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How much emotion is too much? (revisited!)

May 25, 2011

When I talk about The Language of Emotions, one of the central ideas I try to get across is that all emotions are useful. If you can approach them with care and ask them the right questions, there aren’t any “bad” emotions. Every emotion has a specific function, and all of them are important and instructive. Some very intense emotions (such as hatred and panic), which I call the “raging rapids” emotions, need to be handled with care, but in most normal cases, you can understand and work with your emotions on your own.

However, there are times when you’ll need assistance with your emotions. The way to know when you need help is simple: When your emotions repeat continually and do not resolve, or when they overwhelm you or the people in your life, it’s time to find out what’s going on.

When things are going well, all of your emotions (even the raging rapids ones) will respond to you and will resolve when you’ve paid attention to them and made whatever corrective actions they require. As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, “emotions are action-requiring neurological programs.”

From that post: So, for instance, fear requires that you take action to orient to change and novelty, or to avoid physical harm. Anger requires that you take action to protect or restore your sense of self or your standpoint (or the selves and standpoints of others, if your anger is related to social justice). Shame requires that you take action to avoid injuring others or yourself (if the shame is authentic to you. It’s important to first identify whether the shame has been applied as a control mechanism from the outside). Sadness requires that you take action to let go of something that isn’t working anyway, and grief (which has a very different purpose from sadness) requires that you actively mourn something that is lost irretrievably. And so forth.

Each emotion is an action-requiring neurological program, and in The Language of Emotions, I explain what each emotion is for and how to work with it as itself (rather than trying to pretend it’s something else, or that you don’t have it).

With this action-requiring construct, we can be a bit more precise in our understanding of how much emotion is too much: If you’ve got an emotion that repeats continually and will not resolve itself, no matter how many times you try to perform the action for that emotion, that’s a clear sign that you could use some intervention. Let’s look at two of the emotions above so you’ll know what I mean.

The importance of Fear

photo of cat ears orienting to soundFrom its healthy, flowing state (where it is your instincts and your intuition), your fear is evoked into what I call its mood state (this is when most of us can feel it) by change, novelty, and the possibility of physical danger. The actions fear requires are uncountable, because fear is the emotion of instinct and intuition. When your fear signals you, you might need to hold your breath, freeze, run, laugh, recoil, move forward, orient yourself, strike out quickly to avoid an incoming hazard, lower your head and studiously ignore something, or any of a hundred other actions.

When you and your instincts choose the right action, you’ll resolve the reasons for your fear, and your fear will recede naturally.

Your fear should never go away, because fear brings you the instincts you need to prepare for any eventuality. However, you shouldn’t be in a fear mood state every minute of every day (this would be terrible for your health). If everything in your environment knocks your fear from its flowing, nearly imperceptible, intuitive state into its full-on, adrenaline-pumping, action-requiring state, something is going on! In this situation, you’ve got an anxiety disorder that needs to be addressed (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is great for anxiety disorders, and so are specific antidepressants and beta blockers). We’ve also got a mindfulness technique for anxiety here.

It’s really important to address an anxiety disorder, because fear’s job is to prepare you to orient, identify change, fight, flee, freeze, and save your life. You don’t want to be doing that all day long (unless you’re in a war, and then I take it back)! But even for a very competent warrior, running mood-state fear all the time is very hard on the body. PTSD is a very real possibility when you live at the mood-state level of fear for long stretches of time.

The point with fear (and every other emotion) is that it has a very specific purpose. Fear needs you to take action — to orient to change, novelty, and danger. When you properly identify the change or danger, and when you take an action to ensure your safety (or the safety of others, if your fear was evoked on their behalf), then fear’s work is done.

When you complete the correct action, your fear will revert to its healthy, flowing state, and you won’t consciously feel afraid. Fear will still be there, but it won’t be in a mood state, and it won’t require any more actions from you. You will have completed the actions your fear required from you. Yay!

As I say in the book, the problem isn’t the emotion itself — even when the emotion is way out of whack. The presence of an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean that fear is bad. Fear is irreplaceable; fear will literally save your life. So you want fear. But you want it in its proper place, doing its proper work with the proper intensity.

