Ep 164 – Chatter with Dr. Ethan Kross

Illustration of a head with sribbly lines inside the head.

Tell a stranger that you talk to yourself, and you’re likely to get written off as eccentric. But the truth is, we all have a voice in our head. When we talk to ourselves, we often hope to tap into our inner coach but find our inner critic instead. In this episode, Dr. Ethan Kross, author of the book Chatter, discusses the role chatter plays in an emotional and physical sense, how we can gain psychological distance, and how belief plays a role in guiding us through negative self-dialogue.

Author Images: 
Dr. Ethan Cross, author of Chatter.
Author Bio: 

Ethan Kross, PhD, is one of the world’s leading experts on controlling the conscious mind. An award-winning professor in the University of Michigan’s top-ranked Psychology Department and its Ross School of Business, he is the director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. He has participated in policy discussion at the White House and has been interviewed about his work on CBS Evening News, Good Morning America, and NPR’s Morning Edition. His pioneering research has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New England Journal of Medicine, and Science.


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Full Transcript: 

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0:01:25.3 Collin Kelleher: I'm Collin Kelleher here and this is the ABMP podcast, a podcast that speaks to the massage and body work community. Now, you may be asking yourself, two things, Who is this person? And where is Daren and Kristen? Hello, to answer your first question, I am Collin Kelleher, I am the producer of this podcast, as well as the I Have A Client Who series with Ruth Werner and The Rebel MT with Alison Danny. This week, Darren is working on the latest issue of the award-winning publication, massage and bodywork magazine, and Kristen is putting the final touches on this month's CE Summit. And I'd be remissed not to mention that the ABMP CE Summit will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday, October 26th and 27th. Join us for the opportunity to interact with experts in the field, and your message and body work community members while you learn and earn CE. The event includes 6 CE hours from 22 presenters. Day one focuses on tools and techniques for the upper body, and day two for the lower body, the event is free for ABMP members and just $99 for non-members. Learn more and register at ABMP.com/summit.

0:02:39.6 CK: Now, since I have the opportunity to host today's podcast, and I wanted to bring on professor and best-selling author, Dr. Ethan Kross, Ethan Kross is one of the world's leading experts on controlling the conscious mind, an award-winning professor and bestselling author in the University of Michigan's top ranked psychology department, and its Ross School of Business. He studies how the conversations people have with themselves impact their health, performance, decisions and relationships. Ethan is the author of the national best seller, chatter, the voice in our head why it matters and how to harness it. Which was chosen as one of the best new books of the year by the Washington Post, CNN, USA Today, and the winning winter 2021 selection for Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Susan Cain and Dan Ping's next big idea book club. Please welcome to the podcast today, Dr. Ethan Kross. Hello, Ethan.

0:03:35.7 Ethan Kross: Hey Collin. How are you?

0:03:37.4 CK: I'm doing great, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. And I came across your book Chatter a few months back, and couldn't help but think of our listeners, and once I finished your book, I personally felt the benefit of reading it and wanted to share that with our listeners. So first question, Ethan, what led you to put pen to paper and write Chatter?

0:04:00.0 EK: Well, it was actually an experience that came out of the classroom, teaching students at the University of Michigan undergrads about what we know when it comes to managing your thoughts. So when you have all that time alone with your thoughts, sometimes they could take us in a negative direction and that could have bad consequences. So what does science tell us about the tools that exist to really harness our inner voice, so that it doesn't happen. And the way that I teach, taught this course several years ago, basically I would assign readings to students each week, they'd come, I'd ask some questions, we chat and the final day, I flipped the switch and now it was the students' opportunity to ask me questions after having read everything. And so the student went on to elaborate that we'd spent all this time during the semester learning about all of these different tools that scientists have discovered for managing our minds more effectively, why didn't anyone teach us about this in high school or middle school or in elementary school or before, when they really could have benefited us. And that was a question that I didn't have a good answer for, and so I thought about it for a while, and it really motivated me to do a deep dive into the literature, into the science to see, Hey, what have we learned about this topic and how can we share this with not just undergrads, but the world, and that's what led me to write Chatter.

0:05:23.3 CK: Towards the beginning of the book, you mention a letter that was received after an appearance on... I think it was a news program, correct.

