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Are you confident?

19 Sep

Ask yourself: Am I confident?

Got an answer?

I anticipate a few different responses:

  1. “Hell yeah, baby! I’ve got it going on!”
  2. “Um, I guess. It kinda depends on the situation.”
  3. “I wish I was more confident. I struggle with having pretty low self-esteem.”

Obviously the answers can vary tremendously, but I’d say that like most aspects of behavior, your answer for your level of confidence will operate on a continuum.

You’re likely thinking that you should be able to answer the question with something close to #1, yet avoiding what would be construed as arrogance and pretentiousness.

Research indicates that lack of confidence is actually healthy. It’s a driver for assessing your weaknesses and learning more in order to better yourself. Don’t confuse this please with a lack of self-efficacy and learned-helplessness. No, you weren’t born with your intelligence being genetically determined. Genes are important, yes. They provide the foundation for what makes us, well, us. However, it’s the environment and how we think and what we do and the activities that we engage in that unlock our genes and govern their expression.

Experience changes our brains in substantial ways. Mindful awareness exercises produce noticeable increases, for example, in brain matter density in the areas responsible for attention and emotion regulation. Why? Because with effort put toward this behavior and our attention being directed in this intentional manner, we increase blood flow to those areas. More blood flow means more nutrients and capillaries growing in those regions.

But back to confidence– if your confidence tank was always topped off how often would you be motivated to try something new, read a book, ask questions, meet people, engage in a challenging conversation, or take lessons to strengthen your skill in a particular area?

competenceIn his book, Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic explains how when you look past confidence, what you find is an underlying desire to be competent. We often confuse the two concepts. In essence, when you say, “I lack confidence”, what you’re really expressing doubt about is your competence level in a certain area.

Competence is actually a key factor in our level of motivation and the determination we implement toward a goal. One of our basic psychological needs, it represents our felt sense of mastery and skill. If we hear ourselves saying, “I doubt I can do this” or “I’m not confident I can succeed with this” perhaps this isn’t negative at all, as many people would think it is. I’ve heard plenty of people comment in reply to statements like this, “Have faith!” or “Have confidence! It’ll happen!” Is it important to be positive? Sure. There’s plenty of research that shows a positive attitude changes the biochemistry in our bodies, results in improved health and immunity, and even changes the outlooks of those around us. But let’s not be unrealistically optimistic. “I doubt I can do this” gives us impetus to ask the next question, “What do I need to consider as I move forward?” and “Are there obstacles that I might encounter along the way, and how might I prepare for them?” Anticipating in this manner creates an environment that leads us in the direction of greater competence, and confidence will follow!


The colors are there– you just aren’t seeing them…

29 Jun

Living in Full ColorI’ve heard a lot over the last week, “I’ll try, Kori.”

On the other end of the continuum I’ve heard, “I won’t _____________ (fill in the blank)” or “Every day I will _________________.”

On one extreme are half-hearted attempts at changing a behavior (perhaps unconscious), and on the other are absolutes that just might fall through the cracks and result in feelings of failure and discouragement (also often unconscious).

The middle ground? The space between the event and the response.

The space where breathing takes place, slowing down, critical assessment of what needs attention in the present moment, and an honest noticing of what is right here, right now.

It’s a space where we recognize what holes we’re dragging ourselves into through our distorted and unrealistic, completely off-base thoughts and perceptions.

A space that welcomes creativity and a turning over of our well-worn beliefs and stories that so often were not written by us but that we’re living out.

A space that reveals the fresh earth beneath the hardened and biased outer shell that we barely take notice of.

It’s a space of vulnerability that often unveils the shame driving our behaviors. It’s a gap filled with ‘aha’ moments we’ll never have unless we give ourselves permission to step into it.

It’s a time where we realize we’ve adopted someone else’s goal.

A moment when the fog lifts and even if painful we decide to let someone or something go that we’ve been clinging to.

A glimpse of our power and our courage.

A reach toward compassion for what we’ve left behind and forgotten, or actively thwarted and stuffed away because we erroneously believed it needed to be hidden from others.

This middle ground– the space– is always there. We rarely, however, give ourselves permission to experience it. It’s inside of us. Ever taken the time to finally clean off your computer monitor and you’re struck by the clarity of the screen? The vibrant colors that pop out at you? The colors have always been there- you just weren’t seeing them.

