How Embracing Vulnerability Can Make You Infinitely More Confident (And End Up Hurting You Less In The Long Run.)

by Karim Saleh

irrational fearsI want to start this off with a simple question: what is the most common fear in the world? Rejection? Pain? Failure? Heights? Spiders? Bumblebees? Death? Surprisingly, it is none of the above. The most common fear in the world is public speaking! Say what? People are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death?

Yes. But is public speaking the actual fear? Or is there something else going on underneath the layers?

Let’s take a look at it:

  • Public speaking: fear or looking bad in front of other people/not being good enough.
    → underlying principle that governs this process: fear of vulnerability
  • Death: fear of losing control/being insignificant/failing to exist.
    → underlying principle that governs this process: fear of vulnerability
  • Insert dangerous animal/mammal/fish/reptile: fear of being unable to protect oneself/being overpowered/dying.
    → underlying principle that governs this process: fear of vulnerability
  • Success/Failure: fear of losing one’s identity, fear of the attention each would bring and/or fear of not being deserving/adequate.
    → underlying principle that governs this process: fear of vulnerability

The most common fear in the world is a fear of vulnerability. It is this fear that lays beneath the surface of the others. It is the lowest common denominator.

Insight into Our Fears

Fears are built on a foundation of principles. Trying to learn every possible situation and how to act appropriately is ridiculously inefficient. For example: if you master public speaking you will still fear death. If you get over your fear of snakes or sharks, you will still fear public speaking. Instead of trying to conquer every fear that we have instead we need to focus on the underlying principle that governs all fears: vulnerability. But what’s a fear? All of these fears are tied to either a threat to our life or a threat to our self-image – our idea about ourselves. This idea of ourselves is a powerful concept and controls much of what we do even though it isn’t something physical or concrete. It has nothing to do with who we actually are but of some image we have built in our heads.

It is at this point we need to figure out what is actually a threat to our life and what is a threat to our self-image. A threat to our self-image is an irrational fear. A threat to our life is a rational fear. To make matters worse, our understanding of the separation between these two threats idea is incredibly distorted. Right now as a population we are completely out of touch with reality.

If you walk into a cage full of hungry bears, your life is at risk. This is not an idea… this is a serious situation. On the contrary, getting up in front of a bunch of people you know/don’t know and saying something stupid or making a mistake is an irrational fear. How so? Because your life is not at risk. These two examples are black and white, but what about gray areas? An example is something like skydiving. You are much less likely to die going skydiving than getting in your car every day, but yet you experience more anxiety going skydiving than getting into your car. Our ability to differentiate rational and irrational fears isn’t working properly.

Let’s explore why that happens…

Our nervous systems are wired for two responses: “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”. The “fight or flight” response (a.k.a the sympathetic nervous response) would have become activated in the past when our lives were in danger or when we were up against something which challenged our existence (e.g. being chased by a hungry bear). Our heart would start beating fast, we would become hyperaware of what was going on around us, our extremities would get cold, sweaty or both, we lose sight of the options and focus on either fighting or running away… little else matters. Sound familiar? This is the exact process we experience when faced with one of the above fears e.g. public speaking, skydiving (even though it is safer than getting in your car). Even though we consciously recognize we are being overdramatic, bridging the gap between reality and our nervous system still proves to be difficult.

fight or flightOur nervous systems can become hijacked by irrational fears that have no basis in reality. Our nervous system develops responses to these irrational fears. Sometimes, Advertising will take advantage of this process by installing unconscious images and beliefs we are not aware of to leverage the power of fear and drive us into unconscious behaviors. They can make us want things by attaching it to our nervous system. This doesn’t happen consciously either. Scary stuff.

On the other hand, our bodies are also capable of “resting and digesting” (a.k.a the parasympathetic response), which allows us to stay calm and our bodily processes to sustain our energy and nutrition. We are able to think things through. We are aware. This is where self-awareness can arise and where personal development can be achieved.

Do you think cavemen cared about personal development? Probably not. They were more concerned about whether there was a large ass bird they could kill to feed themselves. They spent more time in fight or flight because their lives were actually dangerous. Our lives are dangerous in a different way. Our lives are dangerous if we don’t understand these processes and how our fears dominate our lives, other people may be living our lives for us without our knowledge or consent. If there’s one thing we should be doing with our lives, it would be living our own life wouldn’t it? Why let someone else live it for us?

