked after was yourself, then there’s a good chance you won’t be able to tell what the subtle nuances are that your relationship with another needs some attention.

This is especially true for those of us who have learned to neglect our own needs. If you were neglected and abandoned as a child, there is no way to gauge how you are being treated. If you haven’t had any guidance, this type of attunement is like putting a puzzle together blindfolded. This is where self-care becomes an important aspect of finding support as well.

Self-Care as Guidance

Showing up for yourself is more than just a trend. It’s a way to give yourself love and respect. To find out who you are and what your likes and dislikes are outside of the expectations of others. In the family I grew up in, we were constantly cutting each other down for not fitting the mold we thought they should fit into.

This was a terrifying and difficult place to try to practice self-care. In fact, it was impossible to do so. We were so busy tending to our wounds, the ones that were being inflicted by one another, that we had no space to nurture the small things that brought us joy. In most cases, we didn’t even know what those things were.

But these were the places of self discovery and care that needed our attention the most. For example, one of my caregivers would tell me I was “fat and lazy” constantly. In a way, they were correct. I was overweight and I had a poor work ethic. But I couldn’t have been more than 13 at the time. Any lessons I learned about weight management and the ability to be productive I learned from them.

So instead of recognizing that we collectively had a weight problem and that we did for others as a way to feel needed and simultaneously resenting those we did for, we called each other names. This however, made everybody feel ill at ease. We were all just reacting to whatever emotion was coming to the surface without asking ourselves, “how can we change the way we’re interacting that won’t result in pain?”

This is where being taught self-care would have been a way for us to heal these wounds and be more at peace in our own skins, together. By learning how to nourish ourselves in healthy activities and connections, such as exercise or how to manage a healthy amount of responsibility and boundaries, we could have framed our goals in a more positive outlook instead of tearing eachother down for not reaching a most likely impossible standard to begin with. The end result being, building up self-confidence and self-worth. Having a sense of being intrinsically valuable. This is the power that self-care holds if fostered.

Reaching Out Often and Fostering Relationships

Another way I’ve been reconnecting with my relationships is a pretty straightforward one. I’m actively looking for ways to connect with the people I’m choosing to be a part of my life. This may seem like a no brainer but it can be somewhat counter intuitive.

When I was in my early twenties and thirties, my friend group was already incorporated into my daily routine. I worked with a fair amount of them, I lived with a few and we usually drank at the same bar every night. This made it easy to find all my friends when we weren’t playing video games together.

But the older we got, the more self contained our lives became. We no longer shared apartments and seldom crashed on each others couches. We worked separate jobs and moved to different cities. These are all natural events over the course of a friendship, but if you let them slip by without recognizing that new effort needs to be expended in order to keep the relationship alive, you could end up as I had. With very few friends.

I found myself without friends to share exciting news or people to grab dinner or lunch with. It was a lonely place that I realized I had built for myself. So, I started where I was. The few friends I had left, I made it a point to stay in contact with them. And the more I reached out, the more they reciprocated. I even began reaching out to people I hadn’t spoken to in decades to find that we were able to pick up right where we left off.

These were welcome connections indeed. I now make it a point to stay connected with the people I’ve been cultivating a relationship with. We share recipes we’re cooking, hobbies we’re interested in, visit interesting and new places together. Make future plans, things to look forward to. Everything you’d expect from a healthy friendship.

And the difference between the relationships of my past and those of my present? In the present, we are all putting in the effort to stay in touch with and foster these connections. The bonds are stronger now that we make the effort to take an interest in what the other is doing. Our common shared interests can no longer be summed up in the phrase, “can you pass me a beer.” Not that there’s anything wrong with sharing a drink together. Only drinking shouldn’t be at the center of the occasion or relationship. Celebrating the friendship should be the most important part.

Sharing Intimacy

There was a lot of time spent in my family on how we thought we needed to act to feel acceptable. As though we needed to live up to some impossible and ever changing standard. One that I’m not even sure where it came from or how we came to a consensus on it, if everybody was so uncertain of themselves all the time. It kind of blows my mind a little to think about the origins of our standards!

But we had them none-the-less and they did a lot of damage in our relationships. So shedding those standards by first recognizing them, and actively working to deconstruct them through self-care was imperative to heal in them. Some examples of impossible standards are, perfectionism, always being agreeable and never complaining. Fostering healthy connections is my new goal to living a more connected life with healthy friendships.

And hopefully, if we work on these places of our relationships with care and attention, we’ll create a shared sense of intimacy. A place were we can open to one another and share our goals and aspirations. A place where it’s safe to ask for and receive help. Without judgement or ulterior motives. To ultimately be ourselves.

