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RailsConf 2019 - Failure, Risk, and Shame: Approaching Suffering at Work by Amy Newell

Amy Newell
Director of Engineering at Wistia
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RailsConf 2019
May 2, 2019, Minneapolis, USA
RailsConf 2019
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About speaker

Amy Newell
Director of Engineering at Wistia

I am devoted to growing and caring for teams of engaged, productive engineers. I have run teams ranging from front end to platform to operations, with up to 5 agile teams at once. I've hired for associate to principal and director level engineers. I've mentored, promoted, counseled, and nurtured engineers at all levels. I’ve managed performance problems and other thorny people issues. I understand the problems of legacy monolithic web apps. I have led teams through times of rapid growth, reorganizations, strategy pivots, financial uncertainty, and other kinds of startup stress. I will ask the dumb questions that turn out not to be so dumb. I chew on problems, like a little terrier, until I find solutions. I promote knowledge sharing, collaboration, code quality, and productivity improvements. I like to solve engineers’ problems so they can focus on delivering product value.

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RailsConf 2019 - Failure, Risk, and Shame: Approaching Suffering at Work by Amy Newell


“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” - The Dread Pirate Roberts

Are you dreading an email from work while you’re at this conference? Ruminating over last week’s outage? Worried you’re not learning enough because you can’t stay focused on the talks?

These are three kinds of suffering we all experience at work: uncertainty, failure, and insufficiency. All three are an inevitable part of our work. But more than that: they are necessary. Join me to learn some ways to approach suffering that can make you happier, healthier, and even a better developer.

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Hi, can I be okay but microphone works. This is great. We are off to a good start. Thank you so much for coming to hear about failure anxiety and shame. I promise this won't be as depressing as it sounds. I mean or I am director of engineering at with SIA a lot of what I do as a manager is help Engineers deal with emotional suffering that they experience in the workplace. I also have bipolar disorder. So I spent basically Decades of my life intensively studying the problem of emotional suffering and I'm really excited to come here and

share some of what I've learned with you. Do you recognize this movie raise your hand if you have seen this movie? Okay good. There's going to be a lot of Princess Bride in this talk. But I will be like giving light notes about the plot points in case you have not seen this movie a little bit of problems with the traditional gender roles here, but it's still really an excellent movie. So I'm life is pain highness. What are we going to cover in this talk? We want to understand the problem.

Suffering at work is inevitable, but our usual approach has actually make things worse. So we create more suffering in our attempt to deal with suffering. I'm going to talk about some types of suffering we encounter at work failure anxiety and shame and sort of what lessons they may or may not have for us or how to get value from them. And then I'm going to offer some ways to navigate your suffering so that you're not producing more suffering in the world. You're actually moving through your suffering to something productive. What I'm not covering

toxic situations and how to change your Escape them poor Buttercup does not want to marry Humperdinck, but she's forced to she can't get out of this terrible situation. She's tried and she hasn't managed. So this talk is not about toxic workplaces. It's not about psychological safety at work. It's not about how to change or escape from these Place their questions of social justice diversity and inclusion all kinds of questions that I'm not going in to hear. They're really important topics. But this talk is about what happens in even the best workplace

possible because you're still going to suffer. This is the pain we cannot Escape. What's the problem work is hard? We don't know what we're doing. We're caught up on to be productive creative and collaborative even in the most psychologically safe of workplaces will feel pain in this process of doing work. We can't work together to do hard things without suffering. But trying to avoid pain is not the most skillful thing to do with it hinders our ability to learn Plan B creative make lives we value

and work well with others Let's talk about our usual responses to pain. One thing we can do is blame others and lash out. It is your fault that production went down even if you have something like blame for your retro that you're not actually pointing fingers or yelling at other people. You can feel that anger inside right? This is someone else's problem and that can come out and toxic Behavior. Even when you're trying your best not to laugh. Another approach to dealing with pain is to turn it inward.