0:05:33.0 EK: Yeah, it was one of the evening news programs.

0:05:36.3 CK: Yeah, and this letter sparked something in your own inner dialogue, something you've referred to as distant self-talk, now, can you share that experience and what exactly is distant self-talk?

0:05:49.2 EK: Sure, well, the experience in brief, I won't go into it in too much detail, because it's painful. I had gone on the evening news to talk about a new study that we had just published, basically showing that the experience of social pains or being rejected actually resembles experiencing physical pain when you look at what's happening inside people's brains when they're feeling really socially rejected. So when people say, My feeling's hurt, I'm in pain. After being dumped, the study that we ran suggested that there may be more to people's descriptions and not just being a metaphor, they may actually be referring to physical sensations in our body. Which I think for the audience and listeners here is not gonna come necessarily as a big surprise, because so much of the bodywork industry, I think appropriately, talks about and understands how emotions are often trapped in our body in interesting ways.

0:06:43.9 EK: Anyway, so I went on the news to talk about that study. It was really exciting. It was early in my career. And then a couple of days later, I got a really ugly letter in the mail with ugly drawings, racial slurs, threats, and it was a kind of letter that was truly, truly frightening. I had to go to the police station and talk to the officers. And for the next few nights, I was really... To use a technical term, a basket case. I had just had my first child. I thought, Hey, why the hell did I have to go on this news program and getting everyone in trouble? And the negative thoughts just kept on spiraling, so I was all about what I call chatter. Chatter refers to these negative thought loops that we sometimes get stuck in, when we're trying to make sense of our problems. And I was just spinning. And at the lowest low point, I started thinking some very irrational things, for example, I started contemplating, Hey, I wonder if I could even hire a bodyguard to protect academics, which is just silly, silly, silly, silly. I mean, no industry exists that I'm aware of for bodyguards who protect academics, appropriately so. And the moment, the moment I had that thought, something clicked inside.

0:08:01.6 EK: And then I started... I switched how I was thinking to myself, and even talking to myself, like, Ethan, what are you doing? I started thinking to myself, and actually referencing myself using my name and the second person pronoun, you. I started essentially coaching myself through the issue, like I would give advice to one of my best friends, that's what we call distance self-talk, it's when you use language to help switch your narrative, the way you talk to yourself and you're using parts of speech, your own name and the second person pronoun, you. These are parts of speech that we typically use when we think about, when we talk to other people, and what we've learned over the years is that, when you use those parts of speech to refer to yourself, that switches your perspective. Right now, it's like you're saying things to yourself like you would say to your best friend. And here's what's really interesting, we are much harder on ourselves than we are on our best friends, like sometimes in experiments that we've run, we ask people to tell us what they're thinking about. Sometimes people are embarrassed to share with us the thoughts streaming through their head. What their thinking makes bodyguards for academics look really sane.

0:09:14.0 EK: But if you ask them, Hey, would you ever say to yourself... Would you ever say to your best friend what you're saying to yourself? Consistently, people say, No way I would dream of doing that. And so distance self-talk is a tool that switches our perspective and it gets us to coach ourselves through situations like we would coach other people and it's one tool in the tool box of techniques that are useful for managing chatter.

0:09:39.8 CK: And when chatter strikes, how do we gain a psychological distance?

0:09:46.7 EK: Well, so the first thing to know about the chatter is that when we experience it, we get zoomed in on our problems. So something happens and we get stuck in this tunnel vision, like we're just thinking about what happened, how awful it is. And when we're stuck in that zoomed in state, it can be really hard to see that bigger picture, which often has solutions to our problems, like, how can we broaden our perspective, and that's... What distancing strategies do. They help broaden our perspective, they help pull us out a little bit, allow us to adopt a more objective perspective that can often help people work through their feelings. Now, there is no single distancing tool that works for all people across all situations.