For instance: If a child’s ball rolls into your field of vision, you want fear to help you notice it, orient to it, and then realize it’s not a threat. Excellent fear, thank you.

If a car swerves toward you suddenly, you want your fear to orient you, make a split-second decision, and get your car out of harm’s way. Whew! Adrenaline rush! Excellent fear, thank you.

All of your emotions have very important jobs; you need all of them. But if something chemical, psychological, or neurological is impeding or inflating those emotions, you can easily tumble into confusion, exhaustion, and disorder. So it’s very important that you reach out. Don’t tough it out when you’ve got an emotion that’s out of whack.

Here’s why: Emotions are very powerful, and their nature is to move quickly, address an issue succinctly, and then move on. Your job as the owner and friend of your emotions is to maintain an inner life that makes room for your emotions to do their proper work.

The importance of Anger

photo of adorably angry puppyFrom its healthy, flowing state (where it quietly maintains your self-image and your social skills), your anger is evoked into its mood state when you sense threats to your self image, your standpoint, your voice, or your position (I call these, collectively, your boundaries). When someone tries to disrespect you, your anger should come forward to protect your boundaries honorably. With that anger, you can set the person straight (or laugh, or raise your eyebrows, or deepen your voice, or any of a hundred non-violent but self-strengthening and boundary-setting options), and then your anger will recede and your boundary will be reset. Bing. It’s done. No one gets hurt.

If you and your anger don’t have a good relationship, or you don’t know that anger is the correct emotion for the situation (so many people pathologize anger), you might try to ignore it and be polite to the disrespecting person. You might laugh nervously or your face might redden, and you’ll avoid any conflict.

Here’s the problem: the person will have gotten away with poor behavior, and they’ll now know that you are a perfect target for them. You’ll teach them that they can attack you with no consequences. Whoops. This is not just bad for you; it’s bad for them, because they’ll become less socially aware and less socially viable. And you will develop an anger problem because you don’t know how to take actions when your anger asks you to.

When you don’t complete the self-protecting actions your anger requires, you might second-guess yourself a dozen times or replay the incident all day. You might think of a hundred things you “should have said.” Your anger will still be activated, but you won’t have used it properly, so it will zing around inside you like a pinball. Soon enough, you’ll probably have to deal with an influx of shame (anger at yourself), because you failed to utilize your anger when it was necessary. Doh!

In this instance, this problem with repetitive anger is one you created yourself, not because you’re clueless, but because most of us aren’t taught what anger is for — or how to use it. We’ve got two terrible options: Ignore the anger and act passively, or intensify the anger and destroy the other person. With those two pathetic options, it’s no wonder most of us just fall apart when anger arises. We don’t know what actions to take!

You can get help with this from a friend or counselor who can help you become more assertive (instead of aggressive), or you can ask the questions for anger that I suggest in the book: “What must be protected? and What must be restored?” If you ask your anger these questions, it will give you many honorable options.

The trick is to remember that you’re not allowed to break the boundaries of your opponent. If you do attack, you’ll injure the other person’s boundaries, and their anger will have to move into a mood state. And here’s the thing; you don’t know how they’ve learned to use their anger. They could be childhood abuse survivors; you could really injure them, or they could come out swinging, and then where are you? Now you’ve got two people in an escalating anger state, and … yeah, that’s not smart.

I call anger The Honorable Sentry because when you understand the importance of boundaries, you’re going to honor them in other people as well. Your anger will not be a weapon; it will be a tool. In a healthy conflict, you both should be protected by healthy anger, and you both should be restored. Anger is the Honorable Sentry.

If you ignore your anger, you’re teaching the other person that it’s totally okay to be unkind and insensitive, and you’re helping them become less skilled, less socially aware, and less valuable in the social world. You’re not doing them any favors; you’re actually dishonoring them.

The other side of the coin: Too much anger

Now, let’s say you feel anger all the time. Politics inflame you, advertising inflames you, other people’s behavior inflames you, and you wake up every morning with your fists raised, yelling, “Why, there oughtta be a law!”  Also, you lash out at people whenever you feel anger, sometimes without meaning to. This is a situation where you’ve got too much anger, and it’s being activated by absolutely everything in your environment.

