self-worth

To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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From shame to self-worth: the spectrum of shame

Two children sitting side by side, the older one with a protective arm around the younger.

Shame is a very primal emotion, one that has a lot of traction in the mind.

As we grow up, from infants to adults, shame elaborates many nuances, like the branches and twigs growing from a single trunk.

Let’s consider four common sources of shame spectrum feelings.

1. Needs Not Being Acknowledged

First, consider a young child who is continually signaling her state of being and her needs. Maybe her caregivers respond routinely with attunement, empathy, and skillful responsiveness: this sends messages, associated with positive feelings, of existing for and mattering to her caregivers, of being inside the circle.

Or maybe her caregivers ignore her signals, or continually misinterpret them, or simply have a kind of dismissive tone – “I’ll put up with you if you don’t ask too much of me” – or even punish her for expressing her needs at all: this sends messages, associated with negative feelings, of not mattering (and sometimes not even existing), of being outside the circle. As many such experiences get layered on top of each other, there is a growing sense of being unwanted, of lacking value.

In the extreme, in cases of severe neglect and abuse, there can be a global sense of worthlessness.

More commonly, a kind of bargain is struck, in which the child learns that as long as she walks inside certain lines – and inhibits certain forms of expressing her true self (her true needs, her true feelings, her true perceptions of her world) – then the supply train keeps coming and all is well. But step outside those lines and wham, it’s the chilly exile or the hot attack.

2. Rewards and Punishments

Second, a child’s environment – both adults and peers – will praise certain qualities and behaviors and criticize or punish others. Those behaviors and qualities get associated with feelings of worth – or shame.

See also:

For example, the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, described shame in terms of Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, as the emotion that arises naturally when that which should be hidden (e.g., excretions, private parts) is exposed. But how would a child know that certain natural aspects of life should be hidden without messages from his environment.

So what is it that gets criticized? Certainly, it is specific behaviors, and there is a place for that in healthy child-rearing. Examples include hitting your kid brother, lying, or stealing another kid’s cookie. Even if the criticism is not so wholesome, as long as it stays at the behavioral level, it’s not so bad.

But it rarely does. It’s a short hop from “That was so stupid” to “You’re so stupid,” from criticisms of actions to criticisms of persons.

That criticism is often conveyed implicitly, as a communication of disdain, disrespect, contempt, scorn. Think of the power in human societies when certain groups institutionalize the devaluation of others. I still remember my shock in 1963 in North Carolina for the summer when I saw three bathrooms at a gas station, labeled “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” As if African-Americans were something other than “regular” men and women, and not just other, but less as well in not being worth separate bathrooms for their own men and women. Racism has certainly not disappeared in the past 45 years, and other forms of devaluation exist today; just think of the fear-driven labeling these days of Arabs and others from the Middle East.

Researchers such as John Gottman have found that disdain is typically the most corrosive element in a relationship. Be very careful with it. It’s especially insidious when we feel it is justified, as with others in the political world that we disagree with. Or those in our everyday life who are Exhibit A for a roll of the eyes and the thought, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

In turn, those criticisms of the individual overall are very easy to internalize, and “You’re so stupid” becomes “I’m so stupid.” The contempt of others become hatred of the self. In terms of transactional analysis models of the personality – classically, child/nurturing parent/critical parent . . . or the modern formulation of victim/persecutor/protector – the internalized critic or persecutor has way too much power, and the internalized nurturing parent or protector is too weak.

3. Social Shunning

Third, we are intensely social animals, with an evolutionary history that associates survival with belonging to a group, for its protections, nurturance, and opportunities for finding a mate and passing on one’s genes. To be outcast, exiled, banished, shunned, etc. is a terrible thing, exposed to the cold whistling winds of the elemental world, trudging alone and vulnerable through life. Traditionally, it was the most severe punishment short of death, which puts it in perspective.

Those associations are active somewhere deep in the brain when a preschooler trots over to a group of children to play and they ignore her, when a child gets picked last for a team, when you audition for the school play and don’t get a part, when you apply to a special college and don’t get in, when you aren’t hired for the job . . . whenever by action or word you’re told: “You are the weakest link!” “You’re fired!” “You’ve been voted off the island.”

