Tag Archives: Self Care

Whitespace

whitespace

Big Creek Greenway – Cummings, GA

At the GLS event I mentioned a couple of months ago, I heard Juliet Funt speak on the concept of “whitespace“: that business of intentionally creating a space for NOTHING so that creativity can emerge in the workplace.  An excellent reminder and validation of my love for this concept in our personal lives.  Our culture is driven by the need for constant activity and most of us are completely enslaved to the merry go round.  There are two main traps we tend to fall in for this obsession with activity: The trap of achievement – believing that we are only as worthwhile as our productivity…hence there’s never a time we can feel at peace when we are still.  Or, there is the trap of emotional avoidance.  Sitting still becomes a dangerous dynamic to be avoided at all cost because it allows one’s pain and anxiety to emerge!   Often, you’ll hear folks caught in these traps exclaim, “Oh, I have no time for that”, or “Oh my goodness, I would go crazy sitting around doing nothing” when presented with the idea of rest, retreat, white-space.  I chuckle internally when I hear these tell-tale words.

The reality is, we absolutely need quiet time in order to grow.  There’s the irony – so often, we go, go, go because we’re trying to achieve, to progress, to accomplish.  All the while, in the absence of appropriate down-time, we’re actually moving backward.  Often, without realizing it until it’s too late.  The epiphany typically arrives in the form of physical illness because our bodies keep score and when we ignore it’s need to rest and recuperate, it eventually takes its revenge.

My focus today though is the emotional aspect.  This blog is about personal transformation.  With that in mind, where does white-space fit in?  Transformation begins with awareness, continues with learning and is then cemented by action.  In order for new learning to be integrated, it must be consolidated – a process that cannot happen during activity.  It only happens during times of quiet.  Have you ever noticed that you attend an amazing workshop where you learn great concepts but weeks later, you’re struggling to remember what you found so revolutionary?  Or, perhaps you pulled an all-nighter in college, studying for a big test and then drew a complete blank on so much during the exam?  These are examples of what happens to learning without white-space.  If we do not take the time to STOP and reflect on our new awareness, understanding and insight, we don’t retain it.  We don’t act upon concepts we don’t retain and thus, we stay stuck in patterns of dysfunction.

When clients have covered a lot of territory in session, I always warn them to take some downtime within the next 24 hours to let their work consolidate.  Eventually, I teach them to build this space into their regular routine so that there is ongoing room to grow and they don’t have to scramble for it when life brings them new opportunities.  Personally, I try to model this in my own life, regularly spending time in nature.  This week, during a quick trip to GA, I asked my host about the local parks and was guided to a fabulous nature trail.  My friend and I remarked how just one hour on the trail made such a difference in our mental outlooks…not to mention how much better our bodies felt after hours of driving the day before.

You may find yourself resonating with these words, making promises to yourself to find more white-space in your life but if you are caught in one of the two traps I mentioned, it’s easier said than done.  Your source of worthiness must be addressed if you are to ever make peace with stillness.  You must acquire the skills of emotion management if you are to become willing to let frightening feelings emerge.  Likely, you have specific family stories that have left you ill-equipped or believing lies that will forever hold you back.  If you don’t know how to work on cars, don’t you take your vehicle to a mechanic?  If you never learned to work on appliances, don’t you call a repair company for your broken refrigerator?  Yet somehow, when we recognize a gap in our mental or emotional skills, we hesitate to contact a therapist who is trained in the very skills we lack.  Strange, isn’t it?  Consider breaking that trend and give us a call if you realize your struggle to create white-space goes deep into territory you haven’t yet mastered!

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Every day I’m hustlin’

codependent

codependent

[koh-di-pen-duh nt] 
adjective

1.

of or relating to a relationship in which one person is physically or psychologically
addicted, as to alcohol or gambling, and the other person is psychologically dependent
on the first in an unhealthy way.
noun

2.

one who is codependent or in a codependent relationship.

“Codependent” is so overused at this point and has come to mean just about any version of an unhealthy relationship.  I want to use a different term – one I’m borrowing from Brene Brown’s vernacular…she calls it hustling for love.