It’s difficult work, but it gets easier the more we do it. And the payout is, we have healthier, stronger and self-sustaining relationships. Win, win. So what’s holding us back from connecting in these healthier ways? Take a look at some of your friendships and see where there may be room for improvement and start there. But equally as important, don’t forget to celebrate the places where your relationships are already going well. It’s good to recognize the work you’ve already put in. Peace and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Cast iron classical” by Darkroom Daze is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fear and Judgement: Fear of Being Judged

Judgement is a tough one for a lot of folks, including myself. It’s ubiquitous in American culture and can be used as a means to evaluate someone’s worth. In a lot of ways it’s used as you would use currency. To deem if someone holds value measured against your standards.

People fear judgement to be sure, and for good reason. It’s often times associated with guilt. Usually that guilt comes in the form of “what’s wrong with me that others are seeing me as bad or undeserving?” The idea of criminal comes up and paying back society for a debt that’s owed.

And not all judgements are loaded with fear. For example we may make a judgement call that it wouldn’t be safe to drive if we had another drink. This type of judgement is necessary for our survival, and to keep us safe. But what if judgements were placed on us because a caregiver wanted us to be different? In an attempt to control who we are and who we would become. What then?

This was the case for me growing up. I was criticized and judged so often that I just assumed that I would never add up to my caregivers expectations. And to make things worse, I was never really sure what I could do that would be acceptable by my caregivers. And thinking about it now, there was never any direction on how to improve, only negative judgements. So I copied their behaviors, their habits, hoping I would stumble upon the “correct” way of being.

We were big drinkers in our family. This was the first habit I picked up that was modeled for me. Also treating other people as though they were disposable. As though I didn’t really need their friendship, was another toxic habit I inferred. I burned a lot of bridges doing this. Though I wish I hadn’t now, some of the relationships I had during those times were unhealthy to say the least and at least partially modeled after unhealthy familial relationships. Knowing what I know now, I could have ended some relationships in a more amicable way, but I just didn’t know any better. And either did they (my caregivers) for that matter. We were operating under faulty instructions and doing the best we could with what we had. Which wasn’t much.

And that is one of the bigger issues that comes with consistent critical judgements. Being left with the paralyzing fear of either not belonging or the possibility of rejection. When you are reject by those who are supposed to love you unconditionally, you are left with absolutely no direction on learning how to have a felt sense of belonging. You just never feel like you belong. Aimlessly adrift.

For me this happened very early on. I remember there being such a loneliness and wanting to belong that I turned to anything that would bring me a sense of feeling apart of something. Regardless of how reckless or self destructive it seemed.

I can remember listening to The Grateful Dead’s, “Touch of Grey” in 1987-88 and connecting with the lyrics, “I will get by”. Later on when I was in highschool and hippy culture was making a re-emergence in the mid to late nineties, I took to it so quickly that I was making my own clothes and growing my hair out for dreads in less than six months. Everything I owned smelled of patchouli and I began drinking at the age of fourteen. All because I heard a song that had a seemingly positive message, mixed with the culture being popular at the time.

I was looking for someplace to belong. And if it wasn’t for those fond early childhood memories of feeling a little bit of optimism and hope while listening to the Dead, who knows where I’d be. I also imagine there was a draw to the gypsy culture that the Dead came to represent. A feeling of homelessness or at least a sense of misfits coming together, who have been roundly rejected by others to create their own sense of community and belonging.

But what’s so startling about the life choices I was making at fourteen, was that I was basing them on song lyrics I randomly heard when I was much younger because they gave me a sense of hope, however small. Instead of the loving guidance from capable caretakers, I had Jerry and hippy culture to show me how to get by. I had some good times for sure, but I’d trade them all for some love and support from those who should have been there for me.

This brings up another aspect of the fear of not belonging. The maddening fact that my caretakers had gone out of their way to make sure I knew I was not adding up by consistent criticisms about aspects of my personality or physical appearance. This led me believe that there was a thread of hope. That if I could somehow managed to please them by living up to their impossible standards in some way, then I’d belong. Of course what I didn’t realize at the time, but see all too clearly now is that the reason their standards were so impossible was because they themselves didn’t know how to belong. And if they felt as though they weren’t quite adding up, how would they be able to teach me?

So if this fear stems from not knowing how to belong, why then all the judgement? From my experiences with my caregivers growing up, the judgements came when we were too vulnerable to let one another in on a deeper emotional level. This was partly due to feeling as though we didn’t belong, but also as defence to keep each other at a distance so we couldn’t be seen as our authentic, vulnerable and hurt selves. The selves that felt like we aren’t good enough to be a part of a loving relationship because we had been hurt and abandoned so many times that we felt as though we deserved not to belong.