We blame ourselves. I screwed up I made this mistake. I'm I hate myself because I did a bad job. I can't do anything right? It's very hard to move past this to actually be able to begin to fix what's wrong when your stuck in the self-hating mode. Arthur response to pain that is not what I meant to do. Our third response to pain is to numb ourselves. We all do this. This is not like a moral. This is just what we do some of us use alcohol or drugs. I certainly have we might go shopping we might watch YouTube video. There are a

lot of ways we kind of try to take the edge off of our emotional pain. This is not bad. This is normal. It's just there's a problem with it. And the problem is that we can't selectively numb our emotions. When we Nam our emotions when we numb the bad were also numbing the good this is brene brown. She's going to come up later in the talk around Shane because all of her research is around shame. She's great. We can't selectively numb emotion numb the dark and you numb the light. So if you're

numbing yourself you're going to feel less joy in addition to watch pain. worst of all You can begin to avoid situations that cause pain and your life actually shrinks. You might not even know that it's this you might unconsciously begin to avoid things because you think they'll cause pain but it never even Rises to the level of intention that you then choose not to implement. You just don't have the thought you have like made your life smaller in an attempt to avoid pain. Hertz Miracle Max

his life got smaller. He got fired by Humperdinck and he lost his confidence that he could create Miracles. So Wesley here is mostly dead Miracle. Max asks why he should be alive why he should come back to life Wesley says true love and Miracle Max insist that Wesley actually said to blaze and he says I'm not going to make a miracle for someone who just wants to come back to Bluff. It cards. That's not worth. My any of energy. His wife actually has to chase him around yelling Humperdinck comforting comforting until he's

willing to take the effort and risk failing to revive West his life was smaller. This is Tara Brach. She also comes up later in the talk. She's the mindfulness teacher and a psychotherapist the boundary to what we can accept is the boundary to our own freedom. This is the promise of accepting suffering and learning to deal with it. Well bigger lives more freedom. Power with dealing with our pain in all of these ways I've talked about is again, not that they're bad. They're not a moral. We're not bad people for doing this. We're humans. We all do this. It said they

cause more pain they don't reduce our suffering mindfulness teachers will say these are not skillful approaches to suffering. We can talk about the first arrow and the second Arrow. The first arrow is something in the world that causes you pain. There's an outage you produced a bug you got fired a thing that causes pain the second arrow is the suffering that you cause Yourself by throwing more arrows at yourself. It's self-blame is throwing arrows and other people it's numbing yourself. You're increasing the suffering in the world.

You can't do anything about the first Arrow life involves suffering, but we can do things about the second eras. We need to become skillful at stopping second arrows. Let's think about this word skillful. Skillful means of approaching suffering help with limit. The number of second arrows were throwing at ourselves and others and think about that word skilled. This implies of this can be learned. We don't all have to be the Dalai Lama to get more skillful at dealing with suffering we can learn those

skills and start applying them today. You're the warm-up scale practicing gratitude. I was think this sounds a little hokey. But there's a ton of research that practicing gratitude actually works. I got some feedback when I was working on this talk that it could be kind of depressing. Maybe you're sitting in the audience thinking about ways you failed at work or things that are making you anxious right now and it could be a little bit of a downer. So just a list that a little bit I'll be taking a little gratitude breaks throughout

the talk to give us all a break. I would first like to be grateful. for indoor plumbing I don't have to have a chamber pot and I don't have to go out to an outhouse and I can just turn on the sink and get hot water whenever I want. This is really amazing and I hardly ever take the time to be grateful for it. All right. Now we're going to talk about the types of suffering that I promised that we would talk about. Failure something bad happens anxiety something bad might happen. Shane I am bad.

failure something bad happened Buttercup and Westley have just safely emerged from the fire swamp, which is an accomplishment in itself, but they're met by Humperdinck who captures them in separate Sam and murders Westway. This is my pretty big failure. They must have been thinking what could they have done differently. Once they had stayed in hidden in the fire swamp or what if they'd gone a different direction through the fire swamp or what if they hadn't gone to the fire song but they've done something completely different and then

they could have avoided this failure maybe in their heads are just going around and around about how they messed up and now everything is ruined. Failure is not an option as a slogan. I find really offencive. The reality is failure is inevitable. We all experienced failure. We deliver a project late. We bring down for Dakshin. We had fired or laid off both of things that happened to me. Or if we're entrepreneurs we run out of money for a business and we have to shut it down. After I've been a manager for a while and had done a fair