I’m referring to this business of denying or minimizing self in order to be, do or say what another person wants.  We take care of things the other should be handling in order to make ourselves indispensable.  We hustle like this because we want to be loved.  We don’t trust that we will be loved as we truly are and so we put on masks, we become something we are not, we enable, in order to be what we think will be loved.  The problem with all of this though is that when love comes our way, only our false self can receive it.  Underneath, our true self never receives love and so we spend our lives unfulfilled and lonely, even in the presence of loving others.

The issue has been top of mind lately due to many conversations with a friend who has been focusing on this in his life.  What we have taken great notice of is the fact that once awareness is gained, once root issues of self worth are tackled, the ultimate step of healing involves doing: engaging relationships from one’s new position of awareness and worth.  But what if you don’t have any “others” in your life, qualified to take the journey with you?  What if you have only gathered others who need a hustler?  Who don’t know what to do with an authentic self?  This is an issue we don’t often see anyone discussing.  All the books and articles focus on what needs to change within us and how to behave differently, but I haven’t found anyone discussing the others.  So here goes:

  • When we begin the work of examining the way we relate to others and the roots of those relational styles, we must also begin the work of identifying the characteristics of healthy “others”.  Many of us have not been exposed to enough examples.
  • We need to also brainstorm where healthy others can be found and begin to position ourselves accordingly.  This may mean new social activities or increased involvement in groups we previously marginalized.
  • We need to communicate every step of our journey to existing, important others in our lives so that they have the opportunity to come along, to adjust to who we are becoming.  If we don’t communicate, we leave them confused, defensive and possibly hurt by our internal changes.
  • “We are not ourselves by ourselves” says Peterson.  These efforts to transform our social circle will go a long way in our own self knowledge as we bring stories from our interactions into counseling.  It is a key experiential aspect of therapy!
  • When we have achieved enough awareness and worked through some of the core issues of self worth, it is time to identify a couple of healthy others in our sphere with whom we can practice being our newly authentic selves.
  • From this point forward, it is all about relating in likely opposite ways to how we have before.  It is intentional and consistent.  This process needs to be a regular topic of counseling so that there is a constant feedback loop for learning.  It is a terrifying challenge but it is the final step in true transformation.  There is no other way to permanently change the meanings we have made of life experiences.  It is a messy business filled with mis-steps requiring honest communication from which to recover.  We may need to make a few changes in who we include in our tribe which then involves a grieving process for the ones who simply do not have what it takes to enter this new territory with us.  The payoff is a level of connection and relational joy we never thought possible.  Benefits that cannot be achieved with solely internal peace and knowledge.

Now it’s your turn…What aspect of mental/emotional health is on your mind these days?  What are you currently wrestling with?  I want this space to be useful!  I’m also considering doing a weekly Facebook Live which will focus on what YOU want to hear about, so give me your feedback.

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Weary

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Sholom Park

If you read last week’s post, you know that sleep has been an “issue” for me lately.  Generally speaking, exhaustion has been my constant companion.  At first, I chalked this up to the aforementioned backsliding on sleep hygiene.  But…in my heart I knew there was more to the story.  There always is.

There is a popular metaphor about the frog in boiling water.  The story goes that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, set it on the stove and turn on the heat…the frog will stay in the water as it continues to get hotter.  Apparently, the gradual rise in temperature is not something it notices and eventually, it will literally boil without ever jumping from the pot as it is free to do.  Now, let’s put aside the very reasonable question of who discovered this awful truth and why.  The point is, it illustrates how we can get so normed to dysfunction or negative circumstances/emotions that we remain oblivious to its dangers.