And to make things worse, this was a legacy we were handing down to one another. First because we didn’t know how to break the cycle, and second we were too scared to let people get too close because of all the damage we inflicted and incurred during past attempts to bond. So it became the undercurrent and foundation of all our unstable relationships. Built on fear of not belonging to something bigger, more supportive. Which is what I imagine we all wanted. And our negative judgements of each other swooped in to keep us from getting too close to one another for fear they would see our authentic “damaged” selves that had been tore down by ourselves and others so often. This was the cycle we were trapped in.

So if this was the legacy we had been handing down through the generations, and noone was feeling healthy, loved or supported, why haven’t we been able to go in a different direction and break the patterns? What was stopping us from giving up the ghost and finding the healthier, more supportive versions of ourselves and our relationships? The short answer is, because it’s difficult.

My experience was that I needed to feel through a life’s time worth of collected emotional wounds from those I was told I could rely on. And when our trust is abused by mixed messages about who we’re able to rely on, there’s a lot of confusion around who we are able to trust. And when our trust is taken advantage of, that’s when our defenses kick in. There’s a line from an Iron and Wine song, “Sacred Vision” that fits this mindset, “forgiveness is fickle when trust is a chore”. In my situation it was being critical of others using judgements to distance myself from those I felt I couldn’t trust.

But this had the effect of breading distrust, with myself and with others. With myself because I would often turn that critical voice inward and tear myself down. With others in that I was keeping them at a distance so as not to get hurt. But they were still feeling the sting and affects of my critical judgements of them.

In order to let people get close, I had to feel the hurt I was avoiding by keeping others at a distance with harsh criticisms. And those were some of the most difficult emotions I’ve ever had to feel. Sorting through those emotions was a kin to untangling a knot of live wires. Everytime I seized one, I’d get a shock from a past wound. But the more I untangled the easier it became. The more I allowed the emotions to flow, the more I was able to feel them as they came. Without anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

And it takes patients with yourself, and persistence. But when I started I had no idea what I was doing. I had no healthy role models so I needed to find some Stat. I started with people I admire. People I didn’t actually know personally, so I could feel the safety of distance while experiencing their wisdom and trying it out for myself.

The people I thought of most were Oprah, Tom Hanks, Buddha, Adrienne from yoga with Adrienne and Dana Shultz from Minimalist Baker. As I’ve said above, I don’t know these people personally but it feels like they’re consistently projecting a positive and even tempered demeanor. Their characteristics are ways that I’d like to project myself in the world. Mixed with their work ethic and vitality, these are the people I want to model myself around. And the characteristics I want to use to build my relationships on and with. A firm and solid foundation based on support and caring interest, instead of harsh and critical judgements.

And with these new characteristics, I was then able to use them to build my values. Being loving support as one value and learning how to trust others and myself, another. When the characteristics of love and support are practiced, that is how trust is created. That is how a characteristic builds on or creates a value.

But this is all new territory to me. And with this new and steep learning curve came a fair amount of fear and emotional rawness. With noone around to show me what were the types of characteristics that built lasting and sustainable values, I was adrift again. Floating wherever the current took me. But once I started to build these values by practicing these characteristics, I was then able to set anchor and build the strong foundations that would be able to support lasting relationships.

And with the mutually built foundations of my new relationships, I found what I was missing in my old friendships. There was no effort put into building our bonds, so we didn’t value them as I would something that took time and effort. Emotion, understanding and forgiveness. All we had to build on in past relationships was a lot of alcohol and a few good times. What I’m finding now, building my relationships from my new set of values is that there is a greater amount of respect.

We appreciate the time and effort we’ve taken and put into the experiences we’ve had and are continuing to build. We value one another as a source of support and kind, genuine caring. We know that we can trust one another with what we’ve built together because we did it with love. And that’s what was missing from those relationships that were built on good times.

Support and the felt sense of belonging that comes with knowing that you are supported, trusted and cared about. The random text messages that get sent throughout the week as a way of checking in on how the other is doing. As opposed to finding out where we would be drinking that night. Asking for help in building shelves together to make a house feel more like a home, instead of cutting down a “friend” in front of a girl in hopes that you’ll hook up later. The examples are plentiful, but what remains is that feeling belonging and trust built on stable characteristics go hand in hand. Try to build them on anything else and it would be unstable at best.

And none of this would be possible if I didn’t first come to terms with the fear of my critical judgements. Of others, but mostly from myself. If we use critical judgements to keep others away for long enough, it begins to corrode our ability to connect with anyone, or anything at all. Critical thoughts work in the same ways acid does, circulate in and around the bonds we try to build, leaving them weak and frail. By turning inward and realizing how weak and frail all of my bonds had become, I then understood how important it is to actively work towards healing these weakened bonds by attending to the bond with myself.

