Childhood Wounds: Understanding Yourself in Context

Why talk about your childhood experiences in therapy? What does that have to do with you as an adult?

What role did your childhood experience/parents play in the development of your depression? anxiety disorder? eating disorder? relationship problems?

I was prompted to write this post by a recent online conversation I observed.  A therapist writing about family  contributions to the development of eating disorders sparked quite the controversy and received some vehement opposition.  It reminded me that that which I take for granted as a given is not shared by the public at large.  Namely, that it is just about impossible to escape our childhood unscathed.  Along  the path to becoming an  adult often lies wounding great and small.  By that I mean, even families with the best intentions will experience empathic failures and disconnects. They will succeed in many ways and they will at times fall short of the mark.  There are countless daily experiences of frustration and separation  which in addition to times of  feeling understood and connected  combine to make up who we are.   Secondly, that the understanding of this within ourselves and the acknowledgment of this between parents and adult children can be powerfully healing.

We all (hopefully) get that overt types of trauma such as childhood sexual and physical abuse impact the developing child.  I almost added emotional abuse too, then realized how that gets defined and understood is much more nebulous and can be harder to grasp. The issue of intent can also be confusing. And painful. It can be difficult to realize that even parents with good intentions can respond in ways that negatively impact their child’s development and self.

Examples of less obvious childhood experiences that can have a negative impact include but are not limited to:

  • parental perfectionism
  • high levels of competition
  • family prohibition against expressing certain feelings (for example sadness or anger)
  • witnessing violence
  • parentification of child: child acts in an adult role, for example in single parent families or with many younger siblings
  • child used as confidante by parent
  • child as caretaker of parent: common in families where a parent is alcoholic, for example
  • emotional unavailability of parent due to own depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma history  or physical illness
  • attitudes about gender: for example, shaming a feminine son or tomboyish girl
  • attitudes about sexual orientation: expressing belief that anything other than heterosexuality is inferior, sinful, pathological impacts the developing self of a non-straight child
  • attitudes about weight and body image: directed at yourself and your child
  • boundary issues: too distant or too enmeshed can be problematic
  • not allowing any privacy: for example reading a child’s diary, listening in on phone calls
  • conditional love: expectations about what a child will do in terms of hobbies, careers, interests.  Approval conditional on meeting parents’ expectations

As a psychodynamically trained therapist, I am operating from the belief that much of who we are is formed early and within the context of our primary family/care taker relationships. As a trauma informed therapist I am aware that traumas (big T and small t) can actually impact and change brain structure and chemistry.  So in the great nature vs. nurture debate within the field of mental health, I am much more apt to focus on the nurture side of the equation. I see the individual and her/his psychological problems as more often than not created within the context of early family dynamics.

Sometimes this gets misunderstood as an attempt to find fault or place blame upon parents.  I see it instead as about seeking a broader understanding of the individual in the context of the family and early experiences. With understanding can come more compassion for yourself. Too often I see clients presenting feeling  “crazy”, as if something in  them is inherently bad or flawed.  Putting their lives and experiences into context can be empowering.  In fact, I firmly believe that  knowledge is power.

In my view,  we develop a healthy self when our parents/caregivers provide  “good enough”  responsiveness to our critical emotional needs. What is “good enough” varies depending on the individual child. This is where I see some “nature” stuff like temperament playing a role. Some children do indeed seem to be more highly sensitive than others from day one.  This may provide more challenges in attunement for certain types of caregivers.  For example, a parent who is not  comfortable with his/her own range of emotions may not be able to empathically respond to the child’s. The child may then grow up feeling they have to deny or split off certain feelings in order to be loved.

Of course I get why many resist this approach.  It is incredibly painful as a parent to consider that you may have contributed to your adult child’s psychological problems.  I understand the denial and defensiveness may spring from a need for this to not be so.  However, I have seen what it can do for both when a parent can listen non-defensively and acknowledge the ways he or she inadvertently wounded their child.  One of the greatest gifts parents can give their adult children is to be able to tolerate this and model the awareness that none of us are perfect .  That includes parents.  Successful relationships of any kind are not about being 100% empathically attuned and connected, but about how we do the repair work when there are inevitable ruptures.