Behavior change is hard. Just thinking about being different or doing something different is exciting. Totally different ballgame when you’re in the throes of the intentionality and practice that comes along with it.

If you’re not used to looking for the colors, you have to start looking for them. And you have to look for them constantly. You have to stop running from yourself and what you give to yourself, be it a thought, a feeling, or a behavior. Each of these may be inappropriate, ugly, or incongruent from what or how you believe you should be thinking, feeling, or behaving, but none of that matters.

They are colors. And when you see them, you can paint with them. You as the artist. Your life as the canvas.

The middle ground is a place of opportunity. A place where we can ask “What if?” and see what comes up rather than an obstacle in our path. It may be fear. It may be doubt. It may be excitement. Or it may be anticipation. But with each of these also comes a choice. Will you give yourself permission to see the full spectrum of the fear? Can you walk from the deep, pulsating reds that screaming “Stop! Don’t take another step!” to the calming “Come this way, it will be okay” life-giving greens?

I think you can.

Don’t Kill the Messenger!

31 May

At the conclusion of my workshop earlier this week one of the participants expressed concern about the utility of a particular tool I’d recommended. I gave everyone 10 different tools to begin putting into practice that would set them on a course toward navigating the barriers we so often trip over and give permission (not often consciously) to minimize our goal persistence.

The tip, BOYCOTT THE ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, suggests that we would do well to become more open to experiencing what life hands us, to pay attention, to slow down, and to savor.

Open to ExperienceBoycotting the zombie apocalypse means we aren’t operating in the misconstrued land of “ignorance is bliss.” No. In fact, deciding to disengage from the automatic pilot mode that so many of us move through our days with, gives us hope for a new level of authenticity and importantly, choosing goals that actually resonate with who we are.

So my workshop attendee’s concern went something like this: “Kori, I’m getting stuck in the part where you talk about letting yourself experience emotion. Like pain. I’m worried that if I let myself feel it, I’ll just wallow in it.”

She related her perceived tendency to stay steeped in emotion, as so many of us do. But not because we’re consciously making a decision to invite it in and acknowledge it… when we get overwhelmed by pain, it is more a function of believing the thoughts that we’ve constructed about the meaning of our pain. And often the thoughts are distorted and untrue.

It is our nature to feel coherent and integrated. You know when you feel uncomfortable– like something is awry. Our bodies signal us through symptoms like an increased heart rate, lack of concentration or focus, or fidgeting. Our thoughts can clue us in to how we might be experiencing a situation as well, for example, “you’ll never finish this project”, or “he’s very angry with you right now.” These thoughts give rise to feelings that manifest in our physical bodies and can cause a host of behaviors. When we’re in zombie land, we move impulsively. We react. If we can slow down when we recognize these cues, we can respond in a more coherent, integrated manner.

It’s not our nature to tend toward wallowing and staying in the center of discomfort- we want to feel like we’re well oiled and calibrated. The body strives toward equilibrium as well. However, if, for instance, my workshop participant grew up in an environment where by staying emotionally engaged and emotionally intense she received attention and nurturing, perhaps her concern is valid. There were positive consequences for her to remain in the emotionally volatile place, despite its being uncomfortable and disintegrating.  Now, in her adult life, such behavior is likely not so effective. She gets to learn a new way of being with her emotion, and still “using it”, but in a different manner.

The pain is the messenger. When we try to push it away versus inviting it in and acknowledging it, we in essence, tell ourselves that we’re unimportant and that our bodies are misguided and we can’t trust them. I read this equation that is helpful to remember: Pain x Resistance = Suffering

Listen and LearnIf we resist the pain, we kill the messenger…and the message. And the messenger can be delivering some astoundingly revelatory and insightful information to us….if we’re willing to listen.

We don’t have to wish for pain or not-so-comfortable experiences. What I am implying is that through the adoption of a more open nature and a boycotting of the zombie apocalypse, you will experience a wealth of benefits including: greater emotional regulation and resilience in the face of difficult circumstances; higher thresholds for experiencing threats or stress; viewing all experiences as opportunities for growth and learning; fewer inclinations toward awareness distracting activities like television, video games, or compulsive behaviors such as binge eating; and the adoption of goals that are not only personally meaningful and relevant, but the ability to pursue them with persistence.