0:10:28.2 EK: What's really neat about human beings, and what we've learned over the years is that there are lots and lots of different distancing tools that exist, and different tools work for different people in different situations. So distance self-talk, that's one tool you can use. And it's probably my first line of defense when I experience chatter, when I detect it brewing. But there are other things you could do as well. For example, just to give you a few ideas. Another thing you could do is something that we call mental time travel. And so what this involves is, say you're experiencing something awful, think about how are you gonna feel about this situation a week from now, or a month from now, or a year from now, or five years now or take it you're actually on your death bed. What this does, when we travel in time, in our minds in this way, it makes it clear to us that as awful as what we're experiencing is right now, it's temporary, it will eventually pass. And that gives us hope. That can be really useful. So for COVID, I think, Oh God, I'm still dealing with Zoom interviews, which it's great to be here with you on call in via Zoom, but I'd much rather be in the studio with you.

0:11:36.0 CK: Absolutely.

0:11:36.7 EK: And... But then I think, Well, how is it gonna be six months, well my kids are gonna be vaccinated, I'm gonna have my booster, things will be very different. So that's one way of distancing through time. You can also, by the way, you could travel back in time too to broaden your perspective. And I've done this a lot during the pandemic as well. I'll often think about other pandemics that people have dealt with over time, like the Spanish flu, 1918 or the bubonic plague in the Medieval times, those situations were arguably much worse than what we're dealing with. There was no Uber Eats, no takeout, no Zoom back then, no vaccines were developed in a record period of time, so it just... It broadens my perspective, which doesn't make what you're going through seem like a cause for joy, but it takes the edge off dealing with these negative experiences, and it's often taking the edge off, which makes the difference when it comes to chatter, so that's another... That's a second distancing tool. I could keep going. There are boatloads of others. But let me throw it back to you.

0:12:48.7 CK: So after reading the book, one thing that I noticed was that you're saying that chatter can lead us to become vulnerable and cue some of us to reach out and speak to someone, vent, I guess is the word, but we've always been told, open up. You're feeling pain, open up to someone, but you also speak of the co-rumination trap, can you tell us more about that and maybe some of the keys to avoiding this trap?

0:13:18.0 EK: Yeah, so other people are in a prime position to help us when it comes to our chatter, they've got distance from our problems, they are in a unique position to help coach us through the situation, but... And this is a really important, but they could also make the chatter a whole lot worse. And so this was one message I love chatting with people about, a lot of us here from a very young age, just as you describe, Collin that the key to managing your chatter, is to find someone else to open up to get your emotions out. So many people think that venting our feelings is a really good thing. What we've learned over the years through lots of research is that venting your emotions can be really, really helpful for maintaining friendships between people and close relational bonds. It feels really good to know that there's someone out there who cares enough about me, that's willing to take the time to listen to my problems, that's good for our relationship.

0:14:18.2 EK: But on the flip side, it's nice on the other side of the equation that someone... Like if you're providing me with support, you probably like the fact that I think highly of you that I'm willing to share, so that's really helpful. If all you do, though, is vent when you're talking to someone else about your problems, what that does, is it's good for your relationship, but it doesn't necessarily help you broaden your perspective, it doesn't help you reframe how you're thinking about your problems in ways that ultimately let you work through them. In fact, what we often find happening in studies is that when people vent, they leave those conversations just as upset, sometimes even more upset when they're done chatting than when they started. Because they're just rehashing, Can you believe what that person said to me during the meeting, I mean it is so rude the bleep bleep bleep. And so you're just rehashing those negative things that keeps you upset.

0:15:12.8 EK: What we find are the best kinds of conversations with other people when it comes to managing chatter are conversations that do two things. It is first important for you to take some time to share your feelings, to get out and express your emotions to someone else, the other person needs to understand what happened to you, and on the flip side, it's nice to have your experiences validated, be told that what you're feeling is appropriate and so forth, but at a certain point in the conversation what you ideally wanna have that other person do is help you reframe that experience, help you go broad.

0:15:49.5 EK: And there are lots of different ways that a person that you're talking to might do this for you, they might say, Hey, that really sucks, man, but this has happened to me, here's how I've dealt with it. Or, But let's try to think about it this way. It is one experience amidst many more. Like lots of ways you could try to help broaden that other perspective, that's the signature for getting good chatter support, and for being a good chatter advisor to others. First, you wanna listen, validate, empathize with that person, and then once you've done that, help them go broad. Now, there is an important caveat to all of this, which is the following, people often ask me, Alright Ethan that sounds intuitive. So when do I stop validating? And when do I start going broad? If I'm providing help is it 30 seconds? Is it 76 seconds, you know, I wish I knew. There is an art to this. Different people are gonna need different amounts of time venting and expressing their feelings before they're ready to transition to that re-framing part of the conversation, and so you wanna feel that out, and what I do with my wife and my friends is, I'll sometimes just ask them, Hey, you wanna keep going like, No problem, I'm here. Or, Can I offer you... I have a thought. Can I share it with you or do you wanna keep talking? I can just gently feel out that transition, and I find personally that that's a useful approach to take.