How have you grappled with these questions in your own healing work?

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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41 Responses to Childhood Wounds: Understanding Yourself in Context

  1. Kyle says:

    This is something I’m working through… a very large part of me sees no reason to expend the energy to list all the ways my parents wounded me. And yet I can see how validating and empowering it can feel to have someone else acknowledge the wounds. So – do I legitimately not want to revisit the issues because they are old news and I should just take responsibility for my own actions as an adult? Or do I really REALLY just not want to have to risk feeling the pain again in the telling? I dunno. When I find out, I’ll share the outcome with you. 🙂

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Hi Kyle-

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Of course, you can probably guess which way I lean 🙂

      It is of course always a matter for the individual to decide, whether the possible benefits outweigh the risk. As I have written elsewhere, for some the “old news” of the past is still very much present in all sorts of ways. Then I think it can only benefit to unravel it with someone who gets it.

      I’d love to hear your ongoing thoughts and process!

  2. Brielle says:

    I feel a lot from your understanding and acceptance in this article. I read the other article by Joanna before I got your opinion on it, and as I started into the comments I was completely bewildered by the people’s opinions.

    Myself, I suffered a lot of abuse from very young and all through high school until I left home after an attempted murder/suicide.

    I have never come close to having a normal take on humanity, relationships etc. My inner self is still so (crying) unhealed. People do not understand the depth of absolute destruction that can occur to a persona/personality in it’s different aspects. In fact, some things you said in this article show more insight than any of the therapists I have been to over the years.

    Most recently I came to an understanding that my training during childhood was similar to what happens to subjects of mind control experiments such as Montauk boys.

    The work I have had to do all my life to try and find myself is inexplicable to an ordinary person. It would seem that therapy and effort would bring someone out of themselves in a reasonable time, but I have struggled through untold amounts of confusion and pain, and all the time I knew that it was because of my childhood, yet it isn’t as easy as that. (as you know)

    It is nice to know, however, that there are people who understand. Thx for the article.

    • kyoungpsyd says:


      I am incredibly moved and honored that you have chosen to share some of your experiences here.

      I do so very much understand the depth of the work and struggle, to find and reclaim yourself after such devastation. And here you are, giving back by sharing of yourself!

      Thank you.

  3. Claire says:

    I found this post via a twitter retweet and really enjoyed it 🙂

    I am just coming to the conclusion of my counselling diploma, in which we studied an integrative approach.

    I was unsure what to make of the childhood work, particular Inner Child and was convinced that I would get nothing from it, boy was I wrong.

    So I particularly liked your point about less obvious childhood experiences that negatively impact, specifically emotionally unavailability due to physical illness, as my mum has been in and out of hospital since I was around 5 years old.

    It has been hard at times to mourn the loss of a childhood and having a mum about in those moments when you need one. I am lucky though, because she and I have a great relationship now. It was hard and still is at times to not resent the fact that I missed out on so much, but I can now realise how hard it has been for her too, as she would of done anything to change it.

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Hi Claire-

      Hurray for Twitter connections! Congrats on finishing up your degree.

      I think along the same lines, that an important part of the work of therapy can be grieving the parent that wasn’t. I think doing that can actually help free a person up to experience what is, in the present.

      I am glad that you have a good relationship now. That says a lot about both of you!

  4. This was a really interesting post to read. What I find really hard though is that I totally subscribe to this way of thinking (as a counsellor – and even as a client) but that most of my family have no clue or understanding. They continue to be confused either by my profession (my Grandma!) or just not understand why it is necessary for me to have therapy at all. Their attitudes are to pick up and keep going, not complain, not talk about emotions … it can make it difficult to keep hold of the things I’ve learned sometimes. And I wonder how to explain something to them which is so out of their cultural understanding.

    Food for thought!

    • kyoungpsyd says:

      Thanks for commenting ftss!

      Ah yes! It can be a lot to manage, getting used to others in your life not sharing your world view. Even now, after 20+ years of practice I still must remind myself at times that not everyone sees the things I take as self-evident. Trusting our truth in the face of that is an acquired ability!

      Good points too, about cultural differences (and generational too I think) regarding these issues. That would be a good additional conversation!