This is arguably the most important bond because it paves the way for all of our other bonds to take shape. And this is where the tough work comes in. If you’ve left your internal landscape fallow for too long, the question then is, “I’m afraid of what I might find in there.” Incase this is where you are, let me just say that there are no monsters lurking here. Only the parts of us that are badly in need of some love and support 🙂

And there’s another benefit of practicing the characteristics of love and support. You become stronger in the process, building stronger bonds within yourself. You may be checking in with a friend who has had a tough day at work, but caring enough about someone else’s well being, to check in on them is also a way of attuning to your own sense of empathy. You are strengthening your empathic abilities by checking in with how you’re feeling about your friend, and acting with kindness, is a way to practice being support.

These are the healthy patterns that are possible when we choose to practice sustainable, healthy characteristics. We are then able to sustain these new relationships with healthier patterns, using our characteristics and values as a guide. It isn’t always going to be easy, but it is definitely worth the effort. And with some luck you’ll be surrounded by friends and family that are, sure irritating at times, but their value as a source of love and support will outweigh any habit that may rub you the wrong way.

Turning from critically judgemental to loving support is difficult. And maybe the most important characteristic that will have the biggest effect on how you make this change is through kindness. To yourself first and others. The more we practice kindness, especially toward ourselves, the more our actions, thoughts, moods and behaviors will naturally lean towards a kind disposition. And this will in turn affect how we connect with ourselves and with those close in.

These are only my experiences with trying to rebuild the relationships in my life after what feels like a life’s time worth of avoiding and neglecting my bonds. I hope this has been of some use to you. If you like me, have found yourself in a reconstruction phase of life, my advice is don’t give up! You’re much stronger than you think and help has a way of finding those who are in need, as long as you are open to the opportunity. Be well, good luck and peace 🙂 thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Mean looking Eagle Owl” by webheathcloseup is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Self Confidence: How Surrounding Yourself with Positive Messages can Help to Heal the Old Wounds of Not Feeling Like you’re Adding Up

I’ve been thinking about how I view myself lately. Where I am in life as opposed to where I thought I would be. What I’d like to be doing for a career. How I’d be spending my days, who I’d be spending my days with. Where I’d like to be living… The list goes on. But I’m realizing now that I spend an awful lot of time focusing on where I’d like to be as opposed to where I am.

This isn’t a new story. For example, it’s what the meditation community means when they say, “be here now”. But it’s amazing how much of my time goes to focusing on where I think I should be. Especially since I know that focusing on the here and now would be so much more beneficial for my peace of mind. So why do I and most likely others focus on the future, or where we feel we should be instead of the where we are?

I find it’s because I’m not accepting where I am in the moment. I feel I should be in a different, better place than the one I’m in. So my brain makes plans and fixates on how I can change my current situation for the better in my future. And we need to make plans for the future. It’s an important dimension of how we grow as humans. But when it’s all we think about we’re not allowing ourselves to grow into the future. Instead we remaining stagnant in the past and present.

It often feels like we’re focusing on how nothing is ever good enough in the here and now and we’ll always be working towards some brighter future. And if we ease up and let ourselves enjoy the moment, take our eyes off of our goals, we will be failors. Doomed to live an unfulfilling life, or at least that’s how I feel.

This seems a little dramatic, but that’s often how it feels most of the time when we get hyper focused on where we should be. There’s a psychological term for it that Tara Brach sometimes talks about. It’s called the negativity bias. It’s when your fear of the possible negative outcome of a situation takes control of your thoughts and emotions. And if you’ve dealt with trauma in your past, the negativity bias may be a stronger force for you than most.

I know this is true for myself. Especially when I’m building relationships with friends or new acquaintances. I was made fun of and belittled so often by my caregivers in the past and nothing was off limits. Living under the constant critical eye of my caregivers, I felt like no matter what I did it was never enough. And to make things worse, I had noone to tell me what to do to gain the approval I so desperately needed and was searching for frantically. I just wanted to feel loved and belonging. This was a confusing setting for me to grow up in.

As I said in my post about How we treat our pantries and how it’s related to how we nourish ourselves, one of the ways I was criticised for was being overweight. This was an area of great confusion, since my caregivers were feeding me and criticising me for being overweight at the same time. And all the while with no clear direction on how to properly feed myself, or ways to live a healthier lifestyle. I’ve since learned how to regulate my body weight, but it’s been a bumpy road to say the least.

I remember coming home from a long day at work, running three miles and doing yoga for 40 minutes. And all of that on only a small breakfast I ate at 7am. By the time I got into the shower after my workout at 5:30pm, I passed out. The likely cause was from pushing myself too hard for too long and with too little food to run on.

