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The Art of Relationships

with Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

There is an art to maintaining the intimate relationships in our lives. Read on to explore our experts' perspectives, and learn new techniques to improve your own relationship skills.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

How to Avoid Losing Yourself in a Relationship

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

couple

When you’re in a relationship, do you tend to lose yourself in your partner? If so, maybe it’s time to give some thought to how much you’re willing to change yourself for love. While you’ll need to make compromises in a relationship, it’s important that you remain true to yourself. A few ways you can keep healthy boundaries:

Be self-aware: Be conscious of your thoughts and beliefs and how they’re the same or different from what your partner thinks. Spend time with your emotions and allow yourself to understand them, just as you might sit with visitors and get to know them. If you feel uncomfortable or distressed, identify whether you’re sad, hurt, angry, or something else.

Assert yourself: Once you know your thoughts and feelings, share them with others. Speak up with your opinions, even if they’re about something as basic as your preference for a restaurant or movie.

To feel good about yourself and your relationship, you must feel supported in expressing your feelings, pursuing your interests, and maintaining your values. If these create a conflict with your partner, he should still be respectful of you and want to find a way for you both to be happy.

Set Limits: In becoming self-aware, you’ll figure out what’s okay with you and what’s not. This applies to various areas of life, such as social and sexual situations. It’s key that you respect and honor your own limits.  You should expect that your partner will also respect them. If you disagree about something, like whether it’s okay for him to meet up with an old girlfriend or to watch pornography, then directly state what you are and are not willing to accept. You might choose to compromise on an issue, but even in doing so, you should feel respected.

Take Care of Yourself: Make this a priority. It’s not healthy when life situations keep preventing you from tending to your basic needs, like getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and getting exercise. Self-care also includes giving yourself time to do the things you enjoy. When you don’t take good care of yourself, it can leave you feeling depleted, anxious, or depressed.

Be Compassionate to Yourself: All people have to face struggles born of mistakes, personal weaknesses, or limitations. To continue to honor your true self and make space for personal growth, be kind, accepting, and supportive of yourself.

When you care for yourself, along with caring for your partner, you’ll feel personally stronger. And your relationship will become a source of comfort, personal growth, and emotional nourishment for you both.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 11:27 am

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When Is a Relationship Beyond Saving?

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

unhappy couple

Every relationship, given enough time, goes through tumultuous periods – even if those episodes only involve a churning under the surface. And when that tumult becomes painful enough, you might ask yourself, When is enough enough? When is it time to let go and move on? This can be a hard decision to make if you’re in a long-term relationship – especially one involving children – or if the love between you and your partner is still palpable. After all, maybe it’s not that bad, or maybe you can turn it all around. So, how do you decide?

It might be helpful to consider the following guidelines for determining if your relationship is one worth keeping:

You don’t feel respected. For any relationship to be healthy, the partners need to feel loved, accepted, and treated with respect.  If this is not the case in your relationship, you need to address it.  Of course, creating a respectful relationship takes the effort of both people.

You don’t believe your partner is a good person. It’s one thing to disagree with some of your partner’s decisions or to be upset with some of their actions, but it’s quite another to believe that they’re not a good person. You cannot have a healthy, emotionally intimate relationship with someone you don’t respect.

You don’t feel emotionally safe and supported. Relationships are meant to be a safe haven from life’s difficulties. You want to be able to reliably turn to your partner when you’re distressed. You also want to consistently get support for following your interests and living according to your values. If you can’t trust your partner to want what’s best for you and to act accordingly, then you need to seriously question your motives for staying in the relationship.

Of course, you might struggle with the issues listed above and still choose to stay in the relationship. It could be that it’s worth enough to you that you want to work with your partner to make it better. That’s a decision that can have a big payoff –being happier with each other than you ever were before. But it takes work, and maybe some pain. Relationships don’t tend to get better just because you’d prefer to be happier together. So, if you or your partner feels unable to put in the effort to improve your relationship, then you need to consider whether improving it is beyond hope.

Also, as you’re examining your relationship and determining its viability, it’s a good idea to reach out to family, friends, clergy, or professional therapists for help. They can offer a balanced perspective when your emotions overwhelm you, and can provide the sympathy, compassion, and support you need.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 7:36 am

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How to Choose a Therapist

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

woman looking on the computer

Sometimes life struggles are too great for you to cope with them alone, or solely with the support of family and friends. Those are the times you need the guidance of a professional. Once you determine this, the question becomes: How do I choose a therapist?