This is a very precarious situation for your social viability. If you ratchet up your anger every time it appears, and you attack consistently, you’re teaching people that you are 1) Not a safe person to be around, and 2) Not emotionally skilled. You might think that your anger outbursts make you look strong, like some action figure. But if you’re using your anger to destroy the boundaries and the self image of others, you haven’t learned a thing about the purpose of anger. Sorry. Learn to welcome and work with (not against, and certainly not for) your anger, and you’ll learn to create and define an honorable and healthy sense of self … for everyone.

Too much of any one emotion is not healthy for you, for your social viability, for your brain, and for your endocrine system (not to mention your heart!). There’s work you can do on your own, such as asking yourself why you are so completely boundary-impaired that absolutely everything gets to you? However, you might also need some help from a counselor or your doctor, because repetitive anger that never resolves is simply not good for you.

If your anger goes to 11 every time it appears (or even every other time it appears), you’ve got a rage disorder, and it can knock you out. Repetitive rage can also be a sign of untreated major depression, so don’t fool around with a rage disorder; reach out for help.

It’s not the anger itself that isn’t good for you; you absolutely need your anger. Besides, you can get into a repetitive state with any number of emotions (like depression, fear, sadness, or shame), and they’ll all destabilize you in their own particular ways.

The problem in a rage disorder isn’t the fact that anger exists. The problem is that the anger is stuck in a feedback loop that needs to be resolved so that the anger can get back to its regular work!

What I notice about raging people is that their boundaries are totally permeable; absolutely everything gets to them. Therefore, their anger, which exists to help them strengthen their boundaries, is continually evoked. Their anger constantly, regularly, and dependably arises, but because they don’t understand how to complete the actions anger requests of them, their anger will become trapped in a feedback loop.

We all require healthy boundaries. Healthy anger will help us create and restore those boundaries. But in the case of a rage disorder, the feedback problem has to be dealt with first.

The answer is pretty simple, really

So the answer to the question How much emotion is too much? is the same for any of the emotions: If the emotion appears constantly or repetitively, and you can’t get it to resolve, that’s too much. That emotion is out of balance, and you need to attend to it so that your emotions can get back to their regular work!

photo of fixit kittyBecause emotions are so powerful, a repetitive state can throw your chemistry out of whack, so attending to that emotion may require therapy, antidepressants (in cases of repetitive rage, anxiety, or depression), anti-anxiety meds, or a change in your lifestyle so that you can work your way back to health.

You can also study the emotion that got out of balance in you, and wow, it will tell you amazing things about yourself, your family, and the world around you.

But first, take care of yourself and get any repetitive emotions back into balance within your entire emotional realm. Emotions are irreplaceable, necessary, and powerful things, but if they’re out of balance, every single one of them can be too much!


Allison Dahl June 1, 2011 at 8:16 pm

Hello Karla,
I am reading your book LOE! It is phenomenal, as I am sure you have heard. I have questions and journey insights that I’d love to discuss with you. I am sure that you are overwhelmed with this kind of question, but do you have a contact info that you could email to me or some such? I value and know that you mentioned that this can be a lonely journey to start, so I do understand some of my questions are just the need or want to share. I am journaling and am basically studying your book, rather than just reading it. I believe I have intrinsically known some of what you discuss, but am honored an obliged to see it in such a beautifully concise manner. I feel that I want to help be a part of your insights for the people in my area. Do you have seminar? I am interested.
1000 thanks for your good works, and for sharing it in such a wonderful manner!
With much gratitude,
Allison of Allisonians(my pen name for the internet network society)

Karla June 1, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Hi Meghan, thanks for your question. It’s a good one! And it does relate, because the guilt and shame these moms are feeling is real, and the emotions are relating to a real situation.

Especially around breastfeeding, there’s so much social pressure to do it (besides the fact that it’s good for health and bonding) that a failure to breastfeed can feel rather catastrophically like a failure. Moms are famous for projecting their failures forty years into the future and seeing the necessity of providing a therapist for their adult child’s mother issues. Hah! And that’s for imaginary wrongs; there’s plenty of research showing breastfeeding to be a superior option to formula (though it’s likely that the research carries some bias).