As I pondered this season of exhaustion and wondered what in the world was wrong with me, I realized that my daughter’s birthday is March 2nd.  Those who know me, realize exactly what that means.  Words cannot describe how much that little girl was the center of my world and what trauma it meant to lose her 22 years in.  How could my body not remember the process of giving life to this central figure?  How could it not mourn the absence of whom it had birthed?  You see…that’s the thing.  The body remembers.  Often, when sleep is elusive, it is absolutely connected to emotional traumas.  What that means is that sleep hygiene becomes even more important as a means of tender loving care for these wounds.  There is no healing without rest.  At the same time, there is no rest without healing so facing the emotional traumas is a must.  And so, I make space to hold.  Wednesday morning, I will head to Sholom Park in Ocala with a dear friend.  It will be a time for reflection.  A time to honor Christina’s memory and to check in with my own grieving process.  It has been five and a half years.  It would be easy to take this process for granted.  To be that frog in the ever hotter water.  To flip the auto pilot switch on which – to be honest – I do much of the time at this point.  However, grieving a child never ends and I must set aside time to reconnect with it.  In the meantime, I treat myself with grace.  I value my imperfection, my brokenness and I seek out people and environments who do the same.

Your sleep difficulties are probably not related to the loss of a child.  However, I am willing to bet money (and I am not a gambler) that you have your own unique story of pain and longing that lurks beneath the surface of insomnia.  Take the steps, yes, to develop a better bedtime routine but do not be fooled – attention must be paid to your emotional health so give some thought to how you will address that.  Keep in mind that you may not remember the relevant factors right now.  Just this morning, I remembered another crucial anniversary that is absolutely contributing to my exhaustion.  One associated with much heartache.  How the heck could I have forgotten that?  I am a therapist…I specialize in these connections!  So there you have it, none of us are immune to these dissociative habits that we develop to keep ourselves protected.  The brain is an amazingly complex and tricky son of a gun.  Venturing into its depths is not for the faint of heart and seriously not a journey to take alone!  If you’re ready to get to the root of sleep difficulties…enlist a qualified wilderness guide.  I promise it is one of the scariest, yet best decisions you’ll ever make!

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Sweet Dreams

bed

(wayfair.com)

The best preachers deliver the messages they most need themselves :).  That’s the principle behind this week’s post…on sleep.  I’ve definitely fallen off the wagon in this area of life and so perhaps by writing about healthy sleep habits, I will jump-start my own process back to the land of nod.

According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis!  Clearly, I’m not alone.  First – what do they mean by “enough”?  The general guideline for this study is 7 hours per night.  Interestingly enough, geography, race/ethnicity, employment and marital status all seem to affect the odds of healthy sleep.  Those of us here in the Southeastern US for example, are less likely to hit the 7 hour standard.  But why?  What are the factors making this such a widespread issue?  The culprits tend to be longer work hours as well as longer commutes to work which push other aspects of life into the wee hours.  Shift work (now more prevalent thanks to a global economy) wreaks havoc on the sleep-wake cycle.  Finally, most everyone is entertaining themselves on some sort of screened device late into the night, despite the fact that we have well established the harmful effects of blue light from those devices on the body’s production of melatonin – our sleep hormone. This is especially common for those living in high stress situations.  For many – the additional factors of chronic illness, medication side effects and sleep disorders come into play.  All of this adds up to a major concern: consistent sleep shortages contribute to heart disease, obesity, depression, lowered immunity, type 2 diabetes and other ills!

No matter the cause, developing healthy sleep habits is part of the cure.  In my work with clients, I always assess quality and quantity of sleep.  If we find deficiencies, I encourage my clients to consider changes in their sleep habits as adequate rest is absolutely necessary for fueling whatever work we are trying to do in therapy.  What does that look like?  Here are the guidelines I usually work with.  Adjustments are made to align with each person’s unique situation so discuss these with your doctor to create a plan that works for you:

  • Do not get into bed except when it is time to sleep.  Our beds often become associated with work and we need to retrain our brains to associate bed with sleep.
  • Avoid caffeine four hours before bed (this includes chocolate).
  • Avoid naps during the day until your sleep-wake cycle has been established.
  • Set an alarm for one hour before bed as a daily reminder. When it goes off, cut out all screen activity (TV or computer).
  • Eat a small snack of complex carbs.
  • Drink a cup of warm milk or Sleepytime tea.
  • Dim the lights – consider putting your bedroom lamp on a timer to automatically dim each night.
  • Shower, get ready for bed, etc.
  • Journal the concerns of the day.  This allows your brain to ‘let go’ of these issues.
  • Listen to relaxing music.
  • Read relaxing material.
  • Turn lights out at the same time every night.
  • Consider use of a white noise machine or earplugs.
  • Use a relaxation exercise to quiet the central nervous system.
  • If you lie awake for 20 minutes, get out of bed and do some other quiet activity in dimmed lighting until you feel sleepy – repeat as often as necessary – do not lie awake for endless amounts of time
  • Wake up every morning at the same time. Do not use a buzzer-type alarm which has been shown to kick off an adrenaline rush (not how you want to start your day).

