Amelia's boyfriend of nine months didn't answer her call. When she texted him twenty minutes later to call her back, she began to think he was angry with her. This thought caused her to start reviewing the last time they were together trying to determine what might have caused him to be upset with her. Although they didn't have any outright conflict, she thought maybe he didn't like her choice of restaurants—he really didn't seem to enjoy it that much. Or, maybe he just wasn't that interested in her anymore. Thinking that maybe he thought they were too different to be together, she began to imagine he had found someone else.
These thoughts triggered anger about him treating her so rudely. Even if he wasn't interested in anyone else, not responding to her calls showed inconsideration of her feelings. She stewed for hours about these various possibilities. By the time he called saying he had accidentally left his phone in the car, she was so enraged she released her anger on him anyway, “You really don't care about me! If you cared, you would think more about how I might feel and be more careful about not having your phone with you! You would have realized you didn't have your phone if you had even thought about calling me!”
Perceiving rejection when it was not present and reacting emotionally before obtaining further information shows that Amelia is sensitive to rejection. She sees rejection when it may not be occurring and dwells on the emotions that result. Her boyfriend made a simple mistake that in no way reflected upon his relationship with her. Yet, Amelia became so emotionally distraught she couldn't backtrack in her thinking and recognize she had made an error. Instead, her mind remained distressed by her thoughts of rejection. Suffering the pain of the perceived rejection caused her to react with anger although her boyfriend hadn't done anything wrong.
Barry observed every aspect of his wife's demeanor. When they were out and she glanced at someone else, he took notice of her expression and who caught her attention. If it happened to be another man, he made comparisons to himself. Was the other man more attractive than him? Did he appear to be more prosperous? What was it about this other person that attracted his wife? When he found differences, he began to obsess that his wife really preferred men who were taller, or more muscular, or wealthier, or more flashy. He constantly thought about losing her to someone else because he couldn't be the type of man she wanted. These thoughts of loss caused him to be sad and withdrawn. When his wife noticed his frame of mind and asked what was wrong, he replied, “Nothing” but continued to imagine her leaving him.
The expectation of rejection caused Barry to feel rejected even though nothing had occurred. In his case, he began to grieve the loss of his wife even though she hadn't left him or even given him any indication that she wanted to leave him. So wrapped up in this future scenario of rejection he didn't focus on the moment of being with his wife, but instead, became sullen and more withdrawn.
In both of these situations, Amelia and Barry are listening to their feeling of being kicked in the gut, imagining rejection, and experiencing the emotions related to rejection when rejection didn't occur. Although emotions provide important insight, sometimes people accept emotions uncritically believing, “If I feel this way, it must be true.” However, feelings aren't always accurate. Emotions need to be evaluated to determine why the emotion surfaced.
Most likely, because of previous experiences of rejection, Amelia and Barry have developed a sensitive awareness to the possibility of rejection, look for signs of rejection, analyze minute details to determine if rejection occurred, and dwell on the emotional result as a sign of the accuracy of their conclusions. “It feels like I've been kicked in the gut! So I really was rejected!” Although the purpose of this sensitive awareness is for protection, it creates ongoing insecurity and tension for the individual and impacts relationships.
In the normal course of development, we learn to listen to our gut reaction to help us interpret and respond to situations in our lives. The purpose of the gut reaction is to draw our attention to something to allow us to evaluate it. However, people who are overly sensitive to rejection typically listen to the gut reaction without further evaluation. Or, when examining a situation for signs of rejection the tendency is to look only for confirming evidence and not for dis-confirming evidence. As a result, many of those who are sensitive to rejection are more likely driven by emotions to believe rejection occurred when perhaps further evaluation would show it had not.
Such emotional reactions can take place within any type of interpersonal interaction, but frequently interferes with intimate relationships or close friendships. A common cause of problems in relationships is the fear of rejection by one or both people. The fear of rejection usually increases the expectation of rejection, and thus, causes sensitivity to the signs of rejection and the likelihood of interpreting other people's behavior as rejection when it may not be.