This is an important question, because therapy takes a big commitment in terms of time, energy, and money. And it requires that you face the very struggles that make you feel particularly vulnerable. Here are a few guidelines for choosing a therapist:

Clarify your problem and the goal for therapy: You can do this by asking yourself some relevant questions:

  • What’s the problem you’re struggling with?
  • How does it show itself in your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors?
  • How is it impacting the different domains of your life? (e.g. social, work, parenting)
  • How will you know when therapy has been successful?

Find a therapist with experience working with your kinds of struggles: Begin your search for a therapist by getting recommendations from family, friends, your physician, a local clinic or hospital, or your insurance company. You could also contact the American Psychological Association or your state’s psychological association for the names of psychologists in your area.

Once you have the names of a few therapists, you’ll want to determine if they have the necessary experience. Some therapists provide information about themselves and their services on the web, and that can be helpful, but you’ll want to talk with each of them briefly on the phone to get a clearer sense of their experience and ask questions, such as:

  • Are you licensed?
  • How long have you been practicing for?
  • What is your area of specialty?
  • Briefly explain your situation and ask: Do you have experience treating this kind of problem?
  • What approach would you use?

Consider whether the therapist is a good fit for you: No matter how experienced or renowned they are, the success of your treatment will be very much affected by your connection with the therapist.

After deciding on one (or two), schedule an initial appointment. During this appointment, you’ll share more details about your struggles, and the therapist will ask for other relevant information. This process will let the them gain a better understanding of your problem and how to help you. It will also help you assess whether you trust and connect with the therapist. It’s worth repeating that no therapist is a good fit for everyone, no matter how experienced and well regarded they are. So, before you commit to this therapist, be sure they’re a good choice for you.

Consider the finances: Therapy can be expensive. Even if you can afford a few sessions, consider whether you can afford to maintain this expense for a length of time. Therapy often takes more sessions than you might originally think. You don’t want to be in the position of having to end therapy too soon because of money. So, if money is an issue, talk with the therapist up front about this. They might use a sliding pay scale or be able to refer you to another well-regarded therapist or clinic that’s more affordable.

Once you commit to a therapist, do your part to give the therapy every opportunity to work. This often means telling the therapist when you feel the therapy isn’t working or if you have concerns about the therapy.  Doing so will enable the two of you to work together to keep the therapy on track toward a successful outcome.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 11:49 am

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

When to Seek Therapy

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

therapy

Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
– from The Rainy Day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We all must endure some stormy weather in our lives. So, how do you know when to get help in making it through these tempests? How do you know when it’s time to see a psychotherapist?

If you’re experiencing any of the following, you should consider seeking professional help:

Distress: Therapy can help people cope with distressing emotions. For instance, you might struggle with feeling sad, anxious, afraid, or angry. Related to these feelings, you might have trouble concentrating, sleeping, remembering things, or feeling motivated. You might also feel fatigue or lack interest in anything.

It’s particularly important to get professional help if you have suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Also, seek out help if you have a sense or have gotten feedback that you are losing touch with reality, such as believing that people are out to get you, hearing voices, or believing you have special powers.

Specific problems: If you’re experiencing emotional or behavioral problems that impact your life, it’s time to seriously consider therapy. Examples of this are addictive or compulsive behaviors, such as drug and alcohol addiction, emotional eating, compulsive shopping or gambling, or compulsive handwashing. Therapy can also help if your life is hindered by phobias, such as fear of leaving the house or of interacting socially.

Traumatic event: Seek professional help if you’re having trouble moving past traumatic events, such as a crime, accident, or illness (e.g. heart attack).

Lack of support: Therapists can provide emotional support beyond what family and friends can offer. For instance, loved ones might not understand your situation, or you just might want the support of an unbiased person.

Relationship problems: If you and your partner are unable to resolve certain issues, couples therapy just might save your relationship.

Personal growth: Many people enter therapy to help them improve their lives even when they’re managing relatively well.