So don’t kill the messenger. The messenger is your friend. And as Carl Rogers once said, “All the facts are friendly” (1961).

Can you trust your struggle?

13 Feb

Lean Into DiscomfortI’ve been practicing more and more  “leaning in” to my anxiety.

Using what I notice my body is conveying to me– the racing mind, lack of focus, tense shoulders, heavy sighs, and fidgitiness — as a signal to tune in to the feeling as opposed to galvanizing my energy to run away from it, I find I’m not less comfortable like you might think would occur. In fact, when I realize that I am the same as my experience (I am the anxiety), there is nothing to run away from.

When I do this I think of the saying,  “Wherever you go, there you are.” We suffer most when we attempt to push away from us what we are experiencing, right?

If we are our experience though, we are one with it. If we absorb our experience, we relieve ourselves of rigidity. If we refrain from building a wall that we mistakenly think will protect us from it, we respond with greater flexibility. We are more resilient.

Like the reboundability and quick recovery that athletes practice — the  mental toughness that we all desire more of.

Trust Your Struggle

Like a willow tree that bends in the wind yet remains firmly planted in the ground.

Like the water you slide into when you immerse yourself into a warm bath.

If we learn to lean into our discomfort, won’t we suffer less? Grow more?

Can you trust your struggle?

The Secrets to Success Aren’t Secrets at All–Strive and You Will Thrive!

13 Nov

Yup. Here I go again. Doing a running pole vault onto my “you’ve gotta fail to prevail” soapbox.

How can I not go there when research resoundingly and repeatedly supports the concept of goal striving for success. The individuals who “make it” have worked for it.

Striving, by definition, is action oriented! It’s powerful and carries an inertia about it that was brought front and center for me this weekend with so many of my clients competing in some very challenging shows. Some individuals, having dieted for over a year, exemplified what striving truly is: 1. To exert much effort or energy; endeavor. 2. To struggle or fight forcefully; contend. They knew what they wanted and they took the steps necessary to get there. Certainly not always easy, they contended with obstacles that threatened their ability and motivation to continue. Some questioned the reasons they were making the effort. Some were unwavering in their pursuit but acknowledged that they were suffering in some ways. Others dug deep enough each day, each moment, and exerted whatever energy they could to stay positive and mentally tough. No matter how they got to their goal, each of them failed in some way along the course. But they kept going.

What makes the difference between those individuals who decide to throw in the towel, adopt an “I’ll never be able to…” attitude, or believe they “just don’t have what it takes”  and the “all-in” folks?

Who are my weight loss clients who achieve success?

Who are my competitive clients who achieve their personal bests?

Who are the kids in our country who go on to college, graduate from college, and start successful careers DESPITE what would appear all odds being stacked against them– single parent homes, low incomes, poor modeling.

The ones who struggle and keep going.The ones who fall apart, pick up the pieces, look for alternatives, and move forward. And the ones who don’t expect to get something for nothing.

I could continue this blog with a rant about the election and what appears to be a country that is expecting handouts– yes, a lot of the younger population voted for a president who appears to want to increase reliance on the government, and I can only imagine what this might mean for the next generation– but I’ll stick to the facts.

Go all the way back to attachment theory, which states that kids need a nurturing relationship and environment to grow up in, especially in the early stages of development, to learn how to self-soothe, develop a measure of emotional management skills, and delay gratification. Recall Carol Dweck of Stanford who developed the theories of growth and fixed mindsets, and her research demonstrating how children who believe their achievements come from hard work and effort (extrinsic drivers) as opposed to being born with brains or without ( you can reference her studies in her book Mindset and my articles which describe what she found) expect to make mistakes and will try at something repeatedly before giving up. You’ve got the studies done with students who’ve come from various educational systems and socioeconomic backgrounds as well, and no, it’s not the kids who score highest on their SAT’s and ACT’s who are most likely to go to college and actually graduate. It’s the kids who get good grades in high school– the GPA is more indicative of college success than standardized achievement tests. Over and over again we see that it’s the work, time, effort, and perseverance toward the goal that makes the difference.