When I work with shame, I remind people that it’s a really important emotion (because it feels so awful, it’s very easy to slap it away), and that there are things they can do about it. There are actions they can complete so that the shame will abate. The questions Who has been hurt? and What must be made right? can really help people work through shame. With the breastfeeding issue, the hurt parties are the baby and the mom, and the way to make it right is to feel the loss, make sure the baby has excellent alternative nutrition, and if the mom is still feeling ashamed, then maybe bringing in other moms who haven’t been able to breastfeed, but whose babies are happy and healthy would be a good idea.

One of the big problems with shame is that it’s isolating. If you can find peers who have dealt with the situation, and you can talk about it openly, the shame will abate. But if you don’t deal with it, the shame will intensify. Shame has a purpose and a required action. If the action isn’t completed, the emotion will remain.

This is of course, only true in cases where shame is authentic to the person. Shame that has been applied from the outside is an entirely different story! I cover it in the Burning Contracts section of the book, and also in the Shame chapter.

Hope that helps!

Karla June 1, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Hi Allison!

Yes, I’m preparing an 8-week online course that will start in September, and I’m really having fun with it. I envision us creating an online empathic crowd source community where we can create a bigger, smarter brain because there are more empaths in it! Empaths rock, and all that.

I’ll be announcing the class here, in my newsletter, and on my FB page, so you won’t miss it. It will be offered through Sounds True’s online infrastructure, and at this point, it looks like the 8 week course will be offered for less than $100 bucks. That makes me so happy, because in-person stuff requires all sorts of non-green travel and lots of expenses for everyone. In-person workshops are great, but the environmentalist in me goes, “Hmmm.”

I hope you can be a part of it!

Meghan June 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I’m not sure this really relates to this post but I had a question about guilt/shame…I work with new moms and a lot of them say the feel guilty. I feel like it comes from being so responsible for their helpless babies…I get from your book that guilt is a factual state so really they are feeling shame not guilt. But what if there is no real reason to feel this way. For instance one woman I work with stated that she feels guilty because she couldn’t breastfeed and has to give her son formula. Her body failed her but she says she feels guilty about it. How can I help women move away from feeling shame when they did nothing wrong?

James June 8, 2011 at 5:09 pm

It’s a real shame and tragedy for humanity that Lady Gaga would have 400 million views while the insight and wisdom you have to offer to completely change lives isn’t even more prodigious. I can’t stop reading your posts because as truth radiates from your words I begin to realize how years of trial and error vicariously take experience’s place. I would love to ask three questions and glean on your wisdom if that is possible. If trust is the foundation of any relationship how do you go about developing trust? How can language be used to provoke emotion in another human being? How do you go about earning the respect of a woman like yourself ? Feel free to skip any question, you just appear as though you enjoy philosophical conversation.

Karla June 10, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Well, I gotta say, the point of Lady Gaga is to get 400 million views! That woman is a monster self-promoter! It’s funny — I researched her before she hit it big, and there are lots of YouTube vids of her as Stephanie Germanotta, singer/songwriter. She was good, but not distinctive. Okay, now she’s distinctive! I watch fame like that and just sort of marvel at it, though I’m more interested now in Adele, who at a very young age seems to have found one of the most crack teams of producers, collaborators, and promoters. Adele is deeply, wildly talented, and quite distinctive, but so are a lot of other undiscovered singers. I’m still studying it.

I’ll throw the trust question back to you: What would make you trust another person; what would break your trust? It’s different for each of us. For me, empathetic, self-aware, funny, compassionate, and accountable people are trustworthy.

Language and emotion; that’s easy! Think of your favorite books — the ones that evoke sadness, laughter, anger about injustice, fear and dread, and so on. Language is deeply emotionally evocative.

Hah – “respect of a woman like you;” it sounds like you’re chatting me up. Hello Sailor!

Rosa June 22, 2011 at 9:07 am

Hi, I´d like the transcripts of these CD´s:

Energetic Boundaries: Practical Protection and Renewal Skills for Healers, Therapists, and Sensitive People by Karla McLaren.

Where could I find them?

Thanks in advance,
Rosa (from Madrid- Spain).