0:17:19.5 CK: Let's take a short break to hear a word from our sponsors.

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0:17:56.2 CK: Now, let's get back to the podcast.

0:17:58.8 CK: One of the chapters I really related to was chapter 6, where you talk about a really fascinating possibility, that the internal conversations we have with ourselves are influenced by the physical spaces we surround ourselves with. Now, what were some of your findings on this research?

0:18:20.1 EK: Yeah, I find this fascinating too, and essentially, what we're learning is that there are tools for managing our chatter all around us in our environments, and a lot of us are blind to those tools. Sometimes we use them without knowing it, but science is pointing out where they are which can be really empowering. So give you a couple of examples here, organizing and cleaning, which many people report interestingly doing spontaneously when they're under stress. We've now learned that there's a reason why people do it, and it actually helps people manage chatter, when you're experiencing chatter, you often feel like you don't have control of your thoughts and emotions, they're controlling you. And what organizing a space does for us is that gives us this sense of control, 'cause our surroundings are under our control, so I can clean up. I do this funky thing, normally I'm not very well organized in my office, there's piles of books and papers and sweatshirts and gym wear, but when I'm experiencing chatter, I clean up, I organize. And I used to just kind of do it, but now, I do it deliberately, like if I feel myself getting a little nervous, I'll purposely clean out.

0:19:35.1 EK: So much so that I'm pretty sure my wife sometimes likes me to experience small to moderate levels of chatter, because there are fewer clothes strewn across the bedroom and so forth. So that's one way of regulating yourself from the outside in. Another thing you can do, go for a walk in a green space, and if you can't get out into a green space, a tree-lined street or a park, watch a video of a natural sea, and if you can't do that, put a plant on your desk. What we know also happens with chatter, is chatter is all consuming, our attention is again fixated on that problem. And that can be really depleting, 'cause we only have so much attention, we can focus on things at any given time. Have you ever had the experience of trying to read a couple of pages in a book when you're worried or ruminating about something, you get to the end of those pages and you don't remember anything you've read?

0:20:28.5 CK: Absolutely.

0:20:30.4 EK: Okay, so that's exactly this point right? Your chatter, it's hogging all of your attention, leaving nothing over to do the things you wanna do, that's why it's such a huge problem in the workplace. What we've learned nature does, nature is filled with really interesting things, plants and trees and shrubs. And when people interact in a green space, what happens is, our attention gently drifts onto those interesting things. So we take a look, we take it in, we look at the bushes and the flowers, and we're not really carefully scrutinizing them, it's like when I walk for... When I walk into work down a tree-lined street in Ann Arbor, I'm not scrutinizing like the geometrical structure and symmetry of the leaves on the trees, I'm just kind of like, Oh, that's pretty. Oh, that's interesting. There's a thing there.

0:21:22.5 EK: And so what happens is our attention gets fixated on something else, but in a soft way. It's not overly demanding and that gives us this opportunity for all of those other attentional resources to replenish, so you're done with the walk, we're looking at the flower, and you feel recharged and ready to do your job or use other kinds of tools as a result, so that's a second way that people can harness their chatter from the outside in. The third bit here, and this is one that I absolutely love, so I'm gonna squeeze it in, is the world around us is filled with opportunities for us to experience the emotion of awe. Awe is an emotion we experience when we're in the presence of something vast that we have trouble explaining, like seeing an amazing sunset or looking at a tree that's been alive for hundreds of years or strolling down a city street and looking at a skyscraper or contemplating airplanes and how we travel, we figured out how to travel through the air. When we experience awe, what happens to us psychologically is we experience something called, a shrinking of the self. We feel really small when we're contemplating something vast and indescribable, right.