These were the ways I taught myself how to manage the feelings of being criticized and neglected by my caregivers who were supposed to show me how to love and be loved. I ignored my body’s limits with little nourishment and a harsh exercise regiment. Instead of showing myself love, I pushed myself beyond what I could handle. And I looked at myself with the same critical eye that had been handed down to me by my caregivers. I essentially became abusive to myself in the ways I was abused in the past, all so I could feel a sense of belonging. If I could look thin enough, be attractive enough, maybe then I would finally feel like I belonged. As though someone approved of me.

I didn’t want to “belong” that way anymore. I knew that something needed to change with the ways that I was relating to myself, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. That’s when I decided to start where I was. In the here and now. Taking an active role in finding out the ways I was criticizing and neglecting myself. I focused on the areas where I either couldn’t feel anything because I was so numb, or where I just plain felt bad about myself and who I was.

Turns out there were a lot of areas in my life where I felt this way. I had been punishing myself in the same vein as my caregivers before me for so long, that I realized I didn’t even know how to be kind to myself! And I needed to learn how to attune to my own needs desperately. Essentially I was reparenting myself because I had no one to show me how. I had no map to guide me.

I believe my reparenting started with me saying affirmations to myself during my meditation. If you’ve read my post on affirmations you’ll know that I say them daily. They are like an anchor for me, when I’m feeling adrift. A way to help refocus on what my intentions truly are and the positive I’m trying to cultivate in my life.

And almost as a natural extension of saying my affirmations, I leave them around my personal space as well. For example I make a lot of lists. I use Google Keep which is a great tool for me, because you can make a ton of lists or notes and they update in the cloud. So if you take a note on your phone, you can read it later on your laptop.

And I’ve been in the habit of putting short affirmations in with the titles of my lists or notes. On my todo list I’ve written, “never give up on your dreams”. This helps me to stay focused on the goals that I set for myself on how I’d like to live my life. On the note I keep for my journal, when something comes to me and I don’t have my bullet journal to write it down, I put, “I’m here, I care.” I also have a few more scattered around to help me keep with a positive mindset.

My parents keep a daily affirmation calendar in the kitchen and will often leave pages laying around that strike a chord with them. I took a page from their book and hung one near my night stand that says, “work hard, relax harder”. It’s a little cheesy, but the message is something that I definitely need to heed more often. Read about my exercise regiment above as an example 🙂

I also put the pictures of two of my role models as wallpaper on my phone, Dana from Minimalist Baker and Adrienne from yoga with Adrienne. To remind me of not only what my goals and purposes are, but also that there are healthy role models out there. Growing up there just weren’t any healthy adult role models in my life. Knowing now that I can choose to surround myself with the presence of those who inspire me and bring me comfort is a great source of strength. Feeling that connection, even if only online, is a huge resource for me when I’m feeling low about something. When I turn on my phone I see one of their smiling faces and it brightens my mood almost instantly.

In the same vein as my phone wallpaper, my laptop screen saver is a half dozen or so photos of how I’d like my future home to look and feel. Like the messages on my todo list, these photos help to keep me focused on what my future goals are. They also bring the added comfort of knowing that I’m actively working towards these goals here and now. That I’m not giving up on them no matter how far away they seem.

Pinterest has a similar feeling and approach to affirmations in the ways I use and talk about them. Visualizing what you are dreaming of as a way to bring them into fruition. Visual affirmations, aka vision boards. For example it’s one thing to know that you’d like to live in the mountains some day. But if you keep some of your favorite photos from hiking trips you’ve loved in the past around, you have pictures as reminder of what the hard work you’re putting in toward your future goals could manifest.

A self-care routine is another great way to practice affirmations. When I cook dinner for my self-care sundays ritual, I’m sending myself the message that I’m here, right now, to take care of my emotional needs. To build the emotional support around the areas that I was criticized and neglected for, by myself and others in the past, like food and cooking. And knowing that you’re here for yourself is so important to knowing that you are worth the time and effort you take for yourself. To feel valued as a person and confident that you are not only able to take care of yourself, but worth that time and effort. This is what self love looks like.

Also the relationships we keep are a huge part of the ways we can boost our confidence and feel more supported. And if we’re not careful, a quick way to tear ourselves down as well. As I mentioned above, I was cut down so many times by the people that were supposed to show me how to love, and how to love myself that I had almost zero ability to maintain a healthy supportive relationship. First with myself, then with others.

First with myself in that since I was never shown how to be kind to myself, all I had were the negative messages bouncing around in my mind from past experiences. So I picked up right where my caregivers left off. By taking those messages of criticism and replaying them in my mind. If a feeling of fear came in, I would tell myself “a real man could handle this. Are you a real man?” And when I couldn’t handle the fear, I would turn to some other way of self soothing. Either with lots of coffee in the morning or beer at night.