Karla June 23, 2011 at 7:22 pm

Hi Rosa, that CD set is out of print now, so there are no transcripts available. I’ve moved on in my work, and I’m focusing solely on the emotions and on the five empathic skills that can help people work with their emotions and their empathy. Cheers!

Mary Ann Ribble June 28, 2011 at 3:40 am


Waiting eagerly to hear about Emotion Theatre. thanks for mentioning it!
So glad for the Rainbow victory here in New York. And the gorgeous
weather….. flowers, glowing green grass and trees…. Happy Summer

Karla June 30, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Mary Ann! I finally got them done. I’m using a Flip camera, which used to be the bomb, but it has been discontinued, and now many parts of the Flip program are no longer working. Yow! So what used to be an easy process has become rather grueling in terms of uploading, editing, and transferring! I just got a new webcam, and I may move to that if I need to film again, because the webcam company is still in business!

But yay! I have contentment because I made these things work, even though I was thwarted!!

michael e. stumpf July 20, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Hi Karla; I really enjoyed your recent you tube videos, amazing! Question: In your intro to emotional vocabulary you mention descriptive words help us understand ourselves & the world around us. I agree. I seem to experience with others in conversation a (dissonance?) when I am using words descriptively for emotions generally or in terms of specifically, there’s this reaction to the word itself???? Am I being in the ballpark of this experience? I have from my perspective tried to skillfully as possible to ride the wave/flow, it just seems to be an ongoing phenomenon. Thanks for any help, Mike

Karla July 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm

Hi Michael.

It can be dodgy to try to name emotions for other people, because you might be wrong, or they might not know what they’re feeling. It’s always a good idea to ask: Are you angry about this (or something like that) if there has been dissonance in the relationship. Let the other person name the emotion, or decide that it’s the wrong one.

Also, since emotions are difficult subjects for most people, stating them out loud can make people uncomfortable.

Is that what you meant?

Michael Stumpf July 21, 2011 at 1:32 am

Hi Karla, I think/feel it’s the second statement that I was referring to. The first is very true. So this uncomfortable dissonance is about beliefs/ideas we have about emotions as you have expressed in your work? Simply by trying to have a open conversation?

Karla July 23, 2011 at 12:41 am

Hi Michael — what I notice is that emotions are hidden things that are right out in the open. They’re often the elephant in the room, and because people don’t have emotional skills, they’d really rather not talk about them. There’s also the old (and wrong) idea that emotions are the opposite of rationality, and that when you have emotions, you can’t think or function. Clearly, this is deeply wrong, but it’s a very powerful old lie.

Somewhere in here, I called it Angry about Anger and Afraid of Fear. The emotions are rarely the problem. It’s what people do with them — or what people do in the presence of the emotions of others — that creates the problems.

Michael E. Stumpf July 23, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Hi Karla I think what else I am trying to speak to is a reference you’ve made to how verbal language evokes emotions. Is it fair to frame your teachings as learning a foreign language, even tho it’s a really, really ancient one. Your approach has helped me bring sanity to my experience of Feelings/Emotions & better expression; one that has given me an acceptance of an open sense of a learning curve . Peace Be Upon You, Mike

Kristen January 24, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Hi Karla, Thanks for this post! I notice that you mention PTSD in your discussion of fear, and I’m wondering how you address the kind of subtle yet persistent sense of overwhelm that often arises from trauma–not the intense episodes of fear and anxiety often associated with PTSD but the more pervasive, under-the-radar sort of sympathetic activation that can persist for years and make daily functioning and engagement with others such a struggle. Is this “overwhelm” an emotion in itself or would you consider it a mood-state of fear? What if the individual is unable to clearly identify the fear within the overwhelm–is it possible the sense of overwhelm and subsequent dissociation are rooted in a combination of emotions (not just fear alone) related to the trauma that have yet to be processed?

Karla January 24, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Hi Kristen!

Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t call that continual activation mood-state fear; instead, I’d call it hyper-vigilance, which can be very uncomfortable because it keeps people too focused and activated, and their adrenaline and cortisol systems can become involved until it sort of snowballs.

But the purpose behind the activation is healthy, even if the symptoms are uncomfortable. The best work I’ve found for this kind of residual activation is Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing. His site is here. He’s got books, audio sets, and an online course through Sounds True that you can work with on your own if you can’t find an SE practitioner near you.