When Freda learned that her best friend had invited other friends to a show, she felt hurt and rejected. Even though she didn't like musicals, she thought her friend should at least have invited her. “She's not even considering my feelings of being left out. Maybe she likes them better now and she's distancing herself from me.” Later, when her friend shared about going to the event, she stated, “I didn't ask you because I know how much you hate musicals.”
Do you sometimes imagine rejection scenarios? When your partner or close friend behaves in certain ways, does it trigger an image or thoughts in your mind of disappointment, disapproval, or dissatisfaction from them. Do you sometimes dwell on this image until it becomes a more major event in your mind? Certainly, we all tend to believe we are experts in other people's behavior and interpreting what they really mean. However, frequently we are wrong. We can particularly be wrong when our past influences how we perceive and interpret others.
To determine if you are sensitive to rejection, you need to objectively look at your thinking and how it leads to your emotional responses. The following are some signs of over sensitivity to rejection:
Do you often think that your partner/friend means something else than what he or she says?
Do you frequently believe that your partner/friend doesn't care about your feelings?
Do you feel rejected because your partner/friend doesn't behave the way you expect?
Do you feel rejected because your partner/friend doesn't spend enough time with you?
Are you afraid to make a request of your partner/friend because you might be rejected?
Are you unable to make decisions without your partner/friend's approval?
Do you need frequent reassurance about your partner/friend's love or opinion about you?
Do you accuse your partner/friend about not caring although your partner/friend disagrees with your accusation?
Do you feel rejection intensely with any of these possibilities? If so, you may be sensitive to rejection. One of the primary effects of this type of sensitivity is that it causes you a great deal of unnecessary distress. By learning about rejection sensitivity, you can change your reaction to these situations and events. By reducing the emotional reactivity, you can feel better about your relationships and be more successful in your relationships.
Your gut instinct may not be completely wrong, but you may need to further understand your reaction to determine what it might mean so that it can aid you rather than hinder you in your relationships. First, let's examine what people need from relationships and how that need can become distorted by sensitivity to rejection. Then, we will further define rejection sensitivity and how it develops.
People seek close friendships and intimate relationships to meet four fairly universal needs: the desire for love, the desire to belong, the desire for approval, and the desire for support. However, these needs can distort into unhealthy demands: the desire for romantic love, the desire to merge, the desire for devotion, and the desire for dependency.
Prior to reading the following descriptions of the four desires in relationships, you may want to determine whether unrealistic needs in relationships may contribute to sensitivity to rejection for you. To do so, take the test “Do You Have Unrealistic Desires for Relationships?” at the end of this chapter. This test will help you examine whether unrealistic expectations for close relationships can lead to feelings of rejection.
Obviously, we seek relationships due to the desire to love and be loved. Initially, we feel the excitement and passion of a relationship and are blind to the flaws of our new love interest as well as to the reality of the more diverse demands of love. Although it is natural to want to maintain this romantic phase of love, to truly meet our need for love we must learn how to develop a more mature, flexible, versatile ability to love. By doing so, we leave the romantic notions of love behind.
When Janet married Dennis she had the romantic expectation of being the one and only love of his life despite his previous marriage. She created the illusion in her mind that he despised his ex-wife and they never had “true” love. However, seeing pictures of the stepdaughter he raised with his ex-wife made it difficult to sustain this illusion. Her husband continued to maintain a relationship with his stepdaughter. Janet couldn't understand why he would do this since she wasn't even his daughter! Although she explained to him numerous times that his continued relationship with his stepdaughter betrayed their current love, he reacted by hiding his contact with his stepdaughter instead of ending the relationship. In frustration and anger, she went through his computer files and deleted all the pictures of his stepdaughter.
Janet continued to subscribe to the romantic notion of “the one and only” even after the initial courtship. She couldn't tolerate the idea that someone else may have been loved by Dennis. The ongoing contact with the stepdaughter reminded her that her romantic notion of being the only love in her husband's life could be an illusion. However, instead of recognizing the illusion of romantic love and replacing it with mature acceptance, she tried to destroy the connection Dennis had with his stepdaughter.