And when you’re dealing with neglect and verbal abuse, it can feel like you’re being bleed to death by a thousand tiny cuts in the form of negative messages. These small but effective affirmations are akin to fixing a thousand tiny bandages to those cuts. It isn’t always easy and it’s definitely a practice, but the more often you patch up these tiny wounds by way of these small affirmations to yourself, the more your affirmations come together to soothe and protect you. From all the old wounds of the past.

The second aspect of the relationships we keep are those of close friends and family. My caregivers and support system growing up weren’t held together by feelings of love and belonging. There aren’t many times where I can look back and say, “those were some good times”.

For the most part we were mean, critical and judgemental towards one another. Most of the ways we communicated with and to one another was through making someone feel less than you, or by making them feel excluded, as though they don’t belong. This was a difficult environment to grow up in. And I imagine it would have hurt emotionally if we weren’t so numb from all the alcohol we were drinking to keep ourselves from feeling the extent of our actions and attitudes towards one another.

The friendships I cultivated weren’t much different from the ways I learned to belong with my family. This isn’t too much of a surprise, but it’s one that left me hollow. I would go out drinking with my friends and we would say and do the most hurtful things to one another. But by the time we had another drink, we would have almost completely forgotten about it.

This was fine while we were drinking. But when I stopped drinking to excess and focused on living a healthier lifestyle, I realized that almost all of my friends had vanished. Without the alcohol to hold us together we drifted apart. It’s sad to think about now, but the relationships I was keeping weren’t sustainable in the least.

It’s worth mentioning that I had to sever a few ties I had with friends who were just unhealthy for me. They aren’t bad people, but their way of seeing things as they do and how they live their lives runs counter to the ways I am now showing up for and taking care of myself. I didn’t do this lightly, so if you plan on reevaluating some of your friendships, do it with care. It’s painful to cut ties. My advice would be, for your own peace of mind, make sure there isn’t something you can do to salvage the relationship. But don’t hold on to something that isn’t working at the expense of your self worth. It is definitely not worth it.

As a part of learning how to be in healthy relationships, I’m now in the habit of complimenting people more often, especially friends. When I enjoy something someone took time and effort to put together, I let them know. Or if someone does something well at work, I’ll mention it to them. It may not seem like much, but these small interactions and comments add up over time. These are the foundations of feeling like a trustworthy and supportive friend. Someone who is there when you need them and not afraid to show their affection. Someone who will not withhold their love from you to feel more desired. Especially from those who are supposed to be our support network! I once had a girlfriend who would often say, “pay the compliment”. And she was right, it makes a difference.

This type of support is so important to feeling a sense of self value. Feeling confident in who we are, as friends, husbands, wives, parents, co-workers… We need one another to feel this value, to build one another up. To be the love and support for one another that will help us to be and live the healthiest versions of our lives. But this can be difficult to obtain if you were only ever taught to tear one another down.

Affirmations help, as does finding a healthy, supportive community. Finding your tribe. And it’s worth mentioning that it’s something that takes effort to sustain. It’d be nice to believe that once you’re friends with someone, all they’re ever going to be is loving support. So you have that covered 😀 But the reality is, we all do and say things that rub each other the wrong way. Maybe someone’s having an off day or being insensitive to how we’re feeling.

Those times will come up, and it’s especially important to keep an open mind in those moments. Try not to focus on how you were hurt and think of ways to communicate how you’re feeling to your friend. Most likely they weren’t looking to hurt you. A simple, direct conversation will most likely leave everybody feeling a bit more at ease. And this will also work to build a stronger connection in your friendship. Patching up the cracks together and working to resolve problems usually leads to tighter bonds.

Healing from the ways that our confidence has been abused is not a simple task. It takes a lot of self-care and support to feel like you are valued again as a person. And usually the person that is holding ourselves down the most is ourselves! But it’s possible. With the support and love from friends and family, also showing up for yourself in the form of self-care and positive affirmations, we can learn to give ourselves the value that we never had. It takes time and patients, but don’t ever forget that you’re worth it.

I hope this helps in some way. Tara Brach has some dharma talks on healing self doubt if you’re looking for some more support. Her talks helped to keep me company when I felt completely alone. Knowing that there is a community of people out there doing good work for the sake of helping others feels like a warm hug. Seeking the help of a professional is also an excellent resource. I worked through some difficult emotions with the help of my therapist. And I am grateful for their kind natured ability to listen without judgement. Let me know of any resources you found that work for you in the comments section below. Maybe we can be each other’s resources together 🙂 Peace, and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Nervous?” by Freddie Peña is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Building Shelves, Building Community: Opening the Doors to Closer Bonds

A few months ago I was standing in my kitchen while preparing for my weekly meal prep. I went into the back pantry where we store food items and was frustrated with how disorganized it all was. There were multiples of the same item scattered around the shelves that probably sat there for months, if not years just taking up room. We were running out of space in the cabinet where we kept most of our dry goods and the area we had in the pantry was poorly organized and overflowing with food items. Most of them not likely to be used for years. It was overwhelming and frustrating to say the least.