After the trauma is resolved, some forms of gentle Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help people reset their thinking so they don’t fall back into old hyper-vigilance patterns — like imagining hazards everywhere.

Hope that helps!

Kristen January 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

Yes, it does, thank you. I’m becoming more and more familiar with Peter Levine’s work and have had experience with other types of somatic psychotherapy like Hakomi that seek to address trauma. Your description of hyper-vigilance resonates with my experience, and it feels important to hear you distinguish it from other emotions or mood-states; I’ve felt confused trying to identify it as fear or anxiety (or trying to identify tonic immobility as depression/apathy/etc.), and now feel more more compelled to just let it be its own “thing” so to speak. Thank you.

Anonymous February 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

My husband is constantly angry. I’m not sure if it is due to anger issues, type 2 diabetes, or something else. My husband hasn’t held down a job for 14 years but helps with looking after my children. He can be loving but also gets angry very easily and can be verbally abusive. I do not know how to deal with this. I am finding that in response, I am repressing anger and also sadness. I am finding it difficult to deal with my own emotions. I am very confused… If you could shed some light on this issue, it would be very much appreciated. Thank you.

Karla February 16, 2013 at 11:43 am

Hello — I removed your name so that you could have privacy. In men, constant anger is often a sign of depression. Women are more free to cry and show sadness when they’re depressed, but men are socially forbidden to, so their anger often jumps out in front of the sadness, grief, loss, and depression. Certainly, joblessness is a major contributor to depression.

I certainly suggest couples’ counseling very strongly, and there’s this post on depression that may be helpful. Also, when you’ve got someone constantly exploding with anger, you’ve got a person with serious boundary issues, so firm gentleness is called for. You may be correct — in an unsupported situation — to repress your own anger and sadness, because both may be too much for a person in the kind of anger impairment condition he’s dealing with. This is why I suggest counseling. Without support, you can only react to the destabilization in his emotional functioning; with counseling and awareness, he can learn to work more openly and purposefully with what’s actually going on for him.

I’ll also suggest a book called Taking the War Out of Our Words by Sharon Ellison. Her website is here, and you can get some ideas of her work from these audio excerpts and these text excerpts. This work is a wonderful way to learn how to get out of anger and repression cycles — and to truly communicate and connect in the midst of difficulties and conflict.

I hope that helps — it’s time for you two to get some support.

Four ideas that lead directly to emotional confusion - Karla McLaren September 23, 2013 at 3:12 pm

[…] When you can understand emotions as action-requiring neurological programs, you can ask whether the program is appropriate for the situation? If it is, you can support it, and if it’s not, you can help yourself or others take a look at why that program got activated, or why that emotion is so prominent that it steps into situations where another emotion would be more suitable (see the post How much emotion is too much?). […]

Brad Kay June 25, 2014 at 2:19 am

Every day I drift farther from feelings. This is due to my injury: I took such a blow from the doctor’s forceps at birth that it separated me from my very senses. I see double images in each eye, making four where there should be one. My tactile sense is dulled. I have no sense of smell or taste. I have pain in my head. My hearing is perfect. I have come gradually to realize that I live alone in a sensory vacuum. The rug has been pulled out from under me countless times. Every emotion seems phony. Whenever someone was angry or affectionate toward me I used to freeze, not knowing how to respond. Lately this has subsided and now I feel nothing. I have lots of friends, but am close to no one. I find your work interesting because it is utterly alien and you speak a language I cannot understand. I heard you on KPFK last night. Thanks for reading.

Karla June 25, 2014 at 9:12 am

Hello Brad, and welcome. I’m sorry to hear about the many difficulties and injuries you describe. In terms of your emotional functioning, what you are describing sounds to me like alexythymia. Have you heard of that? It’s not a character flaw, but a condition that can arise neurologically, or as a result of trauma or injury. This piece from Scientific American has some good suggestions for easing the effects of alexythymia.

There’s also a book that I talk about in my book, The Art of Empathy: Richard Davidson’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain. in it, Davidson suggests that six aspects of emotional functioning can be changed (increased or decreased) through mindfulness-based approaches. It’s very hopeful.

I hope those are helpful avenues for you.

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