0:22:39.6 EK: So on the one hand, we could think about, my God, we somehow figured out how to put jets on a tin can and fly us across the world safely, and then there's the little fight I got into with my daughter in the morning, it just feels much smaller by comparison. And so when we are, when we feel smaller, when we experience what we call shrinking of the self, so does our chatter. And that's another way that our surroundings can help us manage our chatter from the outside in.

0:23:09.7 CK: Now, talking about minimizing chatter, you also talk about belief and non-deceptive placebos that can help guide us through negative self-dialogue. I found this super interesting, so I was wondering if you could maybe explain more.

0:23:27.7 EK: So placebos are... When we talk about placebos, what we're talking about are inert substances that can make us feel better. So typically, you give someone a sugar pill and you tell them, Hey, if you take this pill, it's a drug, it's gonna make you feel better. And for many things, ranging from symptoms of Parkinson's disease to mild to moderate forms of depression and anxiety, to headaches, to GI pains, giving people a placebo actually exerts a measurable and significant effect on those kinds of symptoms, this is why the gold standard for validating a new medication is to compare it against a placebo, because the power of belief alone is quite substantial. There was a paper a few years ago which showed that placebos were as effective as SSRIs, one of the most popular forms of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication for mild and moderate forms of those conditions. That's pretty astounding, that if we believe that taking something is gonna make us feel better, sometimes it has that effect. Now, that's not, of course, always the case, you don't find placebos curing intractable cancer, many other medical conditions but when it comes to chatter, we know that placebos are quite effective.

0:24:53.1 EK: Now, there's always been an ethical conundrum surrounding placebos. Which is, on the one hand we know that I can give you a pill, and I could tell you, Hey, trust me, I've been studying this stuff for years, and this is a pill that is really good, it's gonna make your depression go away really fast. It may take a couple of weeks to set it, but then you're gonna feel measurably better. That is lying, because we're telling you you're taking an anti-depressive medicine when in fact it's a placebo. So that's always... It's nothing essentially... So that's always prevented the medical establishment from being able to "prescribe placebos," even though it can help people with no side effects.

0:25:39.6 EK: What we've learned more recently is people can benefit from a placebo even when they know it's a placebo, and we call this a non-deceptive placebo. What it involves doing is explaining the science to people. So Collin, you're a participant in one of our experiments, you come in and I'd say, Hey look, here's the science, we've done brain imaging studies on this, we've done behavioral studies, if you believe that taking this substance is gonna make you feel better, it will, but you've gotta believe me. And then we show you all the evidence, and then we measure how much you believe us, and so it turns out that if you can get a person to understand how placebos work, then you can give them a placebo and they will actually benefit from it. You don't have to lie to them.

0:26:28.4 EK: So I could say, Hey, take this, take this little nasal spray. If you squirt it up your nose, if you think that squirting this up your nose is gonna make you feel less negative when I ask you to think about painful things, it will have that effect. And that's what we and others find. So that's very early goings research, but it's pretty interesting and more generally, I think it really... It re-frames how we think about things like lucky charms and religious talisman and crystals, objects that we attribute healing properties to can actually help us.

0:27:07.9 CK: During all of your reflection on the variety of ways to distance, to talk to oneself, and to harness the ability of the mind to heal itself, you and other like-minded scientists launched a pilot study called the Toolbox Project. Ethan, what is Toolbox Project and what is its mission?

0:27:30.1 EK: Well, what we're doing in this project is we are basically taking what we know about the science of self-control, of how to manage the mind, and we've... The scientists have started working with teachers who are specialists in creating curricula for school kids, high school kids, junior high school kids. And so the idea is, here is look, as scientists we know how to do the science. And we can describe it to other people, but we don't necessarily know how to describe the science to ninth graders in ways that make it really exciting and engaging. So that's why we peered up with the teachers. And we taught the teachers of science, they went and created lessons, and then they showed us those lessons so we could make sure that nothing was lost in the process of translating them.