Certainly, in the early part of a relationship you may feel very excited, be very in tune with one another, always want to be together, able to finish one another's sentences, and focused only on fulfilling the needs of the other. Love is easy at that stage. However, eventually the real world intrudes. You can't spend all your time together. You may have interests that don't include one another. You have obligations to family, work, and friends that are important to you. You have previous relationships that may still be a part of your life in some way. At this point, to sustain the relationship it is necessary for love to develop further into a mature, stable love. However, some people continue to seek romantic love and when their partner doesn't provide it, they feel rejected.
In addition to searching for love, we also have a desire to belong. When we develop friendships or intimate relationships this need is fulfilled—we are accepted by others. However, some people have a more intense need—the desire to merge. Merging is a giving up of the self and becoming one with another. However, when we belong to a group or are a part of a couple we do not give up the self but fully nurture each of the separate selves into a greater whole. Those who have a need to merge are focused on their own needs and are often intolerant of being alone or feeling lonely. They seek connection with others believing that a relationship will eliminate these uncomfortable emotions.
Adam repeatedly became involved with controlling and emotionally abusive women. Not only that, but his close friendships seemed to reflect the same pattern. He didn't understand why he kept getting involved with the wrong kind of people because he tended to be easy-going and attentive to other's needs. But in return he received criticism and demands.
Adam's desire to belong whether in a relationship or in a group was more a desire to merge. He wanted so desperately to be a part of a relationship that he lost himself in it. He tried to be what the other wanted. Unfortunately, this type of behavior tended to attract those who had a need to control while it repelled those who wanted more independence in a relationship.
This excessive need to fully merge with another can lead to feelings of rejection when others do not share the need. Such individuals perceive the need for independence or separateness as a rejection of them. Yet, successful relationships are those that foster interdependence where both individuals can pursue their life path while supporting the other in the same pursuit. Neither person has to relinquish their sense of self to do this.
Seeking the approval of others is another need we have for relationships. When we obtain approval it helps us to further validate ourselves and feel good about our choices, decisions, and achievements. In this way, we are able to develop an internal concept of competence and feelings of self-worth. However, some people, unable to internalize the approval received from others, have an excessive need for approval. To feel accepted they require a sense of devotion--affection, commitment, and allegiance from others.
Gregory experienced a great deal of criticism from his parents and others when growing up. He frequently sought reassurance from others regarding his work, “What do you think about the idea I had for this project?” However, if others didn't answer positively, he became despondent. In his relationship with Darlene, he required constant attention becoming distressed whenever she wanted to do something without him. He couldn't understand how she could love him and not want to center her world around him.
Such an attitude shows that Gregory needed more than approval. To feel approved of and accepted by others, he needed to feel complete devotion from those close to him. He needed to be the center of Darlene's world and receive her constant attention.
Those who need devotion want to never feel any kind of discomfort longing for others to fill the hole of loneliness and self-doubt. When others don't provide this nourishment, they feel rejected. Yet, although healthy relationships provide a sense of security and acceptance, it is not possible to provide the level of devotion some want because such attention means the partner has to give up personal needs and desires to fulfill the needs of the one requiring devotion.
Certainly, relationships are where we seek support. Throughout life we face difficult times. Having supportive friends helps us to confront these circumstances. Relationships are reciprocal so that we also provide support to others. However, some people have a need to be taken care of and expect close relationships to fulfill this need. Often, if this need is not met, feelings of rejection ensues due to the belief that if the other person truly cared, he or she would always fulfill their needs.
Susie experiences frequent anxiety and tends to worry about those she loves when they are not present. She believes that if her boyfriend really cared about her he would try to alleviate her anxiety. However, instead, he chooses to spend time with his skydiving buddies which not only means he leaves her alone but he is doing something that could risk his life. Thinking “How can he be so inconsiderate of my needs?!” she demands that he stay home. “If he loved me, he wouldn't worry me.”