It takes at least two weeks of consistency to see a change in sleep quality so once you’ve developed a routine that works for you – stick with it for the long haul.  When you consult with your doctor, ask about nutritional changes/supplements that can help improve the quality of your sleep.  Do your homework to learn as much as you can.

I hope these suggestions will bring improvement in this vitally important area of your life. Check back here for a report on my progress in the coming months!  I’d love to hear from those of you who make changes as well 🙂

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Living with chronic illness

living-with-a-chronic-illness_2

It’s like having an uninvited house guest who contributes nothing, eats everything in the kitchen, occasionally damages the furniture and won’t leave despite all attempts to kick him out.  Eventually, resignation sets in and you begin trying to figure out how you’re going to work around this vermin over the long-term.

A chronic illness diagnosis (cancer, diabetes, arthritis, to name a few examples) changes everything and what makes it a special kind of challenge is the complexity of the effects.  Everything is connected to everything else and so it seems no matter how much time goes by, you continue to discover another area that is impacted by the diagnosis.  Let’s break down the major categories:

Obviously, there are physical changes which come with the diagnosis.  Those vary according to the specific illness.  The consistent theme however, is the idea of limitation.  Physically, your body just doesn’t perform in the way you are used to.  Changes may be immediate or insidiously appear over time.  Energy level is often greatly affected and thus motivation to accomplish what was normal for you in the past, wanes significantly.  All of this leads to some form of identity crisis as our culture has so trained us to associate identity/worth with production.  If I cannot function/produce at the level to which I am accustomed, what does that say about me?  What makes me worthwhile?

Mentally – most chronic illnesses do impact brain functioning.  At best, we may experience some mental ‘fogginess’.  At worst, there may be physiological changes to the brain that result in difficulties with long and/or short-term memory or even personality change.  Processing speed often declines and things like executive functioning may be challenged.  It is difficult to determine which of these changes result from the illness itself and which are side effects of long-term medications.

Emotionally – the self-worth battle is a significant issue.  As we lose major aspects of how we defined ourselves, we struggle to redefine and focus on what now makes us who we are.  If we have always struggled with self-care, the idea of prioritizing self and doing what it takes to pursue health is a foreign concept.  We may face spiritual crisis as we wrestle with the idea of a higher power that would  allow this to happen.  This current battle filters through the lens of all we have experienced.  The meanings we have made of our childhood then, determine how we integrate this latest development.  If those meanings are dysfunctional – managing a chronic illness becomes nearly impossible.  One of my areas of special interest is the reciprocal nature of this domain.  So many chronic illnesses have a correlation with unresolved emotional challenges.  It is becoming clear from medical research that emotional trauma increases the rates of chronic illness.  Thus, it makes sense that addressing emotional trauma would be a key component of preventing/treating chronic illness and that is one of my passions!

Socially – our loved ones struggle to adjust to the implications of our diagnosis.  As we sort out the lifestyle changes needed to care for our condition, the aforementioned limitations; as we deal with our own changing self concept, we relate to everyone differently.  If we are not aware of this, then we are not even able to help others figure out what is happening and thus, we collectively exist in a state of confusion and frustration.  In the end, everyone is experiencing their own grieving process of the way things used to be and the envisioned future that now will not manifest as planned.  Grieving is complicated (denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance).  Imagine a system of individuals all working through that process at their own unique speeds in the context of their own functional and dysfunctional coping skills and core meanings.  Is it any wonder that it gets messy?!  Suffice it to say, relationships are absolutely impacted, yet very little attention is given to this area.