In the end, choosing to seek out therapy is a personal decision. If you’re unhappy or dissatisfied with your life, you would be wise to at least consider making the choice to try therapy.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 2:57 pm

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Why You Need to Take That Vacation

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

vacation

Vacations aren’t just fun – they’re an investment in your health. For many of us, simply fulfilling daily responsibilities can keep our bodies in an almost constant state of alertness – so much so that even positive events, celebrations, and accomplishments can become stressful. Over time, this kind of pace can cause our physical and emotional well-being to suffer, so it’s important to take breaks – both in small ways on a daily basis and on a larger scale in the form of vacations. Vacations are important – they give us an opportunity to unplug from our everyday schedules in a definitive way, allowing us to let go of stress and discover new things about ourselves.

Some key benefits to vacations:

Enjoying a new experience: As much as people feel comforted by routine and the familiar, they’re also wired to seek out novelty. And, not only can it feel good to have a new experience, but it can also provide a new perspective about yourself and your life. So, for instance, if your thoughts about work troubles are getting you nowhere – and have been so circular that you are dizzy from it all – then a vacation might be just what you need. By freeing yourself to think about and enjoy new experiences, you just might return to work with a new perspective about the situation that troubled you.

Re-energizing your sense of feeling loved and accepted: If you’re vacationing with loved ones, you might benefit most just from allowing yourself to absorb the quality time together. By enjoying their company and feeling the love and acceptance, you are strengthening the connection of the inner images you carry of those loved ones. Then, when you’re back home and stressing about some difficulty, you’ll be better able to summon those images and the comfort associated with them. The result is that you’ll be less distressed by problems and have greater resilience.

Teaching your children to manage stress: By taking a vacation, you’re showing your children that it’s important to prioritize caring for yourself along with taking work seriously. Hopefully, you’ll carry this lesson back to your “regular life,” making sincere efforts to attend to your personal needs the rest of the year, too.

If you’re thinking about skipping your vacation this year, consider your reasoning carefully. When you factor in the benefits listed above, you’ll likely conclude that the wise choice is to take the time off, de-stress, and re-energize!

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 2:50 pm

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Vacation Negotiation

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

vacation

It’s vacation time! Now you just need to figure out where to go and what to do. And so the trouble begins. You want and need some quiet, relaxing time to get recharged. But your partner is keen to explore the world, or at least some interesting corner of it. Now what?

Like with so many other conflicts, the place to begin is with “caring communication.” I say “caring” communication because in addition to sharing and listening in ways that allow you to understand each other, you also need to empathize with each other. To start, try this two-step process with your partner:

Within yourselves, consider and clarify your own wants and needs. Ask yourself: When I think about time off, what do I imagine doing? What would it feel like to do this? What needs does this type of vacation meet?

Share these thoughts and feelings with each other. Each person should explain what they would like to do for vacation and what about this trip is appealing to them. For instance, you might choose going to the beach for a week because being near the ocean is relaxing. It would allow you to de-stress, something you need after a particularly difficult time with family or work. Your partner’s job is to listen and try to understand what this vacation means to you. He or she should then explain this understanding, which you can clarify if it’s not fully accurate.

At this point, before you move on to the decision-making stage, make sure you’ve been able to connect with one another’s needs and that you each sincerely want the other to have their desired vacation. Once you’ve achieved this ”vacation empathy,” you’re ready for some creative problem solving.

Look for how you can both get what you want. There are many ways to do this, such as:

One vacation that includes elements of both of your ideal getaways: For instance, you might go to an all-inclusive resort where you can relax while your partner explores nearby culture and other exciting activities (e.g. parasailing, scuba diving). You might choose to come together for some things and do others on your own.

Two shorter vacations, one for each of your needs: If you have the time, you might be able to enjoy more than one vacation. Then it’s just a matter of deciding on whose vacation preference comes first.

Get what you want separately: There are different ways you can do this. You might get out of town for a mini-break (perhaps with friends) on some weekends, and then come together for a vacation you’d both enjoy. Or, you might decide to vacation separately. This is not for everyone, but it has its advantages. You can each enjoy your preferred vacation and then spend the rest of your time off this summer (e.g. weekends, holiday weekends, evenings) doing things together.