amount of tiring. I had this realization that it was actually going to be impossible for me not to fail at hiring no matter how well-run my interview process has no matter how good references I get. I will hire someone who turns out not to be right for the job. This is extremely painful. It hurts to fix this problem for lots of people. This is going to cause a lot of pain and it also hurts to miss out on a good fit because I'm afraid of suffering the pain of making a mistake. I have to be able to take risks. It's unreasonable with me to think that if I could just

crack this hiring thing. We've one more article about how to do it right that I'm going to get it down and never make a mistake failure is always the possibility. So I better learn to live through the pain it causes. Failure hurts, but it's also how we learn pain is not an unfortunate side effect of learning from failure. It's actually how we learn from failure the pain teaches us that something went wrong when I say no we are not going to have a really long running

Branch for a site redesign and then release it all after many months in one big bang release. It's not because I tried that and I objected we saw that it hurt and I made notes of all the things that went wrong. Those things are useful. I don't want to do that again. Hurt it hurt a lot of people a lot for a long time. so I feel that pain and that's why I don't want to do that thing again. We have a hard time learning from other people's mistakes. Actually, I can tell you 10 things not to do and you may do them all because while I can

give you lessons for my experience, it's much harder to give you the pain from my experience. If I'm a really good Storyteller. I may be able to convey some of the pain to you such that you won't make those mistakes yourself, but only then The pain is what prevents you from doing the thing again? We can actually think of experience as a record of our failures forged through pain. There's actually some research that suggests that focusing on our emotional response to failure like how bad it felt is more productive than coming up with

reasons that we failed so that we don't do those exact things again. The reason for that is that we really don't want to feel the failure. So we're very prone to making up sort of justificatory justifying reasons for why things went wrong. Oh, well, it was this it was that those reasons are not necessarily the reasons the thing actually went wrong, but we need to be able to explain the failure if we can sit with the pain for longer we can actually learn more It's also easy to learn the wrong lesson from

failure. Don't try we need to skillfully manage or failure so that we learn to do better next time not to give up again Miracle Knox his life shrank because he learned that he should just not try because he didn't want the pain. We don't want to shrink Our Lives. We want our lives to be as big as they can be. Here's another gratitude break or done talking about failure. Dismiss my cat and a sheriff's costume. My best friend came over to my house near Halloween

and brats. Of course. She has it at kitty Sheriff costume and and put this costume on my cat and we got a snap and he didn't like it very much but it makes me really happy to look at it. So Anxiety something bad might happen. All right, this is Buttercup and Westley entering the fire swamp. There's a lot of dangers in the fire swamp Rous has flame Spirits lightning Sands. Who knows? What else is really anxious? How are we going to get through? There are very real risks here in software. We also spend a lot of time

dealing with uncertainty anxiety and risk. I'm anxious about the upcoming reorg. This is a big project. I'm in certain of being able to deliver on time. I'm worried about releasing this without testing it more. Anxiety is useful because it helps us the risk. It means we're scanning the world's for threats and hopefully we're able to take action to reduce those threats. A lot of great software engineering processes were developed to reduce anxiety continuous delivery reduces anxiety and risk of anyone

release. If you have API rate limit that increases the predictability of when your system will fail, If you write tests, you're reducing the anxiety of changing your code. These are all great things. Work environments with less like a logical safety will make your anxiety much worse. Too much anxiety actually paralyzes. We stopped being able to D risk and we just start going around and around in our heads about all of the things that can go wrong. This is a problem in the modern world because most of the time we're not just about to enter a fire swamp

sometimes maybe in the modern world. We often feel like we are we need to be skillful to keep our anxiety from overwhelming Us in inappropriate situations such that we can't do anything not everything is a tiger we're not always in a fire swamp when we're anxious too much of the time. It takes a real toll on our health and our ability to respond appropriately to True rest. gratitude break I really like brunch. There's like day drinking there's eggs with like there's tarragon on these

eggs. It's just I want to eat this right now said they did. Just have a great Donut from the great donut place that I can't remember. Excellent. Thank you. All right back to challenging emotion now. Shame Shame is I I'm bad. Sorry. I keep hitting my microphone. Feeling of insufficiency. You don't deserve to be loved like I was in a dream here. She's just about to marry Humperdinck and she dreams that she's been being presented to the crowd and an old woman comes up to her and yells but she is the queen of garbage. She calls her Phil because she's