Let’s get real.

Forget everyone else! What does this have to do with anyone else? All of your fears that you experience is perceived fear and hence irrational. If you worry about what you do and stop worrying about what everyone else is thinking and doing, you gain real power because you can only influence your behavior. If you suck at speaking in public, here are some ways you could look at this type of situation:

  1. Disempowering – Unprepared – Victim Mindset – Delusional (sinking and gasping for air): OMG, I suck! What are these people going to think of me? Do they think I am an idiot? Oh they definitely can all do this better than me. I should have never done this… what was I thinking? These sweat stains are really obvious. Oh I hope I don’t fuck up again… oh crap I just did! Now they must really think I’m an idiot. I hope my co-workers don’t say stuff behind my back about how much of a loser I am. OMG. Now Sheila/Rob definitely won’t like me… etc etc you get the point.
  2. Unprepared – Realistic (treading water): “Wow, I am unprepared for this! I’m making some mistakes, I’m not going to let it upset me though. Also, I don’t really believe what I am talking about and that is contributing to my nervousness. I need to up my game.”
  3. Prepared – Realistic – Confident (swimming like a champ): “I prepared and I believe what I’m saying… any further mistakes made are a chance for further growth but I’m going to rock this anyway regardless of what happens! Fuck what these people think, they have nothing to do with me or my ultimate success. Successful people know that making mistakes is part of the process and know you have to take chances in life to gain experience. Fuck it. Let’s do this and let’s give it our all… no regrets. Tomorrow or this weekend, I’m gonna sit down and hammer this stuff out like I always do and next time I’ll make sure I’m even more ready.

Confidence is not about not making mistakes. It is about knowing even if you do screw up, you will be able to handle whatever happens. To do this, you need reference experience. To gain reference experience, you must screw up and realize you can get back on your own two feet. The only way you can get back in control of your nervous system and re-hijack your system is through realizing that even though you do these things that make you feel like you want to die, you don’t actually die. I am talking about the irrational fears here. If you spend your whole life avoiding being vulnerable, you are literally robbing yourself of the reference experience you need to succeed. And you are sinking… or treading water… definitely not swimming. When you are swimming and you stop, at least you have some momentum. When you are treading water or sinking… uhh, you probably need a lifeguard.

What holds you back?

No. It’s not your mom. It’s not your teacher. It’s not your bad luck. It’s not your debt. It’s not your significant other. It’s not the fact that you have one leg. It is you holding you back.

By addressing your fear of being vulnerable, you can develop the tools to conquer all of your fears by default. It may take some time to deprogram your mind/nervous system, but once you get the hang of it and learn to determine what is really going on you will develop a mindset that can dissolve all of your fears. You will train yourself to ignore irrational fear because you realize how bizarre it is. You can unleash creativity that you never thought you had, break down barriers in your mind, and develop immeasurable strength. You can learn more about who you really are, and express your whole self authentically. Yeah. You are awesome.

When you learn to be more vulnerable, you realize you learn things much more quickly. You become less scared of getting hurt, so you aren’t avoiding danger all the time. It frees up your mental processes. It’s like returning to the state of a baby when you are most vulnerable and safety is implied. You, like babies, become a sponge for knowledge with no limits. I have found through becoming more comfortable with myself by sharing more with others, I am able to see and feel emotions I never thought possible. I see patterns. I pick up on subtleties. I can feel other’s pain. But, because I am okay with my own pain, I am learning to be okay with theirs as well. It is from that frame that I can try to help others if I so wish. Also, for as long as I have been practicing embracing vulnerability, I have found others open up to me with relative ease. People are comfortable around me. When people are willing to open up with you, it allows you to build bonds quickly and they will always remember you with a smile.