Unfortunately, most medical teams do not take the time to inform, much less address these complex issues.  Too many patients muddle through their diagnosis, unaware of the developmental impact and what are very normal implications.  Our default is to always seek status quo (remember learning about homeostasis in biology class?) and so the aftermath of a diagnosis often looks like a constant battle to return to our “normal” with increasing frustration at the inability to do so.  The scary part is that all of this then exacerbates our illness, making our physical condition worse and creating a vicious cycle of decline.

My hope is that this information helps someone realize that they are not the problem.  That the struggles they have been having are perfectly normal in the reality of a chronic illness and that there is hope!  Knowledge is power and once we understand what we are dealing with, we can create and execute a plan of attack.  Just as the doctor delivers information, prompts options in need of research, creates the physical treatment plan and monitors progress – so too can the counselor educate on the developmental impact of chronic illness, highlight areas for exploration, as well as create the emotional, mental and social treatment plan.  Carefully working on self-worth and relationships within the context of physical limitations is key.  Constantly monitoring self-care: sleep, nutrition and movement is a requirement.  Completing the tasks of grieving is necessary for transitioning into a new normal: taking inventory and accepting the reality of your losses, working through the pain of loss, adjusting to the new environment created by the current reality and integrating the old self with the new self.  The best part is that this work improves physical outcomes so despite the difficulty of the process, it is definitely worth it!

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Fresh Starts

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Some of us get excited about the new year.  We see it as a new chapter in our books: a blank page, a clean slate.  Others are so sick of the “new year, new you” grandiosity that emerges this time of year.  We cast cynical eyes at the bright-eyed hopefuls…mentally calculating how long it will take them to fall back to the bottom of the same pits they’ve lived in for years.  Social media is full of commentary on ‘new year resolutions’ – some encouraging, some disparaging and some offering a ‘third way’ perspective.  Where do you fall on the continuum?

Regardless of your stance, there is a reason that humanity so consistently gravitates toward new year rituals.  I believe we are naturally wired to operate seasonally.  A brief look at nature shows us this rhythm: each year there is soil preparation, planting, hope, watering, weeding, harvesting, barrenness and then new beginnings.  In the winter, the farmer assesses the previous year’s experience, using that information to plan out the next year’s crops.  Seeds are ordered and excitement begins to build toward the possibilities next summer.  Is it any coincidence that those same activities seem natural to us in the middle of winter (New Year’s Day)?  Seems to me that adopting a crotchety attitude toward all of this is rather fruitless (no pun intended 🙂 ).  Thus, we have a choice: do we jump on the bandwagon of renewal or do we sit it out with the assumption that nothing ever changes anyway?

I’m a counselor so I’m sure it’s no mystery where I fall.  My entire field is about transformation so any excuse to move toward that is something to be excited about in my world.  I believe the key is realism.  I think this is where the bandwagon falls apart – we spend December in a whirlwind of comparison.  The holidays ramp up the social media highlight reel, making it that much easier to look at our own lives through a distorted lens which inspires a long laundry list of all that is wrong.  We spend December mentally beating ourselves up and by the 31st, we have created a herculean plan for life overhaul which we enthusiastically proclaim and begin on the 1st.  Only to fall flat before the first month of the year is done 😦 .  Yeah….let’s not do that again.

Again, realism is key.  It is now the third day of the year.  I’ll assume we’ve basically come down from the high of the first day and we may already be casting skeptical eyes at our resolutions.  Before you abandon ship, could we explore some adjustments?  I’d like to offer a few suggestions:

  • Resolutions are goals.  They are nice for painting the destination but they don’t necessarily give us any idea how to get there.  We need to define action steps.
  • If you made more than one resolution, may I suggest that you choose just one?  What is most important to you?  Focus is vital!
  • Reflect on 2016.  What happened in this area of your life?  What were the specific things that held you back in this area?  Make a list of those factors.
  • For each item on the list – what specific action will you need to take to conquer that obstacle?  What routines will you need to develop in order to reprogram the way you typically operate?  What rewards do you need to set up to reinforce these new behaviors?  Break things down into a list of small, specific steps.
  • Break our your calendar/planner (paper or electronic) and start mapping out those specific steps throughout the entire year.  Spread out the steps so that you are doing no more than one new thing each week.  Don’t take everything on at once!  Stagger out the steps over time so that you make changes gradually – giving yourself enough time to establish each new step before moving to the next one.
  • Ideally, it is best if you schedule the steps at a particular time/day but at the very least, record a reminder on a particular day of the week (or repeated every day of that week if needed).  Consider setting alarms on your phone to remind you of things you need to do.
  • While you’re at it – schedule a monthly check in now to assess how you’re doing: what’s working and what needs to change.
  • What resources can you turn to for maintaining hope throughout the year?  (Magazines, Facebook pages, blogs, devotionals, etc.)  Sign up for those now so it is automatic.
  • Who can you enlist as an accountability partner/encourager?  Talk to them now and agree on specific contact: weekly phone call/text/Facebook message?  Consider including that person in your monthly check ins to help you assess and stay on track.

Transformation is extremely difficult but it is definitely possible.  As we’ve discussed before in this space, it is nearly impossible to do alone though so if you find yourself struggling to stay the course, if you can’t find effective support – please consider counseling.  Good therapy is one of the best ways to pursue renewal so don’t flounder alone!

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Toxic Sea

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At lunch with a friend today, we discussed our various stressors and life issues.  She paused and remarked that there was something we had not considered.  She went on to explain that she had to believe the larger context of what is happening in society today was taking its toll on our mental and emotional health.  Immediately, I believed she was on to something!  As we unpacked this spontaneous idea, it was sobering to stop and consider this larger impact.  Every single day, we are surrounded by social media posts, newscasts, reality shows, and casual conversation that disparage, discourage and dishearten.  The level of anger, fear and trauma that exists in our society may not be new, but its far-reaching broadcast is unprecedented.  Never in the history of mankind have we had such immediate access to the lowest dregs of human experience.  This has become our norm and as the old saying goes – fish don’t know they are in water.  When we are constantly surrounded by this acid rain, it becomes invisible…impossible to notice.  What we don’t see is absorbed without ceremony.  We don’t fight what we don’t observe.  That is frightening to consider when I reflect on what we are regularly besieged by.

This concern led me to sit down and draw up a battle strategy and I want to share it in hopes that we can confront this problem together.  Perhaps it will inspire others to make their own fight list.  My overall approach is based on the concept of ‘detox’.  If we are surrounded by a toxic world, then we must regularly take steps to combat this toxicity with some sort of cleansing.  Each week, I have a fasting day where I drink only liquids and everything I ingest is organic.  I always feel so good at the end of the day so I have a tangible experience to motivate me in this mental and emotional strategy.  Here’s what I have so far:

  • Develop a daily practice of taking a few minutes to notice the water we’re swimming in.  As I mentioned, we don’t fight what we don’t observe so this acknowledgement is the first step.  Use mindfulness techniques to take note of what messages are coming at you from the people around you and the media you watch/listen to.
  • Sabbath – whether you follow a faith tradition or not, you’ve probably heard this word.  I have come to believe that in my own faith perspective, the purpose of Sabbath is to re-calibrate my brain to my priorities and remind me that I am not God.  With this in mind, it makes sense to me Sabbath for each of us would look different in terms of what we do and don’t do on such a day.  What we each need to reset our brains and regain perspective on what we’re responsible for and what we are not will vary.  The trick then is to know yourself well enough to determine those needs and what activities will meet them.  (The real battle is setting aside a 24 hour period to make this happen but therein lies the lesson that I am not God – the world will continue just fine without me if I get off the merry go round for a day!).
  • Be intentional about exposing ourselves to what is noble, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.  On a regular basis.
  • Cultivate friendships with people who offer life-giving words and make the effort to spend time with them.  `
  • Consider a recurring fast from all negative input: television, radio, social media, etc.  It is important to replace those things with something fulfilling so make a plan before you start.

I think this is enough to start with.  I’d love to hear ideas from others.  Each of us have unique mental and emotional vulnerabilities.  What I need for a cleanse is different from what others may need so the more minds contribute to this conversation, the more likely we can generate a list that has a little something for everyone!

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