marrying someone not out of love, but I was kind of suck but she still feels really ashamed of her situation. She feels like garbage. Here's brene Brown again describing shame the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore Unworthy of love and belonging. We all feel this feels really terrible. In software development. Shame Ogden appears is the fear that we are not smart and we don't get things done. I don't know how many of you remember this Book of Joel spolsky is

about hiring Engineers, but it's certainly caused me a lot of imposter syndrome child supposed to key would not hire me. I'm not good enough. What team looks like why can't I stay focused longer? I should be learning that new framework. I'm falling behind. I should be able to fix this bug. also imposter syndrome the result of this kind of suffering might be an addiction to self improvement productivity blogs and systems diets other ways to become better and then maybe finally feel Worthy. There's a nagging sense that

other people out there have their act together and I don't that other people are smarter more qualified better at their jobs. They also have their finances in order and enough toilet paper in their bathrooms. So shame I'm unworthy and bad and I can't get better. This is demoralizing. It prevents us from making changes because it tells us we are unworthy and can't be better. But when we managed scream skillfully, we can separate our behaviors that we might want to change from who we are

as a person Buttercup woke up from that dream decided that she wanted to change the behavior of quietly acquiescing to marriage with Humperdinck, and she went a Humperdinck and told him that she wasn't going to marry him in the end that didn't work out for her, but she did take action. So she took action to change her circumstances even in the face of feeling helpless to do so because she didn't feel good about quietly accepting her fate in our lives. For example, maybe I set up a subscription for toilet paper and then it just arrives on a regular

basis and I never run out of toilet paper again. one more gratitude break you guys recognize this vegetable. You can just go to the grocery store and buy this crazy fractal thing and then spend all Saturday morning staring at it being like this is a crazy frog open how did this exists and then you can cut it up and like saute it with some garlic and oil and eat it. Pictures of amazing to me and it makes me feel really good to look at it. So failure helps us learn anxiety helps us deal with risk. She might not guilt which might help us change our Behavior.

But here's the big question. How do we navigate these painful emotions? Skillfully so we can get the benefit they bring while creating a little additional pain as possible. How do we accept the fact that you will have first eras in our lives and limit the number of second arrows? Let's talk about some skills for suffering. We've already met practicing gratitude. Is anyone pain is temporary? If you don't like the weather wait a minute emotions don't last very long unless we keep feeding them and we can learn to break that cycle

and stop feeding our emotions. Think about a time that you were in pain like this and that it ended remember that pain ends. Pay attention to when your pain lessens our ends and appreciate that moments as we become more skillful with our pain. It won't last as long will throw fewer II arrows. I remember that you're not alone. This is Pema chodron. She's also a meditation teacher suffering is part of life and we don't have to feel it's happening because we personally made the wrong move other people also experience

suffering. It's completely normal. We're not alone in this. One way to remember that you're not alone. It's to share your pain. I feel really anxious about this release. I feel ashamed that I don't understand elasticsearch better by now and it's made it really hard for me to ask for help on this bag. I feel like I'm doing a lousy job. I can't stop thinking about how I screwed up that query and it causes users table to lock up in production. Sharing your pain is shown to reduce its intensity and duration research backs this up

while you're sharing. It can also be a good time to reality check. Am I proceeding the situation accurately what the weather is C is the thing that's causing me pain as bad as it seems to me other people might say yeah, that's risky, but we're doing X Y and Z to mitigate this risk and I feel pretty confident about it. They might say what I see is that you're actually doing a great job in these five ways. Let me tell you. They might say it could have been much worse. I did a similar thing a few weeks ago and nothing really

bad happened as a result Reality Checking to really help you with keeping your pain under control. Suffering can fuel empathy or bitterness you get to choose. A friend told me about his experience hearing others say bad things about a code base. He worked on a lot. He felt ashamed of his old code it helped him to remember the schedule in business constrained. He's been operating under and to remember that he didn't prove this about a first since that time it also resulted in his feeling greater empathy for the

authors of other ugly code and remembering not to bad-mouth other people's old code. He let his suffering leads to empathy not bitterness. Next you can Orient toward your values remember where you're going and why it matters to you. What is this suffering enabling? It's really hard for me to stand up here and talk to you guys about these topics. It was really hard for me to write this talk. It's really hard for me to get on airplanes. I go through that suffering because I feel that I have something I

want to share and that I can add value to the World by doing. So I used the knowledge of what I care about to move through my pain rather than running from it and you can to remember what you care about and why it's important to move through the pain. You can take the next step forward if you're feeling Paralyzed by pain. Just do the next smallest thing when I was feeling stuck in scared about this talk. I took the next smallest step forward. I open keynote and I put my title on a slide and then I immediately change my title.