0:28:22.1 EK: Once we went through that cycle, we had a 14-lesson curriculum that we're in the process of now testing to see, So what does learning about how self-control works, do for high school and high school students in our case... The idea is that how do we decide what kids should learn about in school, when we teach them about things that we think are important to know and that will make a difference in students lives. So math is a great example of that. The ability to compute a percentage comes in handy all the time. You compute, maybe less so with smartphones, but it did in the past like you have to compute a tip in a restaurant or figure out your taxes, percentages come in really handy. It struck many of us that learning about how emotions work and how they can be managed would also be really useful information, given how frequently we experience emotions, and often could benefit from regulating them. Now, regulating emotions doesn't mean not experiencing emotions at all. What it means is emotions are useful, but sometimes they can become counter-productive, and so when they become counterproductive, how could we rein them in.

0:29:39.4 EK: So we're teaching students about, here's how self-control and emotion regulation work, here are the nuts and bolts that govern those processes, and then the question is, number one, can they learn that information? We have some pretty good data suggesting that they can. But then the second, most interesting question is, once they have that information, if they have occasion to use it, do they do so and do they benefit from it? Once you learn how to compute a percentage in math class, right, you don't use that knowledge every day of your life, but you do when you go to a restaurant and you have to compute a tip and people can do it easily. Well, what happens when you're tasked with controlling your anger or anxiety, if you have the tools at your disposal, do you use them and benefit from them. And so that's a study that we're now doing. And we're really excited to see what it teaches us.

0:30:30.4 CK: All right, final question. What's next, Dr. Kross? Do you have any other books, any projects you're working on currently?

0:30:39.8 EK: Well, we're doing lots of research to try to figure out what are the unique combinations of tools that work for people, much of the science in this space is focused on identifying specific strategies, but what we know is that in daily life, people use lots of different strategies, it's almost like you have a cocktail of strategies that you rely on and different people have different cocktails of tools, and so we're trying to figure out, hey, what are the optimal combinations of tools that benefit Collin as compared to Ethan, trying to get to honor the complexity of all of our lives in trying to answer that question. So we're doing a lot of work there.

0:31:18.4 EK: And then also just a lot of thinking about, how to help people regulate their emotions much more generally, Chatter is a story of how we manage the conversations we have with ourselves, our tendencies to worry and ruminate, which can be truly catastrophic at times. But there's a whole universe of other questions about, how do we manage our emotions that I think are interesting. And so just starting to think about how to share that information with people has been fun and exciting.

0:31:47.0 CK: Well Ethan, I just wanna say thank you for joining our podcast today. Chatter really is so readable and really refreshingly original. I truly think that this can benefit anyone, and I hope that our listeners will read it. So they too can leave with a fresh understanding of themselves and new techniques to live a fuller life. Listeners, to find out more about Dr. Kross, please visit www.ethankross.com. Thank you, Ethan.

0:32:20.9 EK: Thank you for having me on, Collin, and hopefully, we get a chance to do this again.


0:32:28.8 S1: Members are loving ABMP 5-minute Muscles and ABMP Pocket Pathology, two quick reference web apps included with ABMP membership. ABMP 5-minute Muscles delivers muscle-specific palpation and technique videos plus origins, insertions, and actions for the 83 muscles most commonly addressed by body workers. ABMP Pocket Pathology created in conjunction with Ruth Werner, puts key information for nearly 200 common pathologies at your fingertips and provides the knowledge you need to help you make informed treatment decisions. Start learning today. ABMP members log in at abmp.com and look for the links in the featured benefits section of your member home page, not a member, learn about these exciting member benefits at abmp.com/more.


New Massage Board Created in Alabama

On May 15, 2024, Governor Kay Ivey signed into law Senate Bill 137, terminating the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy and its functions to create the new Alabama Massage Therapy Licensing Board. Learn key takeaways from the bill and how its passage may affect you.

Tennessee Regulatory Update

Tennessee massage therapy education requirements increased from 500 hours to 650. ABMP would like to share an update to explain how that change came about and give some overdue credit to those who made it happen.

Alabama Board in Jeopardy of Dissolution

Without your support, the Alabama massage therapy profession is in danger of losing its regulatory board, which could result in inconsistent regulation or none at all. Call Governor Kay Ivey to encourage the passage of Senate Bill 137 to protect massage regulation.



Featured ABMP Discount Partner: Milady

Raise awareness of domestic abuse, human trafficking, and practical infection control by getting certified in Client Well-Being & Safety through this Milady course.

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