  5. Bonnie says:

    I’m sick of people telling me its just a phase when I know people out there dying from eating disorders! Lend a hand; don’t avoid the problem people.

  6. Tears says:

    Recently I was ‘scolded’ by my boss in front of my peers. One peer was trying to stand up for me because of the way I had been treated in a recent event. Our boss turned it around on me and made it my fault.

    I froze. I could not speak; when I tried I started to cry (a big no no for me in the work place). So I went deeper and deeper into my freeze.

    Days later I am still crying over the hurt. I realize the tears I am shedding are not just about the other day but they are from a long time ago beginning at third grade when I went to my teacher to show her she had marked an answer on a test wrong when it was actually correct. She then took the test and corrected the one wrong answer but found several more that were marked correct and marked them incorrect. I was worse off after having confronted her about my grade.….

    I should have kept my mouth shut….

    In other words ‘stop your crying or I will give you something to cry about’. They are messages I heard at home prior to that incident in third grade but I took a risk anyway and the message at school was the same, ‘don’t risk’, ‘don’t want, don’t ask, don’t tell’ because when you do it hurts just that much more.

    I work in a disrespectful environment and have for over 15 years. Why don’t I leave? For the same reasons I did not leave my abusive family or did not tell anyone what was happening at home. I have adopted a belief that I do not deserve to be treated fairly, that I cannot have what I want and that it is wrong to speak up for myself.

    The wounds of my childhood live on in my now. I cannot heal today without going back into yesterday and re-parenting the hurt little ones that walk with me.

  7. kyoungpsyd says:


    Thank you for sharing your experience so powerfully! What a good example of how the past can be triggered in the present.

    I get that you have internalized those negative beliefs and that they are very hard to shake. Good for you for recognizing them for what they are and where they come from!

  8. Cyndi says:

    I’m just reading through your blog since I tag surfed onto it earlier today.

    My immediate family (my mom, dad, and siblings) are very open about traumatic experiences with mixed blessings. Sometimes we children have to make our mom realize that even though some of her actions were a little more than a little off the wall, we love her and think she’s a great mom and wouldn’t trade her for anything. We also have to remind her that none of us are dead or in jail and we all live either in her house or just minutes away. Even after the alcohol abuse, and me being little mommy while she was physically ill, we love her. We love her even when our genetics (nothing she could control) get cursed at the dinner table. We love Dad too, but he doesn’t like to hear it on the internet.

    The downside is that all the trauma we experienced was experienced by all of us. I don’t know if it hurts or helps to share in the trauma of five people, including living your own share. I know that my battles with infertility, my sister’s problems with body image, and my brother’s issues with drugs left us all scared and scarred. Adding that to learning my mom was adopted (for the first time) when she was 32 and I was 12 and hearing my dad recount the abuse he lived through at the hands of his step-father, it’s amazing we are all functional human beings.

    Now, I face living with the fact, that I will – as a flawed human being – impact my daughter’s self-image. We are so incredibly alike it hurts – except in one way. Even at 5 years old, we struggle with her eating habits and have to count every calorie because she panics and thinks she will never eat again. Every word I say to her about meals or “treats” has to be weighed. Every rule I enforce at grandma’s or at school has to be weighed. At times it’s like we’re pitting manipulation skills against each other – her to bribe people into feeding her and me trying to keep control over what goes into her body until she’s healthy and stable.

    There can be only one conclusion: I’m going to mess up and it will probably be ok. Hopefully.

    • I hope you keep reading, Cyndi!

      Yes! We are all flawed, we all will mess up. What often matters most is how we acknowledge that and do the necessary repair work, no matter what the relationship.

      So much additional damage is done when parents cannot tolerate hearing/owning that they have wounded their children. It being unintentional does not mean it has no impact.

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  10. Just Be Real says:

    Appreciate your post with your insights. Thank you.