Sometimes the next smallest step forward might be open the file or read the email. We can get stuck on the tiniest things. But if we take the next step forward, we will feel an immediate reduction in pain almost every time. I'm going to talk about some mindfulness ruffa Sanchez is giving a talk entirely about mindfulness, which I encourage you also to see I'm going to explain one approach to mindfulness. That's particularly helpful for suffering. It's called rain. It was developed by Tara Brach.

recognize allow investigate and nurture first identify when you're feeling pain. This is harder than it sounds it means you have to pay attention to how you're feeling. We're not always good at doing that. Try to notice the moment you reach for someone else to blame or something to take the edge off or you fall into self-hatred and notice. I must be suffering. You might not notice till you wake up with a hangover. You might not notice till you've bought three pairs of shoes. You didn't

need us. You might not notice until you've already snapped at someone else. That's okay. The moment you notice is the moment that's right to stop and pay attention. The other thing to know is that we feel emotional suffering in our bodies as developers. We spend so much time up in our heads. But if you stop and pay attention to your pain, you're going to feel it through your whole body. Recognizing your pain means paying attention to your body and feeling how your pain feels in it. Next allow

your pain drop your stories about how you should feel. Don't try to change what you're feeling research shows that that doesn't work. It just makes it worse. What you should feel is the second Arrow. Don't blame yourself for how you feel. Just let it be at any level of recursion with this. Should I wish I didn't feel this way. Oh, no. I wish I didn't feel that I did wish I didn't feel this way. You can throw in a bridge statement and begin to unwind that stack at any point. You can stop this is okay. This is how I'm feeling now.

Next investigate be curious about your pain. It's not all one saying it might feel like one big thing until he start paying attention to it and it might feel like it will never move or change or go away. But when you pay attention to it, you see it's not like that at all. It's moving and changing and waxing and waning and will go away someday, like everything else does this is the experiential evidence of the thing I said earlier that pain is temporary. What's your thoughts on the stories that go along with it? That's part of investigating your pain, but try not to get caught up in

them. Two metaphors that people often talked about for watching your thoughts is think of each thought as a train car going fast on a track you don't have to attach to it. You can just notice it also think of them as clouds passing in the sky. Again, you don't have to attach just watch it go past. The next step is to nurture. This is mindful self-compassion again. This sounds pretty hokey. There is a ton of research backing this up that this is helpful treat yourself as you would treat a friend who was in pain. Would you say to

that friends? They came to you with what your suffering you wouldn't berate them. You wouldn't point out all the mistakes. They had made you want to tell them all the things that might go wrong in the future. You would wish them. Well, you would want them to be happy. You would try to remind him of the good things in their lives and you would sit lovingly with them as they suffered you can do this for yourself. I put my hand on my heart and I say may I be happy. May I be safe? May I be free from Pain you can use whatever phrase resonates with you. I really

recommend you try this though. It's really helpful Show Yourself compassion for the pain that you're suffering. The last step after you've done nose is to rest and awareness that you're the sky you are not the clouds. You're not your thoughts. You're not your feelings. You're not you're hunched stomach. You're not your heart that's hurting your something bigger your the sky. When we become confident that we can navigate our suffering or possibilities expand. We stopped running from the pain and we actually suffer

less and we have more room for living the better. We are able to tolerate feeling bad the more successful we can be Is Wesley he is still pretty much mostly dead. He's trying to get into the castle to save Buttercup. There are fifty guards outside the castle and they've got three people and not much else if we only had a holocaust cloak and a wheelbarrow he says, in fact, they do have both those things but Wesley is navigating his suffering really confidently and I can guarantee you that if they didn't have a holocaust cloak or a wheelbarrow he would