As I stood there looking at the mess that we called the back pantry, I wondered how and why it came to be this disorganized. From what I could gather, as I said in my post on how we treat our pantries, one of the ways we got here was by treating (our) pantry like a museum. Curating different staples. Things (we) should have to have food. One thing was clear. Something needed to change.

Still standing there and looking at our collected mess, I racked my brain for ways to improve our storage situation. To give you an idea of what the pantry looks like, it is a small space, maybe 20-25 square feet. There is a closet on the left that is void of shelving. Only the casing of an old broom closet that house items that aren’t of much use or never get used. A spatula hangs on the inside of one of the walls that has never been used for a grill that had been thrown out years ago. Two non-slip plastic mats hang in the middle of the closet casing and have been for years. An ironing board that hasn’t been touched except to be moved from one spot to another. And a dust pan, two brooms and a Butler that rarely get use.

On top of the underutilized cabinet/closet space is where a good portion of the food we store lives. It’s above eye level and difficult to access without a stepladder. All sorts of cans and bottles of things waiting to be used in no particular order. Scattered about and stacked on top of one another like a jigsaw puzzle.

On the other side of the pantry is a metro rack. If you don’t know what a metro rack is it’s something that is used in the food service industry to store food. Dry goods or dishes are usually kept on these shelves and it’s about 5 1/2 feet tall with 2 1/2 foot deep shelving. And the entire unit is made from a thick gauge chrome wire. Ours is packed with dry goods and appliances that hadn’t even been thought of for a long time.

Next to the metro, on the floor to the left are stacked cases of bottled water and more appliances and dishes that are also collecting dust. If you were alive in the 80’s, it looks like a scene from a Mad Max movie. Items that sometimes got used mixed in with pieces of garbage where someone could hold up and survive some cataclysmic event.

There and then I decided to do something about it. I felt as though living this way was an admission of giving up. Like we had thrown our hands up in frustration and gave in to the chaos. Though I was frustrated, I was unwilling to accept defeat.

I went to architecture school for a semester. At some point in my educational career I thought I would be an architect. On a whim really. It was a very costly impulse decision. But I had little guidance at the time and it seemed like the best option available. There were some useful skills I learned from my stint there. One of the professors said that students often ask him what they’ll be able to do after their first semester or year there. He told us that we’d be able to draw up a blueprint, floor plans for a project. So I got my sketch pad and starting fleshing out ideas for the pantry space.

I came up with a few iterations that I felt would best utilize the space. First, everything needed to be off the ground and preferably at eye level. Next I measured the square footage of useable shelf space we had and compared it to the space we’d be building to make sure we had enough room.

After I had the plans laid out, I showed them to the people I live with. They looked them over, gave me some feedback, things they’d like changed for ease of use. And I created another plan from the newly discussed ideas of how the shelves could be arranged.

It felt as though we were collaborating on a shared sense of space and love of food. We were growing closer by coming together to make our house feel more like a home. There’s also a feeling of ownership that comes with molding the space around you that you use every day.

All of our personalities were cohabitating in the design of the pantry. One person’s practicality in switching the most used shelves closer to the doorway. Another’s love of natural wood shades in the material for the shelves. And me wanting to create the feel of an orchard rack, to store and display fresh veggies from the garden. All of our ideas, tastes and preferences coming together in a place that we use daily. Reminding us of our shared connection.

After we hammered out the plans, I mentioned I was going to be building shelves to a friend of mine and he told me he’s been looking up woodworking videos on Youtube. He recently helped his mother replace some of her shelves. So I asked if he wanted to help and he was pumped about the idea.

We got together to take a look at the space and bounced a few ideas off of each other. He had an idea of how the shelves should be supported and I laid out the spacing and square footage. We went to a local hardware store to price out the materials we needed and later that night I put a budget together for the project.

It took some coordinating to get our schedules to line up but we got there. We chose a day and my friend began the process of gathering the tools we needed for the job. I met my friend in a nearby town, we took a trip to buy the lumber and got started building the shelves.

When we arrived at the house, we made plans on how we were going to prepare and cut the wood to size for the shelving. It was early and we had all day to put the project together so we weren’t rushed. We could take our time. We set up on the front walkway, just outside the front door and got to work on measuring and cutting the pieces.