A Personal Story

jamie hyatt

Credit: Jamie Hyatt Photography

I’ll give a personal example to give you guys some insight as to how to do this right. Practice what you preach right? In today’s world, there is a major stigma associated with mental health issues. I suffered my own mental health issues for years. I battled with depression for 3 or 4 years. I told no one except my parents who didn’t understand how to help me. I was embarrassed. Felt alone. I isolated myself and my self-esteem plummeted. I felt numb, lost interest, started abusing substances, and I was tired all the time. I went around pretending everything was ok all the time with my friends just trying to not look out of place. Throughout the time I was depressed, I always knew that “things didn’t need to be that way”. I researched, I meditated, I started to look into the different areas of my life and gain control over my own mind. I dragged my ass out of the dirt with the help of great teachers and some hard work on my part. I knew that the only way I would be able to embrace myself was to come to terms with my past. I needed to somehow learn to be open about what I went through. Sure, it is a new age problem… but it is a very real problem with at least 1 in 5 being affected by depression in their lifetime.

I decided I wanted to be open about my experience and make sure that if I had to go through the depths of depression, other people needed to know there was a light at the end of the tunnel. There was hope after all. In order to open up about my experience, I needed to come to terms with my own ego and start sharing my story. I ended up finding a volunteer organization that was involved in youth mental health and luckily was asked to join the youth support program. The second I was asked if I was comfortable sharing my story by the president of the organization, I quickly emphasized, ”YES!”. If I’m going skydiving… I’m not getting pushed out of the plane – I’m going to jump!

From that moment on something changed. I started sharing my experience with people in the organization. My emotions were acting up the entire time, but I just tried to keep a straight face even though I was churning inside. Thoughts kept flying like, ”uhh dude wtf are you doing?” etc etc. I needed to come to terms with this, and I had a good reason to do it. If others could benefit from my experience and some other kid got hope because he saw I got through it… it was worth it. I wanted to show others they could thrive even though they went through the metaphorical shitter. Opening up and sharing your story can be intimidating, but I have to live vulnerability too.

Do your worrying before you place your bet, NOT after the wheel starts turning.
-Anonymous

I love this quote because the principle behind it has improved my life so much. I feel more alive daily and I know exactly who and what I am up against. By sharing your deepest secrets (over time), you paradoxically start to feel more whole. You start to feel like people see a whole picture of you, not just what you let them see. I’m less scared that people will hurt me these days because I’m not fighting it anymore. I know that I will get hurt and I have accepted that long before it happens… but the knowledge I gain about those people from those experiences, the strengthening of my reality and existence, the pain it possibly will save me in the long run from trusting the wrong people as well as the improved learning speed are well worth it.

By airing out your secrets and becoming comfortable with them yourself, you take away the power from anyone who wants to use that kind of information against you. No more panicking about people looking at your phone, no more angst. Besides that great benefit, you develop closer more intimate relationships with your friends and will make new friends.

5 Steps to Practice Vulnerability:

  1. Make a “to die for” list. Make a list of the things that would make you want to “roll up and die” if your friends or the general population found out about you. Now look at that same list and remember what I said about irrational and rational fears. Figure out which ones are actually a threat to your life and which ones are not. Identifying these is going to be important moving forward. Awareness is the first step to behaviour change. Even the so-called rational fears can be addressed. If you are scared of sharks, make your bets before you get in the water. You are in their territory so be respectful. Look at statistics. Think about how likely it is for you to get eaten and accept that risk, then swim without anxiety or worries or choose not to accept that risk. Simple as that. You’ve already accepted the worst case scenario. Be smart.
  2. Find a space where you can express your most vulnerable self. It doesn’t have to be all at once. In fact, it could even be in a place where what you say remains anonymous- e.g. a therapist. The idea is to get yourself moving in the right direction. Aim for complete vulnerability over time and check in with yourself every so often to see whether you are on track or if you have to refocus. This will become natural to you over time. What you might find is people actually respect you more for being open about your experience. Everyone wants to feel safe and accepted. The more you accept yourself, the more you can offer that to others.
  3. Stay mindful. When you catch yourself avoiding anything at all, ask yourself why you are avoiding it? Chances are you don’t want to feel vulnerable. Vulnerability itself is not a problem. It is our reaction to it. Still, use your head. Don’t enter that dark alley with all the drug addicts in it unless you really want to. Vulnerability and stupidity aren’t the same thing.
  4. Recognize the benefit of delayed gratification. If you are a short term thinker it’s time to jump on board the long-term thinking train. Being vulnerable upfront can save you a lifetime of pain/not getting what you want. Most people wait until they have been with someone X amount of time to figure out that their partner could care less about some of the things that felt so important that you had to hide them. Good plan? Beam it up! Show ’em your stuff! If they don’t like it, that’s cool. Keep moving! Figure out what your rules are for how you will let people treat you. As you become more vulnerable, watch how others treat you and watch how it affects your relationships. See how you treat others who are vulnerable around you. Do you laugh at them? Do you challenge their emo-ness? Do you create a loving and safe space for them to share? This isn’t only about getting what you want, but what you can offer others as well.
  5. Be gentle. The one warning I can give you is that people kill themselves over having a really poor self-image. So don’t throw yourself in the deep end, ease your way in. What vulnerability is for you may be completely different for me. Go to that place in the pool where you can stand on the tips of your toes and do your best not to slide down the incline. Water is fun, but it too must be respected.