How come then, do I meet so many people who  1) expect for the journey toward whatever they’ve got their sights set on, to be easy; and 2) believe that something must be wrong if they can’t skate through the process without trips and stumbles?

Ask yourself this too: how often do you end up frustrated and mad, disappointed, or despondent because you can’t figure something out right away? Be honest. I’ve worked with many an individual and the word “breathe” is often one of my first pieces of advice when I see that crazed look in their eyes as if to say, “HELP ME!!!” I’ve also been met with this statement far too many times than I’d like to admit: “You’ve never had to struggle with something like this, Kori.” Or my favorite, “You wouldn’t understand. It’s always been easy for you.”

Ahem! Perhaps it’s not that it has been easy more than it has looked easy because I expect that in order to meet my goals I am going to suffer a bit, squirm around and not get what I want immediately, and wallow in the toil that comes with the minutiae and small steps toward the grand achievement. This is exactly what one researcher from UCLA has shown recently in his studies with children regarding teaching and learning.

As a graduate student Jim Stigler traveled to Japan to learn about the teaching methods there and how they compared to the approaches most often implemented in the U.S. What did he find? While there it became clear just how differently the children themselves took the learning process. They expected to struggle! They understood, because of the teaching style, that struggling was their opportunity to test their mental metal! They knew that solving problems meant being able to withstand the emotional conflict often experienced when you have to persevere as you trudge through the muck.  This is a far cry from the “you either get it or you don’t” mentality, right?
There has been a lot of coverage in the news recently about how far behind U.S. school children are in academics as compared to children in other countries. Teachers start out getting paid a lot more than in other countries. The class sizes are smaller. U.S. children spend more time overall in the classroom per year than most other countries’ kids. And yet they rank 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading. I’m not writing this to blame teachers. What I am proposing is that this has a lot more to do with the focus being in the wrong place. Academics are important. There is no arguing that point. But if we focus ONLY on academics  and getting the right answer versus what it takes to come by the answer, aren’t we missing the boat?

In his book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, Paul Tough described the differences found between children who acquired their GED versus those who graduated from high school, when their educational path was followed. 46% of high school graduates, at the age of 22 years, were enrolled in a university. Care to guess the percentage of GED recipients? Try 3%.  Factors such as annual income, employment rate, illegal drug use, and even divorce were considered, and GED holders looked just like high school drop outs. AND they are considerably more intelligent than high school dropouts! So what does this mean?

Cognitive ability, while important, did not net these individuals success. So what did? And what traits can you begin to learn to be that steadfast, determined, mentally tough, driven individual? Each one of us knows someone like this– that person we want to emulate and just soak up as much of their energy as we can. Here’s what they’ve got:

Many of these traits and skills are related to one another. For example, an individual who can manage his emotions effectively (i.e. discern stress and calm himself down so he doesn’t become overwhelmed to the point of giving up) can delay gratification in order to focus for a longer period of time on one step toward the bigger goal. Behavioral flexibility would allow the dieter who has been exercising daily but has just gone on a business trip and has no access to a gym to anticipate how she might work out while she’s gone but in a different way, for example, a hotel room workout.

Allow me to repeat. You must learn how to strive in order to thrive. You must learn how to fail if you want to prevail.

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated failures. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ~Calvin Coolidge


30 Oct

Motivation could be the buzzword of the century.  Serious. Who doesn’t hear it at least once a day? If you’re into fitness and health and you’ve got goals, you have likely thought long and hard about what is going to keep you motivated and moving toward the finish lines you’re racing toward.

Not to throw an obstacle in your path, but I’m here to tell you that as great as motivation feels, and as much as you think that it’s motivation guiding you in the direction of a lean body, being removed from your diabetes meds, developing increased patience, or learning how to more optimally recover from setbacks, for example,  it’s not the end all be all to reaching success.

A long-time client of mine was in for training just recently and after her workout stood there looking discouraged. She had just finished up an intense leg session and anyone watching could easily have cast her as pretty hard core! But what she was feeling was nothing short of downtrodden. “I need motivation…” she stated forcefully. She actually looked up at Evan and said, “I need you to motivate me!” Evan looked at her thoughtfully and said, “What’s going on?”