The project went smoothly from that point on. We put the supports in for the shelving first. Then we cut the boards that were meant to be the shelves down to size and any additional cut outs to fit in the space. We dry fit the shelves and added an extra length of 1×3 to the ends of the shelves to make sure food items didn’t slide off the ends. And it only took one afternoon as opposed to the two days we thought it would take.

There were a few surprises along the way, a few extra measurements we needed to make to allow for some extra bracing we hadn’t planned on. And we had to hand screw some screws from where the closet was too narrow for the drill. But all in all the project was a success.

As we finished up, one of the people who I live with was coming home. So after we cleaned up the tools and scraps, we showed them the new shelves and they were excited. After my friend left, we stood around and talked about the new renovations. We talked about getting my friend a gift card to a local grocery store as a way of saying thank you and to show our gratitude.

We also saved a bunch of money by building the shelves ourselves. They may not be professionally done, but they look good. And we also made plans to scrape, plaster and paint the entire pantry. Something that was started 17 years prior but was left unfinish.

As we were wrapping up our conversation about the shelves someone said that if I ever wanted to invite my friend and his wife over, maybe for dinner or something, that they thought they would enjoy that. This was a shock to hear.

The people I live with have always been a very private bunch. They are not extroverted by any means and the thought of inviting others into our home seemed a foreign idea to me. So hearing them say something to the tune of opening themself to the possibility of a new friendship was a pleasant surprise.

Since building the shelves, I suggested to one of the people I live with that we could sand and paint the entire pantry. Making the space feel brand new. They’ve been in the pantry every day since, sanding and scraping the walls and ceiling getting ready for the day we’ll paint. And they are also picking out the paint colors for the pantry as well.

None of this would be possible if I didn’t take the first step towards making our house feel more like a home. By taking care of the neglected areas of our house, the poorly designed, mess of a pantry and turning it into functional, usable space. Not only functional, but a space where we want to spend time and care for. And that we’ll always remember the time and effort we took to come together to create the sense of feeling at home in our pantry. This is what I mean when I say making a house feel like a home.

There are other projects that need doing as well. In our journey, unfortunately there have been a lot of neglected corners that now need the loving attention turned towards them. There is a long way to go, but it feels a little lighter knowing that there are more people willing to lend a hand. To support each other along the way.

And the shelf project almost didn’t happen at all. As I said above, it took some time to come together. Most of this was due to a communication error between me and the people I live with. We’ve always erred on the side of being polite. We don’t make a lot of waves and we’re quiet and keep to ourselves. So while I was drawing up the plans that I showed to the people I live with, they never gave me a definitive answer on when I’d be able to start the project.

I had already asked my friend for help and was only waiting on the go-ahead. One day I came downstairs into the kitchen while they had been cleaning out some area of the house and I noticed that they had put a bookshelf in the pantry closet. When I asked why it was there, they said they were looking for something to fit in the closet for shelves!

This was confusing as we had already discussed the plans for the shelves. On further inquiry, I found out that they weren’t sure I was still going to build the shelves. It had been a while since we spoke about them and they assumed I had forgotten about it. While in the meantime I was ready to go and only waiting for their okay. So it was a simple miscommunication. We were all a little too polite to ask one another if we were ready to take the next step, stalling the project for 5 months!

A small miscommunication and the shelves almost didn’t happen. This happens often with the people I live with and I’m sure we’re not alone in this. My experience with communicating needs is that I don’t want to be a burden on or feel as though I’m hassling someone by asking too many questions. There’s also a component of not feeling worth the time due to the neglect I’ve endured in the past. But this is also something we all share to some degree.

Maybe not feeling as confident in ourselves as we’d like to. Feeling that our best efforts are somehow not going to be enough. Or worse yet, we put our best efforts forward and somehow get rejected for them. Feeling as though we won’t add up no matter how hard we try. If you’re not used to putting the effort in, your mind will make up all sorts of reasons why you shouldn’t even bother.

So be the person who asks too many questions. When in doubt, ask! From my experience people are more than willing to field a few questions. And if it’s for everyone’s benefit why not ask. I’ve gotten in the habit of setting deadlines for when I talk to people. I don’t go too long before following up with someone I’m in the middle of discussing something with. I feel better knowing that there will be some closier on the projects or ideas I’m collaborating on with other.

Look around at the projects you have going on in your life. Are there areas where a friend or family member could step in and help? Are you planning a garden for the first time? Ask around and see if you have anyone in your circle who’s been at it for a while. I find that coming together for a project builds stronger bonds in a relationship. Not only that, but you’ll most likely learn something new while building a shared connection through experiences. So ask the friend for help, put yourself out there. People are generally pretty friendly once you open the door. Peace 🙂 and thanks for reading.

Image Credits: “Shelving” by Robbi Baba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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