Lastly: You can’t always know everything that is going to happen. Sometimes, things come out of left field and you have to take those experiences as the cost of being able to learn something new. Every piece of information you learn opens up new doors. Enjoy the process! You are becoming more of yourself, and developing yourself into a more whole individual. Nobody said it would be easy, but everybody said it would be worth it.

About Karim Saleh
Karim Saleh is a multifaceted medical student living in Ireland who is passionate about social ethics and personal change. His main goals in life are meeting extraordinary people and sharing his knowledge and experience for the benefit of others. He lives his life by "Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own." (Bruce Lee) He has big hopes and plans for the future, and big hopes and plans for YOU. Contact Karim at karisaleh@rcsi.ie

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Baber Khatib July 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Great read, you’ve come a long way Dr!

Karim Saleh July 12, 2012 at 4:13 am

Hey Baber,

Wow, I appreciate your kind words! Thanks for commenting and for taking the time to read. 🙂 Hope you find some great other articles on the website. I have learned some great stuff from the guys at Kingpin Social…hope we’ll see you around here again!

Faiza July 12, 2012 at 10:53 am

This is great cousin! So proud of you 🙂

Cam July 12, 2012 at 4:13 pm

Thanks for the great comments Barber and Faiza. 🙂

Karim Saleh July 12, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Hey Faiza!

Thanks for your support! 🙂 Funny how even my own family is finding out stuff about me on the internet…as goes the tale of being vulnerable 🙂 I love it and I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for taking the time to comment, it is much appreciated! 🙂 🙂

Izzy July 13, 2012 at 4:19 am

A BIG thank you, first of all, for sharing your experiences and putting yourself out there to help everyone! Hope everyone found this as inspiring as I did. Proud of u K! You certainly do practice what you preach 🙂

Jonathan July 13, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Great article man. I look forward to practicing the 5 steps 🙂

Hannah B July 15, 2012 at 11:35 pm

It is so nice to have someone share such personal and inspiring insight,
I’m not even sure what to say Karim, I think I will need to read it a few more times before it all fully sinks in. What you have said really resonates with me and adds to all the things I have been experiencing and reading in the past few years…life wasn’t meant to be easy, where’s the fun in that? You definitely have the most to gain from the mistakes. I’ve learned that being able to laugh at yourself in the process is a huge part of being successful…and being happy.

I guess I’ll have to go out there and start making some more mistakes 🙂
Thanks again for the inspiration!

David Fredric September 6, 2012 at 2:21 am

Thanks for sharing this gem of wisdom =D

Cam September 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm

@ Izzy – Thank you for commenting. Karim is a great guy. What was the most inspiring part of the post for you?

@ Jonathan – Let me know how it goes. Which point do you struggle with the most? I’d love to help you implement them! Thanks for commenting.

@ Hannah B – Thanks for commenting. How could you be more vulnerable in your life? Since reading the post has it helped?

@ David – Thank you for commenting on this post as well. I’m very happy to see you are enjoying our articles. 🙂

Karim Saleh September 7, 2012 at 11:53 am

Hey guys! Thanks Cam for following up on this for me 🙂 I’m also thrilled you guys are enjoying the articles. Your feedback is precious to us and we take it seriously.

I’d also love to hear the answers to the questions that Cam asked you guys!