Frustration oozed from her. In a flash she made it clear that she knew what to do, but she just wasn’t doing it. She wanted to lose weight but wasn’t doing what it would take to make it happen.

I would argue in this case that she was motivated–she was training regularly and she had just acquired a stable job. But what she was lacking was  volition– will & desire combined.

Many of us say we want things. I want to be able to say no to food. I want to have better energy. I want a new job. I want to run a marathon. I want to visit Italy. I want to write a book. I want to …..

The thing is, wants just hang there if we do not actively CHOOSE to take a step toward them. The old saying “Where there is a will, there’s a way” is spot on. Will is mental. Choosing is mental. And acting starts in the brain.  So would it not be accurate to say that motivation is created? My client was motivated, but unless she intentionally stopped to decide what direction she wanted to go in and how she was going to get there, she’d be locked in the perpetual hamster wheel.

Motivation can elude any one of us, no matter how much drive or ambition or determination we have. I’ve been asked a million times “How do you get it all done?!” Am I motivated? At times I feel like I’m driving in a car whose windshield has been egged. I do what I do because I know that I need to, because sometimes I have to, and most times because I don’t want to bear the intense disappointment I’ll face if I don’t!

How many times have I written about how we often act impulsively? I think so I do. I want so I get. I crave so I eat. I feel so I emote. When you behave this way though, how often does it go the way you want it to? How often are your expectations met?

Your motivation level cannot be your guide for accomplishment. If it is you can guarantee you’ll get lost, stuck, and spinning your wheels. Volition, however, means you’ve got the ball. You’re volleying. You’re moving around the court, diving, passing, dodging, and assessing. You’re committed to getting to finishing the race.

What do you do when you notice your motivation is waning? And do you allow it to drag you under, stifling your will and determination?

Three C’s of Mental Toughness

26 Sep

Karen’s world crumbled when her professor said to her with skepticism, “You haven’t figured out what you want to do yet, have you?”  With a furtive glance, she bowed her head. Embarrassed to have demonstrated such a lack of conviction toward a specialization in her program, she replied, “I guess you’re right.”

“You can do anything you want to do, Karen. You don’t have to pick marketing as your primary area of study in business.”

How will you choose to perceive your situation?

Retreating from the meeting feeling lost and hopeless, she spent a few days spiraling, various thoughts bouncing around in her brain like tennis balls. She couldn’t dodge them. As one rolled away, another came flying at her. What do I do? Why have I spent so much time studying this particular area? If I don’t go into marketing, what DO I go into? How do I know what path to take with my job if I don’t know what I’m going to study?

As she told me the story of the seven days that had passed since our last discussion, the pace of her speech became rapid throughout the high tension areas, words tripping over one another. She explained that after two or three days she knew she needed to get a handle on her thoughts. Her concentration was suffering, she wasn’t sleeping, and her work was suffering.  As she recounted the situation, she was noticeably agitated.

I interrupted her here and asked if I could tell her a personal story.  “Please!” she stated eagerly.

“Karen, I went into counseling having no idea it’s what I wanted to do until I had already graduated from college with a degree in exercise physiology and then started dating a guy who was working on his PhD in psychology. When I enrolled in the graduate program I remembered in 8th grade that I was named a “Natural Helper.” Funny, I thought, how that part of my personality was resurfacing eight years later.  I had started college as a vocal performance major, then I changed my major to broadcast journalism after one year. I attended a career fair and met some women who worked for the local news channel.  The women at the fair made it clear that I could never expect to make a very good living, that it would take a long time to work my way up the ranks of getting good assignments, and it would just be really hard.  I wasn’t confident or discerning enough to soak up their words objectively and weigh them for myself, and with disappointment, I changed my course of study yet again.

Prior to enrolling in graduate school though, Karen, the program advisor told me that I hadn’t had enough life experience to expect to do well in the counseling program!”

I stopped here for effect—and because I am still in awe that someone who is in a profession embodying growth, acceptance, and awareness could make such a black and white statement.

Understand your WHY!