  11. cornnut32 says:

    this post really resonates with me.

    i am 23, married, with almost two children. as a child i was sexually abused by an uncle, and am overcoming that trauma. in addition, i grew up in a household with a mother who was bipolar and went undiagnosed until i was 17. my mother and i did not get along. it seemed she continually said and did things that tore apart my self-esteem. she was extremely critical, and both of my parents had very high expectations of me and my four younger siblings. i took things much more personally than my siblings did, and i still struggle to get along with my mother although things have improved.

    just this past week my mom (again) criticized me and my husband. i sent her an email telling her how badly that hurts my feelings, and that it is difficult for me because i feel my parents treat my siblings differently, and that i am left out of the family a lot.

    insert enraged parents here. my dad and i got into a verbal argument, in which he yelled at me for blaming all of my problems on my mother, and that i have done so my entire life.

    my mom tried her hardest. i know that. i know she loves me. i know she has the best of intentions. but that doesn’t change the fact that she frequently makes me feel worse about myself than i already do, that she is overly critical and negative, and that her constant complaining wears on me.

    i am not trying to blame all my problems on my mom. but how am i supposed to express that her actions really do negatively impact me without sounding like i’m hateful or ungrateful for her and the good things she’s done? i even got a scathing email from my sister, in which she told me i was being selfish and immature, that i need to grow up, and that she is sick and tired of me telling my mom how awful she is. (which i did NOT say.)

    this post helps a lot because it really says what i was thinking… a better way than i could. and, as a parent myself, helps me to recognize that i will undoubtedly screw things up with my kids–but it’s vital for me to be able to recognize that.

    thanks for submitting this to the blog carnival so i could read it.

    • cornut-

      I am so glad you found this post when you needed it. It sounds like your family experience is exactly the sort I was thinking of in writing this: you get identified as “the problem” for being impacted by your childhood experiences.

      Good for you that you can see it for what it is and (hopefully) keep working on not internalizing that false blame.

  12. @cornnut32 – I kept trying with my mother until she died. I always hoped that she would break through somehow and be honest with me, but she never did. I didn’t really understand what was going on between us until long after she died.
    When I read some other people’s stories, sometimes the similarities scare me. I never meet anyone in real life who talks about these things…

    I came across a site that helps me heal –

    kindness to all

  13. anonymous says:

    The physical/sexual/emotional abuse I suffered as a child was horrific. I am still not over it despite having spent my entire adult life (now at least half over) trying to just be “normal,” with the help of 13 years of therapy and psych meds. ( I have two kids. One of them is bipolar (like me) and has ADHD. I know that I have not been the parent that I always dreamed of being. In so many ways, I am a bad parent. We don’t have meals together, the kids have seen plenty of rage and heard plenty of cursing, I don’t (can’t) go to PTA meetings, etc, etc. But my kids have always been safe and known that they are loved and I have done my best to be emotionally present and non-judgmental for them. Because I am afraid of the rage in me, I am probably too permissive as a parent — about things like TV, video games, computer time, not enforcing schedules and such. But my kids are actually very sheltered (probably because I have not promoted their social lives as I should have) and although they are teenagers, neither one of them has ever been exposed to the “deviant” behaviors that seem to be part of being a teenager (drinking, smoking, drugs, sex…) and I say this with a good deal of certainty. You cannot imagine the grief I feel for the ways I have failed and continue to fail my children. However, I have to believe that children are resilient and that there is still time to do better. If I don’t believe this (even if it is a lie), I have no reason not to kill myself. My life is so fucking hard and I. Am. So. Tired.

    • Anonymous-

      What I read in your post is all the ways you have succeeded as a parent. Most importantly, you have kept your kids safe. You have broken the cycle of abuse.

      Please re-read this part of my post (as often as needed 🙂 ):
      “One of the greatest gifts parents can give their adult children is to be able to tolerate this and model the awareness that none of us are perfect . That includes parents. Successful relationships of any kind are not about being 100% empathically attuned and connected, but about how we do the repair work when there are inevitable ruptures.”

      You have the opportunity to do this with your children because of your awareness of your own struggles.

      Thank you for posting.

  14. What an amazing, awareness-raising post. Thank you so much for allowing us to use it for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE.

    I think focusing on treating the trauma is the key to healing. As an advocate, I want to stop the silence of child abuse. But as someone who is actively working in therapy to overcome my trauma, I want to focus on that…not blaming. No matter WHO did what to me as a child, I am an adult now and it is ME who is responsible for my own healing.