Hope you keep reading and growing 😉

Christina P September 17, 2012 at 11:35 am

Hi Karim,

I told you, I will eat your article right away. It is great! You realized that the most prominent thing that holds us back from really living our lives is fear. Thank you! I will feel my fear and do it anyway!

Cam September 17, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Hey Christina! Thanks for coming by and commenting. 🙂

Hannah September 17, 2012 at 7:49 pm

@ Cam: I have been making an extra effort not to hold back my love from others. I think it is easy for us to keep it to ourselves when we feel vulnerable. When we are worried we wont be loved back we tend to keep what we have and protect it. I think this is such a waste, if you feel love towards another I think it should be shared…so despite being afraid of being let down or being judged I have been making an extra effort to let go of my ego and just share all of my self…so far so good…in fact just being loving without even saying it encouraged someone unexpectedly to tell me that they love me. Unless we are willing to be vulnerable how can we expect others to be.

Karim Saleh September 17, 2012 at 8:44 pm

@ Christina P 🙂 Loving the conviction! Thanks for reading and for commenting!! I honestly believe that fear is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the entire world. We let it run out lives…and it sends us straight for what we hoped wouldn’t happen. Unfortunate, but true! Hopefully this supports you to do what you need to do and it all comes out great in the end…which I’m sure it will! 😉

@ Hannah that’s awesome! 🙂 That is exactly principle that i was trying to get across in this article. I do believe that we have to use the knowledge we get from interactions to be less vulnerable with certain people who do not treat us with respect. For the most part, I have found being vulnerable to be such a rewarding experience and I almost have the opposite of an identity crisis most days. In the past I was so unsure of who I was, now I know every nook and cranny of myself and most times will freely express that. I’m really happy you are doing so well and I hope you continue on your path 🙂

Cam September 17, 2012 at 9:33 pm

@ Hannah – That’s awesome to hear how you’ve been doing it with. I always try to think about it like this: Expression > Impression.

Jacob November 26, 2012 at 5:06 am

Nice article Karim, I gotta question. What about fears on saving face. And that may sound stupid at first it’s just like anything else for instance. But I don’t go blurting out certain things in my life to someone I just met. There’s a certain degree of who I am at first and letting them know more later. If I’m all crazy up front I’ve always felt that kinda turns people off as that’s what it does for me. But maybe I’m wrong..?

Karim Saleh November 29, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Hey Jacob,

Thanks for the kind words and your comment. We really appreciate when we get feedback because it is a win-win situation. By asking us questions, we have the opportunity to help you figure your challenges out, and it also helps us learn what we are teaching to a higher standard. It encourages us to question what we’ve learned to make sure that our understanding is rock solid and can hold up to reason and questioning. Your question is not stupid at all. In my world, there are no stupid questions 🙂 Asking questions shows intelligence rather than stupidity.

The answer to your question:
This is actually a tricky question Jacob. I will explain from my experience how I dealt with this exact scenario 🙂

-Previously, I used to make sure I was expressing myself irrespective of people’s reactions to me. I did this because I wanted to be certain that holding back my expression was not created by my own fears of what other people thought of me. I was willing to express myself upfront even if it meant ‘scaring people off’ because I wanted to be 100% comfortable with my own self-image/decisions even if that didn’t please other people. At that time in my life, authenticity was the most important quality I wanted to foster in my life. After some time, I was happy just being alive because I loved myself in a healthy way and was taking action to be that person. It felt awesome!

At this point, it became clear that I wasn’t afraid of expressing myself because of fear; so, I started to develop my abilities and ensure that I could provide value to others now that I felt whole and authentic. Even though I was comfortable with my own experience and actually felt really good about myself, it wasn’t always received well by others. Over time, I realized I wanted my belief about myself internally to be reflected in my external world. If I felt awesome, how can I use this to have other people feel awesome? Apparently, feeling awesome was only part of the equation.