It’s kind of sick that there is a weird vicarious gleeful schadenfreude – pleasure in another’s misery – in reality shows watched by millions in which one person after another gets publicly scorned and rejected until there is only one . . . “American idol!!!!!” It’s somewhat the modern equivalent of the gladiator battles in the ancient Roman Coliseum.

These associations to lethal exile are triggered in one-to-one contexts as well, when someone doesn’t want to be your friend, or lover, or mate . . . especially if they have been that to you – and don’t want that any longer. When these events occur, haunted by their ancient shadows, they typically trigger strong and painful feelings of being unwanted – because, in fact, that is indeed the case.

4. The Inner Critic

Fourth, to function in life, we need to learn from our experiences, and that requires feedback. We have to look in the mirror and see if there’s some spinach stuck in our teeth. We need that internal evaluator continually registering: that worked and that didn’t; that helped and that hurt.

As long as the evaluator is clear-eyed and friendly, it’s a wonderful internal resource. But if it grows harsh – often through absorbing the emotional residues of the anger and contempt of others, or the meanings derived from social exclusions – it can become a terrible monkey on your back . . . actually, worse, a terrible growling spitting monkey in your mind. This negativistic evaluator blurs together with the internalized critic/persecutor, and then looks continually for the shortfall between “should” and “did.”

With each lash of the critical whip, the evaluator gets a little more powerful, and the inner self gets a little more cowed and resigned.

And so it goes, and here we are today.

Exacerbation By External Factors

These four sources of shame-spectrum feelings are exacerbated by a range of external factors, such as:

  • Belonging to a group that has associations with low-status, e.g., ethnic and religious minorities, women, homosexual orientation, poor, overweight.
  • Disintegration of traditional community structures that gave people a sense of belonging and value.
  • Extending the period during which youth are in schooling and unable (usually) to make much of a contribution to society.
  • Events that challenge self-worth, e.g., company downsizing, (often) becoming a mother, divorce, teenage (or adult) children being cold or rejecting, illness or disability (or even aging) that compromises the capacity to do those things that gave one a sense of value.
  • The sheer complexity and ambiguity of modern opportunities and expectations, which is a double-edged sword. These days, there are so many more choices to be had that there are many more ways to go wrong or fall short in making any of them. And this is especially intense in the American culture that equates worth to success.

These external factors add to the lived history of inadequacy that is buried in emotional memory. They also intensify any here-and-now challenges to self-worth.

So – as a result of these four sources of shame-spectrum experiences, exacerbated by external factors, we have within us circuits of shame that are ready, willing, and able to be activated by any appropriate trigger. That’s why little things can have such a big impact: it’s just a tiny spark, yes, but there’s that pile of dynamite there . . .

And then we often add insult to injury by feeling ashamed of getting ashamed!

Self-Worth Exercise

If you like, you could try this exercise, though you definitely need a partner for it. Here are the original instructions for the exercise from our script, which you can adapt freely:

“Find a partner, pick an A and a B. A’s will go first – after which you will go back and forth.

A’s, find a positive quality within yourself that you can sense is also present in B. Then say to B: “The presence of _________ in me recognizes the presence of __________ in you.”

Both A and B take a moment (often just a few seconds) to register this, and then it’s B’s turn to say something in the form of: “The presence of _________ in me recognizes the presence of __________ in you.”

Examples include:

  • The presence of caring in me recognizes the presence of caring in you.
  • The presence of happiness in me recognizes the presence of happiness in you.
  • The presence of loving being in wilderness in me recognizes the presence of loving being in wilderness in you.
  • The presence of being silly in me recognizes the presence of being silly in you.
  • The presence of strength in me recognizes the presence of strength in you.

It’s okay to name good qualities in yourself or the other person without false modesty or fears of flattery. These are facts, not compliments. And it’s okay if these qualities are not present all the time; perhaps they are deep down, even covered over, and would be served by calling them out.

This exercise can be very powerful, and enjoy and let sink in the beautiful feelings it brings up.

In the days and weeks ahead, you are encouraged to keep moving from shame to worth. As one simple way to do this, keep recognizing the factual existence of your good qualities and accomplishments. “Just the facts, ma’am.” In closing, to quote Meher Baba, six words to live by: “Don’t worry. Be happy. Make efforts.”

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From shame to self-worth: evolutionary neurobiology of shame

Dog looking guilty

Have you ever scolded a dog and seen him or her look guilty?