“This time though I didn’t let his words steer me in a new direction. I didn’t perceive them as limiting. I saw them as a challenge, and I committed to prove him wrong!  One, with my perception tilted toward the positive, my actions were galvanized in strength, determination, and perseverance.  Two, and here’s my other big point, Karen…. did I ever, for a single moment, believe that I would be where I am right now? I knew I loved to write. I knew I loved to perform. I knew I loved to be active and that health, fitness, and nutrition were passions of mine. How the heck did I go from vocal performance to working at The Diet Doc as the Wellness Director, creating the Mental Edge program, managing our nutrition consulting programs, writing for magazines, giving lectures, writing a book? You don’t know where you’re going to be 10 years from now, and you may not know exactly what you want to study, but you know where your passions lie! You know what you’re interested in. You know what your talents are!  You know what is important to you and what your values are! AND….all of those things can grow and change as well.

Every person who comes into your life, every situation, every circumstance can mean opportunity for you. But you have to be open to them and you must recognize how your perception of your circumstances is governing your reaction to it.”

She laughed—a knowing, assured chuckle.

“Kori, after those few days I felt like I just needed to purge everything that was in my head. I decided to clean! I started with the frig and just threw out all the old food that I knew wouldn’t get eaten. Then I moved to the cupboards…”

She paused and we giggled at the same time, similar thoughts shared just through our knowing, familiar connection.  This was a metaphor for a clearing of space in her life for a new challenge. A novel commitment was being made to approaching her situation differently.

“Then I went to my bedroom and organized my dresser drawers, getting rid of the clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and knew I wouldn’t.  I felt such a sense of clarity when I was done.  You’re right.  My sense of being out of control all came from my perception that I needed to have everything planned out.”

“You may take this new job you’re applying for,” I said,  “with the understanding that you’re going to learn some valuable lessons and that it’s a stepping stone. But to what you can’t necessarily predict. What you can predict is that change is inevitable.”

Hans Selye, who in the 1950’s coined the term ‘stress’, explained how stress is a response.  We often hear people express statements like “I’m so stressed.” This would indicate a feeling or a reaction to a stimulus.  On the opposite end of the continuum is a statement of stress AS the stimulus, for example, “I have a lot of stress to contend with.” Selye called the stress response the General Adaptation Syndrome, signifying the inevitability of stress and the unavoidable nature of it but also the imperative that we adapt and respond to it effectively in order to survive! Karen certainly was surviving in the midst of her stress, however, had she perceived her professor’s statement differently and the meaning of his words, she would have moved from surviving to thriving.

Control, a key psychological factor in stress protection, was what Karen felt she was lacking in this situation. Dr.  Suzanne Kobasa, a researcher at New York University has studied this concept in the context of disease and health.  Related significantly to self-efficacy, a term for the confidence in the ability to learn and grow, control embodies a belief that one can influence their surroundings and circumstances and have a role in making things happen. I like to call this industriousness.  As Karen became more aware of her thoughts and feelings, she was able to call into question their impact on her sense of control.  Dr. Kobasa emphasizes such activity as imperative to developing control—being willing to ask oneself tough questions about life, development, and changes that can be made within one’s response repertoire.

Secondarily, Karen’s immediate response immediately moved her away from a position of commitment.  Commitment encompasses an awareness of mind and body moment to moment, in essence the ability to pay attention and be in tune for the purpose of doing whatever it takes to remain in a state of positive equilibrium in order to thrive. Dr. Kobasa explains commitment as being fully engaged in day to day activities and giving them your best effort.

Finally, after a few days of stewing, the stress eventually dissipating with effort, Karen began to perceive her situation as a challenge.  Rather than viewing it as confining, she saw it as a door being opened to new possibilities.

“People who are high in challenge,” Dr. Kobasa explains, “see change as a natural part of life that affords at least some change for further development.”

This was the Karen I had seen emerging during our weekly work together.  Her mind, through focused effort on consciousness-raising and being attentive to physical and psychological cues, had expanded toward perceiving whatever situation she was in as an opportunity for growth– a personal enrichment project!

Change is a sure thing!

We reviewed the three C’s, and as our conversation came to a close and she thanked me in her characteristically kind and gracious way she said, “I’d like to add a fourth C, Kori.  Change. I’m recognizing and accepting the fact that it’s inevitable.  This moment-to-moment awareness practice is allowing me to be okay with that, perceive it more positively, and trust that I’ll be okay within it!”

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