I have been able to focus on providing value to others now that my inner conflicts are settled and I know the fears are mostly gone. I bring my happiness to my interactions, but now I focus more on the other person’s experience. Knowing that for e.g. most people can’t handle others being so upfront with them, I am holding off how much I will share- it doesn’t change the fact that I value myself or that I COULD do that, but it does allow for them to be comfortable getting to know me. (And… what’s the rush? A little mystery makes it more fun 🙂

In summary, I think often feeding people information about you more gradually works better for the other person. The reason I didn’t was because I put my relationship with myself first before my relationship with others. I think this was the right thing to do. I now have a very rock solid internal frame and the external stuff is so much easier. You can choose to do it either way. =) I think the fact that you said ‘What about fears on saving face’ indicates that you may think there is something wrong with being so up front. While other people may react to you less than ideally, this doesn’t mean that it is wrong. It CAN mean that, but I think it is important to take each situation individually. What you classify as being ‘wrong’ is your decision at the end of the day.

In society, people have been conditioned in many cases to react in certain ways and many don’t even realize that. This is why I will always value my opinion and experience over another persons because it is first hand. In order to ensure I am being honest and realistic with myself, I am always questioning my own beliefs, confronting my fears and encouraging others to give me feedback. I then check this feedback against what I have objectively observed in my own behaviour and see if this feedback is correct or incorrect. Sometimes, I need to adjust my behaviour so that I agree with it. Then there is no saving face or conflict of self in this model because you are already ‘THE man’ or ‘THE woman’ so if someone else doesn’t react well, you just need to translate your awesomeness so that it is in language (their perception) that they can understand. Part of this can involve (e.g. how much information you share right off the bat) because that is part of this person’s perception. Get it? 😉 That said, I think you are best off if you don’t depend on other people’s perception of you. That is out of your control. The minimum standard in my world involves ensuring I am being the person I want to be. Other people seeing that is a bonus.

I hope that helped and it wasn’t too difficult to understand.

Hope you are enjoying the site! : )

Jacob November 30, 2012 at 10:00 am

I think I got what your saying. Another one of my problems is that I have been so conditioned to act like this that it’s hard to be myself around strangers. And not in a “im scared of wat they’ll think way (consciously at least) but more of I literally can’t act natural aha. For example I was asking a close friend of mine what she thought I’m like. Because she’s an extremely outgoing, excited, bubbly person and I’m well… not but I want to be more outgoing at least. She said I have this almost quiet reserved persona when I’m in a public place or meeting someone I don’t know. Where it seems like I want to respect them I think she said. Yet with my friends and people I’m closer to-I get pretty dorky and do some weird off the wall stuff that’s generally pretty funny. However even if I try to act that way I can’t, it’s like I just go back to the reserved me. And maybe subconsciously I don’t want them to take that dorky weirdness the wrong way especially since it might be a bit weird right off the bat… but I can’t control it. Understand?

And thanks for the reply and I’m definitely enjoying the site and the support every Kingpin Member gives.

Karim Saleh December 17, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Hey Jacob,

I apologize for the delay in getting back to you, Cam just reminded me that I haven’t gotten back to you!

I totally understand that, in your new interactions, you adapt a more reserved persona. Then, you go back to your ‘real self’ when you are around people you feel comfortable around. So basically your challenge is becoming comfortable with everyone.

I’m sure you’re a very funny guy, but not everyone will appreciate your humor: that is part of life. Not everyone will like you. But I can tell you that people LOVE authenticity and those who express their true selves without caring what others think of them.

If you get stifled in situations where you are around new people, a solution to become more comfortable with this is exposing yourself to a lot of new people and pushing yourself to talk to them. This might seem completely out of your league, but start small. E.g. talk to the waitress at the restaurant, the guy or woman in the elevator or any similar person. This is a good entry point for becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable. As you become comfortable with situations like this, you can move to more difficult tasks.

Are there some situations you think you can expose yourself to in your daily life that would expose you to these types of interactions?

Maybe you can push yourself to be MORE ‘dorky and weird’ with new people. You will realize soon (if you stick with it) that even if they don’t take it the right way, its not the end of the world. There are people that will appreciate your humor, and in talking to new people you will gain new friends and people in your life who appreciate you for your style. But you will miss out on this without allowing yourself to be vulnerable and you will also lose out building social tolerance to those who don’t accept you for you.

🙂

Kim November 30, 2015 at 9:19 am

Thanks for sharing, beautiful stuff. I’ve always worked hard to mask my vulnerabilities but recently their impact on my life has come to light. Really appreciated you giving some guidance as to how to actually allow yourself to be more vulnerable. I feel inspired, thanks so much :).

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