Obviously, animals do not have the elaborated textures of thoughts and feelings that humans do. But our emotions, even the subtlest ones, have their roots in our ancient evolutionary history. By understanding that history better, we do not reduce our feelings to animal instincts, but instead find illuminations from our past that paradoxically give us more choices in manifesting ourselves as fully human.

We can find two sources of shame spectrum emotions in our evolutionary history.

First, many animal species live in social groups with clear dominance hierarchies. Once those pecking orders are established, it can be lethal to challenge them. Consequently, many species have developed ways of signaling submission to the established order of alpha-males and –females. Consider how dogs losing a fight will bare their throat, or chimpanzees will display gestures of deference.

Also see:

Birds, and especially mammals, have rudimentary forms of the brain circuitry that produces emotion in humans. Those circuits would not have developed, consuming lots of metabolic resources, if they did not produce reproductive benefits.

Emotions function in the brain to motivate and guide behavior. We can’t read the mind of a chicken, sure, or that of a dog or an ape, but it seems like a very efficient way to keep these animals in line if they are experiencing emotions or attitudes that are the equivalent of feeling less than the Big Dog of the pack.

Second, taking this one step further, pack animals evolved cooperative behavior. Think penguins huddling together in the Antarctic winter, and cattle circling around their calves in response to wolves hunting in packs. But in most cases, their cooperation does not involve personal sacrifice for the good of others.

That comes in, big time, with primates, who appeared around the middle of the Cretaceous period, roughly 80 million years ago – so they had lots of time to evolve altruistic behaviors such as food sharing. And the full flowering of altruism – giving to others with no immediate tangible reward – is really seen in humans.

But how could altruism evolve when it would seem to confer reproductive disadvantages on the one who was altruistic? This has been a thorny question in sociobiology, with some interesting answers.

What they have found is that altruism makes sense from an evolutionary perspective when three conditions are present:

  • People (including our hominid ancestors several million years ago) lived and predominantly bred within social groups (typically around 20 – 200 members). Consequently, even if a person’s altruism led to her not passing on her genes, close relatives would live and pass on their own, and would be more likely to do so, given her sacrifice.
  • Social groups competed intensely with each other for scarce resources in the wild, so ones that worked well together – including because of personal, altruistic sacrifices of some group members – would have their reproductive advantages make a big difference.
  • The reputation of individuals would be known to others. So if someone became known as a non-reciprocator – a taker, not a giver – then he risked others no longer sharing food, shelter, etc. So people developed a natural interest in their reputation, in what others thought of them.

An unpleasant emotion that punished individual tribe members for not stepping up for the tribe in fights with other tribes, and for not reciprocating today for help offered yesterday, would help a tribe succeed in its brutal competition with other tribes. And as a variant on that theme, an unpleasant emotion that enabled tribe members to train their young quickly in proper behavior – proper in central Africa, a million years ago, or during the last Ice Age, say 15,000 years ago – would also confer advantages to that tribe.

Thus the origins of shame and guilt in the long slow grind of evolutionary history.

Exercise: “Letting Go of Shame”

Here are the instructions for the exercise, which you can adapt freely:

Imagine that you are sitting beside a powerful river on a beautiful sunny day. You feel safe and contented and strong.

Imagine that sitting with you is a wise and supportive being. Perhaps someone you know personally, perhaps a historical figure, perhaps a guardian angel, etc. Know in your heart that this is a very wise and honest and caring being.

Imagine a small boat tied to the bank of the river, there near you. Imagine an empty and open box in the boat that you can reach easily. Now, continuing to be centered in feelings of worth and well-being, bring to mind lightly something you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Imagine that the being is telling you, or that you are telling the being, some of the many causes and conditions that led to that thing you are ashamed of. You don’t need the whole story; often a few seconds in your imagination can summarize the heart of the matter.

With that summary of the causes of the shame, see if you can feel a letting go inside.

If you like, in your imagination, bow to the object representing the shame: it exists, it is what it is.

Then put the object in the box, and let it go as much as you can.

Now bring to mind, lightly, something else you are ashamed of. Represent it, whatever it is, as a small object on the ground in front of you.

Feel free to repeat this exercise, and to go at your own pace, slowing down to dwell on certain parts, or speeding up to get through them to additional things you’d like to put in the boat.