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  19. IAmEchad says:

    Have you heard of DID being a type of attachment disorder. If so, would you explain?

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  21. I don’t understand this concept of “intent.”

    You wrote: “…I almost added emotional abuse too… The issue of intent can also be confusing…”

    When I finally uttered the words out loud, I was emotionally abused and relayed a few details, my therapist seemed to try to explain that my mom did not intend to hurt me.

    What is it with emotional abuse and intent?

    A drunk father hitting his son on more than one occasion may not have intended to hurt him, but he did. Therapists would most probably say the son was physically abused.

    Most therapists seem to agree emotional abuse exists.

    My mom did not intend to hurt me with her constant criticisms, her name-calling, her doubting my abilities, her comparing me to better children, her yelling and threatening or ignoring, but she did.

    I began researching emotional child abuse after I got my drivers license and was able to drive myself to the library. It took another 20 years before I finally believed, understood, and maybe accepted that I was emotionally abused.

    I finally summoned the strength from somewhere within to squeeze the word abuse from my soul in the presence of my therapist, who is the first therapist I’ve ever trusted, and he tells me my mom didn’t intend to hurt me.

    This was the only time I he ever left me feeling… huh?! & a bit angry.

    What’s the point of a patient considering possible past emotional abuse if therapists seem to back away from it’s existence when it’s presented?

    I wrote a longer comment, but I decided to post it to my blog. So, I can delete it whenever I feel the need to deny what apparently didn’t exist.

    • Intent does NOT matter in terms of any form of abuse; the impact on you is what matters. I am sorry if it seemed like I was saying otherwise.

      Here is the context of the bit you quote. I say:

      “We all (hopefully) get that overt types of trauma such as childhood sexual and physical abuse impact the developing child. I almost added emotional abuse too, then realized how that gets defined and understood is much more nebulous and can be harder to grasp. The issue of intent can also be confusing. And painful. It can be difficult to realize that even parents with good intentions can respond in ways that negatively impact their child’s development and self.”

      Yes, unfortunately emotional abuse is very hard for the general public to grasp. I am sorry this was the case with your therapist as well. My last sentence above brings home the essence of this whole post.

      • I find this matter of intent confusing as well, and while I so much want to believe what you have written, Dr. Young, as it is very validating, it presents a stark contrast to much literature on sexual abuse.

        Much of what I’ve read seems to indicate that one of the factors that _defines_ what is and isn’t sexual abuse is whether or not the perpetrator is deriving sexual pleasure from the act. This always confused me. I didn’t think my abuser was ever “getting off” on the contact we had, but… I also didn’t think putting your hands down your daughter’s underwear (for a “massage”) was an okay thing to do.

        I’m so confused about this business of intent.

      • Huh. Well I can see why that would be confusing! I have not read anything defining sexual abuse in that way and given that we know that sexual abuse are often more about power and control than sexual gratification per se…well that just plain does not make sense to me!

        I’d love to check out your sources that seem to be saying otherwise.

      • Thank you for your reply. I apologize if my original comment was harsh. My anger regarding intent is directed mainly at myself.

        For decades, I denied the abuse I was subjected to -because of intent. I knew my mom loved me, and I knew she didn’t mean to harm me. So, I wasn’t abused.

        Whose fault is it that her words negatively impacted me? I’m overly sensitive. Why should I label my mom an abuser? It stands to reason no one should label my mom as a child abuser. If I were mentally stronger or less sensitive, her words would not have affected me.

        A hit or inappropriate touch is an abusive act. It doesn’t matter what the victim feels about it. The act itself is abuse. No person can consent to battery. No child can consent to a sex act.

        It becomes fuzzy when the abusive act is a choice of words and a manner of delivery. What is the list of words that are conclusively abusive? How loud can a voice raise before it is considered yelling? There doesn’t seem to be answers available. It’s subjective.

        The determining factor seems to be the effect the words had on the child. If they affected the child, it is abuse. If they did not affect the child, it is not abuse. Is this true?

        My sister and I grew up in the same household and received the same “abuse.” I can’t really say how it impacted her life. I do know that she is married and is the mother of a beautiful little boy. I don’t know if she’s happy or how well she functions overall. But what if she was not impacted by our mother’s words. Is my mom a child abuser or not a child abuser?