Vacation negotiation can be tricky, but if you act as a team and remain invested in meeting both of your needs, you can work through the conflict and strengthen your relationship in the process.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 12:52 pm

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Social Media: Good or Bad for Your Well-Being?

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

woman on computer

As it’s been proven in studies, and in most people’s personal experiences, having a supportive social network helps us feel happier and cope better in life. But this wisdom has been brought into question recently by the growth of social media. When all goes well, users of social media feel emotionally supported by their online network. They enjoy feeling like part of a larger community, which could include keeping up with old friends they might never have reconnected with. However, social media can also make people feel alone as they watch others having fun and engaging in a full life.

While this reaction might also happen as people share offline, it is accentuated on social media (especially Facebook). That’s because people tend to post only their best, most “picture perfect” experiences and leave out the pain, suffering, and drudgery of daily life. As a result, many of the “consumers” of this fairytale life feel disenchanted with their own lives.

The research on social media has yet to clearly outline what is helpful versus what is harmful. Many factors affect someone’s reaction, such as self-esteem, loneliness, “real world” social supports, depression, and the perceived support of their online network. One study (Kross, Verduyn, and colleagues, 2013) showed that although a number of things affect people’s reactions to Facebook, being active on the site is associated with being less happy in the moment and with being less satisfied with life.  In other words, the study found that being active on Facebook undermines happiness.

Even with these findings, it is key to remember that you are a person, not a statistic. So, when you think about the wisdom of being active in social media, ask yourself how doing so affects you — in both good and bad ways:

Do you feel more emotionally supported with it?

Does it inspire you to take on meaningful activities?

Does it enhance your life in other ways?

Does it make you feel sad, lonely, or left out?

Does it make you envious?

Does it tend to make you unhappy in other ways?

Does it interfere with face-to-face time you could be spending with others?

Does it take you away from other, more meaningful activities?

No matter what others say about social media, if you find that it enhances your life, stay logged on. However, if you notice some disturbing links between your unhappiness and using social media, take a step back. Log out for a while – a day, days, or even weeks. Consider how what you do during the day affects your happiness and satisfaction with life. Then make a conscious decision about what part you would like social media to play in your life.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 3:46 pm

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

4 Tips for Keeping Your Relationship Strong

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

couple walking

If you want your romantic relationship to stand the test of time, it’s key that you maintain a strong emotional connection with each other. Here are a few basic practices that can help:

1. Be attentive. When your partner is venting or sharing thoughts about any topic, listen. Really listen. Try to understand what they are saying and what their personal connection is to the topic. When appropriate, empathize and show compassion.

2. Join your partner in activities they enjoy. When you both enjoy the same activities, make sure to take advantage of the mutual interest. Go hiking together. Go to movies you both want to see. It’s easy, enjoyable, and can truly enhance your relationship.

To nurture your relationship even more, spend some time participating in your partner’s interests, even if they are not your own. Go to the theater or a sporting event when you would greatly prefer to just stay home and put up your feet (or do almost anything else). You don’t need to dive in and make their interests yours, but they will likely appreciate your willingness to share a bit of what’s important to them.

3. Listen to their side of the argument. All relationships include some disagreements, and we almost always believe we are on the right side of them. However, instead of just trying to drive home your point, make the effort to really understand your partner’s perspective. While you don’t need to agree, your partner will appreciate you showing respect for their position.

4. Show your love in a way that connects with them. You might feel most loved when your partner says those magic three words or when they offer to help you run errands. However, your partner may not feel the same way. They might feel most loved when you are engaged in listening to them discuss their passion or when you encourage them to take on some feared but personally important challenge. So, learn what makes your partner feel most loved and offer it to them.

Putting these tips into action is a great starting point for staying connected. You and your partner can take things even further by brainstorming some ideas for connecting that are specific to your relationship and individual personalities. Even just participating in those conversations about connection can deepen the relationship.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 10:31 am

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Caring for Others in an Age of Self-Interest

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

caring

Have you noticed that many people seem to care mostly about themselves at the expense of others? According to a study published recently in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, your answer is probably yes. Researcher Chopik and colleagues found that self-interest seems to have increased over the course of the 20th century. Other studies have also indicated that there are likely increases in narcissism and decreases in empathy in the United States. Assuming these findings reflect a real increase in people thinking more about themselves than others, what are the implications for this in our lives?