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What does your heart say?

Heart-shaped stone sitting on a pebble beach

The Practice
Choose to love.

Why?
Many years ago, I was in a significant relationship in which the other person started doing things that surprised and hurt me. I’ll preserve the privacy here so I won’t be concrete, but it was pretty intense. After going through the first wave of reactions – What! How could you? Are you kidding me?! – I settled down a bit. I had a choice.

This relationship was important to me, and I could see that a lot of what was going through the mind over there was really about the other person and not about me. I began to realize that the freest, strongest, and most self-respecting thing that I could do was both to tell the person that we were on very thin ice . . . and to choose to love meanwhile.

See also:

To my surprise, instead of turning me into a doormat or punching bag, love actually protected and fueled me. It kept me out of contentiousness and conflict, and gave me a feeling of worth. I was interested in what the other person was going to do, but in a weird way I didn’t care that much. I felt fed and carried by love, and how the other person responded was out of my hands.

I got interested in “loving at will,” in how to go to the upper end of the range of what is authentically available to a person in terms of feeling or expressing compassion, good wishes, and warmth. You shouldn’t falsify what’s truly going on with you, nor let yourself be mistreated. But whatever this range is for you in any moment in any relationship, it’s your choice where you land within it.

I became less caught up in how I wanted the other person to think and feel and act, and more focused on my own practice of finding and re-finding some sense of love. It felt kind of like I was strengthening the heart like a muscle. I joked with myself that I was doing love pushups (not the sexual kind!).

If it’s authentically within reach, you can deliberately, even willfully settle yourself in love as a central quality in your mind. This is not phony: the love that’s there in you is genuinely there. In fact, choosing to love is twice loving: it’s a loving act to call up the intention to love, plus there is the love that follows.

Looking back, my shift out of quarreling and into a healthy feeling of lovingness helped things get better with this person. And the relationship taught me a good lesson:

Love is more about us being loving than about other people being lovable.

How?
Start with someone that’s easy to feel love around. Relax a bit. Take a breath or two and come home to yourself. Sense into the area of your chest and heart. Be aware of what compassion and kindness feel like; perhaps call up the sense of a time when you felt very loving. Ask yourself, Can I feel loving now? Open to a natural warm-heartedness. Choose to love.

Take a dozen seconds to open to feeling as loving as you can in your body. Take in this experience, let it sink into you. This will strengthen the neural trace of the experience – a kind of emotional memory – and make it easier to call up the next time. Also register the sense of deliberateness, of choosing to love.

Then try these methods with someone you feel more neutral about, such as a stranger on the street. Eventually try this approach with someone who is difficult for you.

It could help to be more aware of the other person’s stresses, worries, and longings. Without staring, look closely at him or her for ten seconds or so. Can you let your heart be moved by this face?

Get a sense of the different external and internal forces pushing and pulling the other person this way and that – perhaps leading him or her to do things that hurt you or others. Let your eyes relax, and get a sense of the bigger picture. Disentangle from the parts, and open into the whole.

Let love be there alongside whatever else is present in your relationship with the other person. There is love . . . and there is also seeing what is true about the other person, yourself, and circumstances affecting both of you. There is love . . . and there is also taking care of your own needs in the relationship.

Love first. The rest will follow.

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Being an introvert in an extroverted world

solitary male figure seen at a distance, standing in a field with mountains in the background

Introverts can feel at a disadvantage when everybody else around them seems so comfortably extroverted. But Sunada feels that the world benefits from the influence of qualities that come naturally to introverts. She explores ways that quieter types can be more “out there” without having to compromise who they really are.

Are you an introvert? When you’re feeling tired or stressed out, do you prefer to be by yourself – and do things like curl up with a book, soak in a hot bath, or go for a walk alone? If you’re a meditator, chances are pretty good you’ve got introvert tendencies. I definitely do.