        Dr. Young, I found your blog searching for more information on the book by Stephen Gold called “Not Trauma Alone:..” I can’t afford to buy the book, but I read as much as I could from excerpts online. I think I feel a little more comfortable just believing I did not get the skills I needed from my parents to effective live as an adult. It’s somehow easier to believe I was raised in a less than ideally functioning household than I am a product of abuse, since I don’t, can’t, am unsure if abuse even took place.

        I want to KNOW it took place. I want to be able to be angry. But there’s too much fuzziness surrounding the concept of emotional abuse.

        I don’t know… I’m just thinking out loud and probably not making a whole lot of sense.

      • I think you are making a lot of sense!

        You are describing very well the conundrum that is emotional abuse. Maybe setting the “abuse” word aside can help us just focus on impact and aftermath.

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  26. Caitlin says:

    Hello Dr Kathleen Young,
    I know this blog post is years old now but I fortunately came across it the other day when I was googling the subject of talking to parents about childhood wounds. I’ve been through a deep and challenging healing phase lately, and eventually sickness forced me to leave my own little daughter with her father (separated) for some time and I ended up back at my parents’ home so they could take care of me. With plenty of time lying down with myself, many childhood wounds began to surface and take hold of my mind. And not just wounds that occurred in childhood, but also the discomfort of still feeling small and squashed and trapped in an unequal dynamic in the tight grip of their hierarchy. I am 40 years old and they show a lot of love and care, but I still suffer frequent correction, criticism and prohibition against me expressing “difficult” feelings.

    My inner voice urged me to talk to my parents about these issues face to face. At first I was met with a lot of defensiveness and denial, and disbelief that I would “put them on trial” like that. I persevered and did make some progress with my own sense of freedom and autonomy, and my parents did start to have some insights and empathise with me.

    As I went down through the layers, a very painful wound surfaced, revealing an old deeply-entrenched sense of shame and lack of self worth that I believe arose partly from their criticism and control, but also from repeated beltings as punishment. This topic has become taboo in the family, and has always felt “unspeakable” to me. But once again, the inner voice urged me to speak to my parents about it. I was petrified. My inner child was once again terrified of retribution. My resistance came up in the form of many voices protesting, particularly insisting that I should be able to heal the wound and move on myself. It was, after all, so long ago in the past.

    That’s when I came across your blog. I identified with a humber of childhood experiences in your list, such as prohibition against expressing certain feelings, emotional unavailability of parent du to own depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma history etc., attitudes about weight and body image, boundary issues and conditional love. I can see very clearly now how they all have been controlling my life from my subconscious and showing up again and again in my failed relationships and lack of fulfilment in career. I was very struck by your message:

    “I have seen what it can do for both when a parent can listen non-defensively can acknowledge the ways he or she inadvertently wounded their child. One of the greatest gifts parents can give their adult children is to be able to tolerate this and model the awareness that none of us are perfect.”

    The night before, my mother had asked me in angry desperation what they could for me. Now I had the answer. Reading your blog helped me to overcome my fear and approach them in a different manner. I did not challenge them. I did not try and bring them into conflict so I could express my anger and hurt. I assured them that I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that they loved me and had good intentions. I assured them too that I knew no one and no upbringing is perfect, including my own daughter’s. I asked them calmly if they would do me the favour of being present with me and listen non-defensively while I described and released the painful childhood memory of the repeated beltings.

    They listened. I told.
    And the memory lost its power.

    The following days have been a little awkward. I can see they are grappling with their own pain that I know was the cause of their behaviour. I realise their parents are dead and they do not have the same opportunity to release old wounds with them. I feel very lucky and grateful. I have thanked my parents and assured them that if they would like to talk about some of their own pain, I am here.
    Aside from that, I am less afraid. I feel equal. I feel free to express my emotions. I am healing from my sickness. I am feeling more love in the cracks. We are taking care of each other.
    And I’m looking forward to getting back to my own human, imperfect, hopefully “good enough” parenting to my daughter.
    So thank you Dr. Kathleen Young. Your sharing helped me become another healing person in the world.
    Yours gratefully,

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