Psychological theory and research tell us that people will be unhappy if they focus solely on their own happiness or, by contrast, solely on the happiness of others. Those who are happiest tend to feel worthy of love and expect significant others in their lives to be emotionally there for them.

If you sense that you are too focused on yourself, you probably feel unhappy and disconnected from a sense of community. Fortunately, there are steps you can take toward achieving a healthier balance of attending to yourself and to others. Here are some suggestions for how to do this:

Volunteer. Directly helping others in a face-to-face way offers the opportunity to both actively care for others and also gain an appreciation for your connection to a greater humanity. Assuming that your choice of volunteer work is a good fit, you will feel better for helping out.

Appreciation journal. You might want to keep a nightly journal in which you write down three things that you appreciate about others in your life (preferably related specifically to events of that day). While your entries could be significant events, such as a friend coming to your rescue after your car broke down, it can also include “little things” like someone smiling at you or asking about how you are doing.

Say at least one kind thing to someone every day. For this to help you feel truly more connected with (and concerned for) others, you must do it in earnest. Observe positives in those around you and express them directly to the people. For instance, you might appreciate someone’s kindness, diligence in their work, or wonderful taste in clothing. If you see someone struggling for any reason, consider what you might say that could be helpful. Sometimes the most helpful comments are those that simply acknowledge the person’s difficulties. For instance you might say, “I can feel your pain and wish I could make it better” or “I hope you feel well again soon.”

Your goal in these exercises is not to make some brilliant insight or to change someone’s life, but rather to help others feel appreciated and cared about. By doing this, you cannot help but step out of yourself and balance your self-interest with concern for others.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 12:12 pm

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Finding Happiness

By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

happy lady

How would you answer the question, What do you want from life? One of the most common answers is, “I want to be happy.” People often add, “I want my children, family, and friends to be happy.” And sometimes they also wish for a happy, peaceful world. This all sounds great, but what exactly does it mean?

Most people generally think of happiness as feeling good. But, with just a little bit of thought, it becomes clear that happiness is a lot more complicated. There is pleasure, which we enjoy when we indulge our senses. Ice cream can bring immense happiness on a hot day. Listening to music and looking at art can also be pleasurable. However, equating happiness with pleasure quickly becomes a problem when there are negative consequences. Overindulging in sweets can lead to obesity. And, of course, the “pleasure” of alcohol intoxication and many illegal drugs can be disastrous. That said, you hopefully know the things you enjoy and can choose to do enough of them within relatively healthy limits.

Many people, however, often get so caught up in the activities of daily life that they don’t seek happiness on a deeper level. Perhaps they get focused on the need to make money and don’t consider what’s personally important to them. They fail to pursue a life of personal meaning and life satisfaction. Or, they set out to do this, but lose their way. For instance, they choose a career in an area of interest and personal importance, but find themselves working to climb the “ladder of success” rather than continuing in the activities that are meaningful to them.

If you relate to having difficulty with finding life satisfaction and happiness, there are ways to get yourself back on a meaningful path.

Look to attain life satisfaction by living according to your values. Begin by thinking about what is most important to you in life, and then follow up with considering how you might make that central to your life. For instance, you might value justice. You can enact this value by becoming a police officer, judge, attorney, or advocate for a marginalized group.  Or, you might want to nurture others, which you can do in countless ways. Depending on your particular interests, you might by becoming a nurse, teacher, or minister.

To achieve life satisfaction, it is also important to build on your personal strengths. Psychologists Seligman and Peterson outlined a system for grouping these in an effort to help people to live fuller, happier lives. Some strengths are: creativity, bravery, love, loyalty, humility, and gratitude. You can identify your strengths by considering your best qualities. You might also ask yourself what you are “called” to do in life. Then you can search out life paths that offer you an opportunity to use and nurture these strengths.

With a little soul-searching and planning, your personal path for a meaningful life will become clear. It’s essential to understand that life satisfaction is attained by being open to what life experiences bring. Along the way, you will learn things about life and yourself that may alter your direction. That’s okay. As long as you are aware of what does and does not work for you, you will remain on the path of a well-lived life and you will find deep happiness.

 

The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Posted by: Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD at 10:41 am

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