We pause and reflect before we speak … we’re conscientious and loyal … our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

But the world out there is mostly extroverted. I’ve heard that 75% of Americans are extroverts (though it varies from culture to culture). I used to work in business, where that percentage is even higher. Our world tends to reward extrovert qualities, like the ability to chat easily with strangers, be outgoing, and constantly on the move. If you look up “introvert” in a thesaurus you get the following synonyms: brooder, egotist, loner, narcissist, and wallflower. Not very flattering, is it? But the truth is, whenever we’re at big, boisterous parties with lots of people, the whole scene can leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

My meditation practice has brought me to see things in a new light. Yes, we introverts may be fewer in numbers, and certainly less visible. But I now see that we naturally possess many qualities that the world could really use more of. We know how to slow down, take a deep breath, and smell the proverbial roses. We usually pause and reflect before we speak – so when we do have something to say, it tends to be meaningful. We’re conscientious and loyal. And though we may have small circles of friends, our friendships are strong and deep. In a world where many are feeling overwhelmed by busyness and disappointed by superficiality, how could these qualities not be valuable?

I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself … to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it!

So if you’re a fellow introvert, let’s stop seeing ourselves as outsiders or somehow “lesser” people. Let’s stop isolating ourselves because we’re “different”. The world has much to gain from us introverts bringing ourselves and our genuine strengths out there.

And how do we do this without having to fake being something we’re not? First and foremost, I’ve learned how essential it is to take time for myself, all alone, to keep my batteries charged up – and not be ashamed of having to do it! In the Myers-Briggs system of classifying personality types, the Extrovert-Introvert dimension is defined by where you draw your energy from. Extroverts prefer the outer world of people and things. They get energized by being active and engaged with others. Introverts prefer to focus on their inner world of thoughts and images. They regain energy through solitude. So it’s not about whether you like being with people or not. It’s a matter of energy, and where you get recharged. I know several people who seem quite social and outgoing, but would be considered introverts by this definition.

So it’s no wonder that we introverts can’t keep up with an extrovert lifestyle. We would burn ourselves out. To me, solitary time is as necessary to my well-being as food and water. I make sure I get some daily. My meditation time is of course part of this picture. If I’m traveling or attending a multi-day event with other people, I make sure to schedule some solitary time afterward to recharge. I’m now aware that any skimping I do is at my own risk!

It’s also very worthwhile to examine our own attitudes about our introversion. Being introverted isn’t a good or bad thing in itself. It’s the stories we’ve built around it that make it so. Do we see ourselves as inferior? Do we go to social events with a feeling of dread? Do we walk around with a self-image as someone who has difficulty talking with others? Are we constantly judging what we say? I have to admit I used to do all those things. And still catch myself doing them from time to time. But all these thoughts only serve to sabotage us even before we get out of the gate.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything.

If we can step out of the trap of our negative stories, we’ll find infinite ways to engage with the world without having to fake anything. When I worked in business in the past, I learned that some of my natural but less visible inclinations were really valued by my colleagues. In addition to being an introvert, I’m also very intuitive and able to relate to people easily (I’m an INFJ, for those of you who know Myers-Briggs). Sure, I wasn’t among the socially active and “popular” ones. But I was usually the one who quietly figured out what was really going on behind the scenes. I might pick up on people’s unspoken needs, notice someone who was afraid to come forward, or play diplomat to patch up simmering disagreements among team members. No, these things weren’t part of my job description. But over time they became my signature strengths – and I came to be respected for my ability to keep a team running smoothly and congenially because of them.

In my current line of work, I need to be out networking and meeting people to promote my business. Sales and marketing are probably the things introverts hate doing the most! But this is doable in introvert-style too. I never do any “cold calling” or selling to total strangers (even extroverts have a hard time with that!). If I’m meeting somebody new, I usually establish contact first by email. The next step might be a phone call. For a face-to-face meeting, I go with an agenda in mind, with specific items I want to talk about, rather than leaving it open and freeform. I’ve also learned that if I talk from the perspective of what’s meaningful to me personally, my enthusiasm catches on – and my self-consciousness doesn’t have room to creep in. In fact, I think that it’s my low-key style that brings people to believe in me and what I have to say. I’m not pushing anything on them, so they feel free to decide for themselves.

So if you were born an introvert like me, I would urge you to make the conscious choice to live as an introvert, and be proud of it. On the one hand, it means respecting some very real limits we face. We need to preserve our energy through lots of solitude, and know how not to put ourselves into situations that make us feel tongue-tied or overwhelmed! But at the same time we can bring out our natural strengths in our own quiet way. I’ve learned that when I allow what’s authentic in me to shine through, people notice and really appreciate it.

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