just look around for something else. That's skillfully managing his pain. Skillfully moving through your suffering will make you happier healthier and a better developer. That's what I promised. So I'm going to talk about ways. This is going to make you a better developer. I hope the ways that make you feel happier and healthier are already kind of obvious at this point. So you owe me a better team member because you're going to have more empathy for the other people on your team. You also take your pain out on your co-workers Wes because you'll learn to recognize pain more

quickly in the process before you yelled at someone. You'll be free to take more risks. You won't be so scared of the consequences. You'll learn more from your failures because you'll tolerate the pain of the failure better and you won't immediately rush to possibly incorrect conclusions about what you should or shouldn't do next time. You'll be more productive because your pain will lose its grip on you. You'll spend less time having to numb yourself lest I'm saying. All right. I'm just going to look at Facebook again because

I can't figure out this bag and I feel crappy about that. You'll be more productive. Life hurts. We are all in this together. Let's try to stop running from the pain pay attention and be compassionate not just to other people or cells. This is a practice. There's no moments. You will have mastered it. Good luck. Here's some resources. If you haven't seen The Princess Bride, I do recommend it and you can go check out the mindfulness talk next Jennifer to is giving a talk on burnout where she talks about some of the stuff. I

didn't talk about toxic situations and kind of how to deal with those. I hope you'll try out some of the things I talked about some of the skills for dealing with suffering check out. The resources. Catch me around the conference or on Twitter if you want to talk more Have fun storming the castle. Thank you. I guess I have is this correct that I have like four minutes for questions if people want to ask questions. That's a great question. So the question

was if you're a manager and you're having one-on-ones with other people on your team, how do you begin to be able to talk to them about their pain that I repeat that correctly? Okay. So I think the first thing is that you really need to, you know have been establishing a good good and trusting relationship with those people to begin with the second thing. Honestly, that really can help is just too in a situation where you think they might be feeling pain. Say you might be feeling pain.

I try to check in with people if you know, there's been a bug that they were involved with or something went wrong. And I suspect that they might be feeling bad about it. I check in. How are you feeling? This is going to be okay. How can I help do you need a break, you know, sometimes the best thing to do if someone's in a lot of pain to say hey, do you just want to go home and you know go for a walk? I think those are I think Those are some of the techniques you can use

for that. But really the first thing is to ask. Hey, are you feeling bad and can I help with that? Okay. So the question is what is my opinion about five whys I think like any process they I think like any process it can sometimes be useful in some circumstances and sometimes can go subtly wrong in other ways. And so I think if you're feeling in an environment that the five eyes are not being helpful than that would be so kind of a pain Point talk about with

whoever's running the 5 whys there might be like sort of little interventions that can be done to make that better. But I also think that one thing can help whenever you're doing kind of any kind of retro is to acknowledge the pain that might be in the room that might be subtly affecting how people are behaving but they're not talking about it because there's this notion that we're not supposed to bring those feelings to this kind of meeting whether we're supposed to or not. We bring our feelings to this meeting. So I think talking about them

and openly acknowledging them can sometimes help move the move this in a better Direction. Okay. So the question is if people don't think emotions are appropriate in particular kinds of meetings or possibly at work. Generally I would consider that to be a kind of toxic situation that you can try to move the culture by talking about. You know, if you grow on like Harvard Business Review, right? There's plenty of articles about how do you link with emotion in the

workplace actually make that workplace more productive I manage thinking about emotional not just because I think it's important to treat people like humans but also because it's more productive for businesses keeping pretending emotion is not there. It's not productive. Set of question is how can I help people work through sort of additional pain that they may be putting on themselves without discounting the original pain. Can you give an example of how you worried that you might be discounting that original pain? Right. Okay. So I think the thing to do in a

situation like that. Oh, sorry to repeat the question. There's a concern that saying if someone broke production that Saying oh no, we've done it. You know, it don't don't worry about it is discounting their pain. So the approach that I would use instead is to say hey, I know you're feeling awful. We all feel awful when we break production. That's okay. It's also important for you to know that it's okay that production was broken both those things are okay and just maybe listen to how they're feeling for a little while. I'm and not expect that pain to go

away immediately just to let it be I think I'm out of time now. So thank you so much everyone.

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