In such a situation, she doesn't request support in learning to handle her worries and being alone. Instead, she expects that he not engage in the behaviors causing her to worry. As such, she believes her problems should be solved by a change in the behavior of those close to her rather than her making changes to manage her anxiety and unreasonable expectations.
Providing support means aiding someone to get through a situation, to confront a problem, and to make changes in their lives. Support does not enable the individual to remain in an unhealthy situation, to continue a problematic behavior, or to deny a problem. Dependency is relying on others to solve problems and protect you from uncomfortable emotions. Healthy relationships support one another whereas a dependent relationship focuses on meeting the needs of the dependent partner while often ignoring the needs of the other. When someone is overly dependent in a relationship, they often perceive the other's lack of fulfilling their needs as rejection.
To fully comprehend the nature of sensitivity to rejection, it is necessary to understand the normal purpose of rejection.
All emotions have a purpose. You are meant to feel pain when you believe you have been rejected. “Why is that?” you might ask. “I don't want to hurt!”
Think about the purpose of pain. What does it do for you? For anyone? It warns you of danger such as when you touch a hot stove or alerts you to a problem such as when you have a stomach ache.
The pain of rejection has a purpose, as well. We live in a social world. To survive and thrive we require other people. If we didn't care at all what others think we wouldn't have much incentive to cooperate towards common goals. Pursuing a path completely independent of others does not tend to lead to success and personal well-being. Instead, interdependency with others allows for a more harmonious society. For that reason, just as the normal response to touching a hot stove is to remove your hand, rejection motivates us to make adjustments so as to improve and increase our connections with others.
When you feel the pain of rejection, then, you are alerted to a problem for you to resolve. The pain is meant to be a signal drawing your attention to the problem. Specifically, you are alerted to the possibility of losing your connection with others—a connection you require to survive. Thus, responding to rejection can be considered a biological imperative, a survival mechanism built into each human being. This mechanism warns you of behavior that may be hurting others and may need to be changed.
In addition, rejection may be merely a matter of differences. People are different in their interests, beliefs, lifestyle, opinions, etc. and may not be attracted to those who are too different. As such, the problem is “fit.” You can't be the right fit for everyone. Some people will reject you, not because any thing is truly wrong with you, but because you are not the right fit for that person. Trying to get the other person to like you in such a situation leads to other problems. For instance, when a person tries to do so by behaving one way during courtship and another way after marriage, the partner often feels deceived potentially leading to conflict and dissatisfaction. Again, the need for the right fit may be a biological mechanism to increase affiliation, cooperation, and support. Simply, those who are more similar are less likely to be in conflict and more likely to achieve common goals.
Consequently, accurately defining rejection is required to meet the biological demand. Too often, though, the pain of rejection becomes confused with another common biological response: the fight-or-flight reaction to threat. If you feel threatened by rejection, instead of problem-solving to increase affiliation with others, you may be likely to either avoid or fight back. Those who are anxious about rejection are more likely to withdraw and avoid, whereas those who are angry about rejection are more likely to engage in retribution or other negative behaviors. Neither of these responses tend to improve social connections, however.
The result of all this biological hard-wiring for survival is by accurately defining rejection you are better prepared to behave effectively in a social context. By understanding your responses to rejection and reducing any counterproductive sensitivity you increase your ability to affect those around you and improve your connections with others. You are able to know when you may need to change to increase affiliation, to accept the differences in fit between you and others, or to reduce sensitivity to rejection.
Sensitivity to rejection means you are vigilant to the signs of rejection by others because you expect rejection. This heightened awareness refers to your ability to sense rejection similar to how a professional athlete is sensitive to almost imperceptible changes in an opponent. Just as the athlete responds to the perception of the rival's intention so as to thwart the opposition, by being aware of possible rejection, you are able to initiate your self-protective mechanisms to avoid or alleviate the pain of rejection. Thus, your “sensitivity” allows you to quickly assess a situation, determine the possibility of rejection, and respond in a way to protect yourself. The normal purpose of being able to sense rejection is to guide you in making adjustments so as to increase the ability to connect with others.
However, sometimes those sensitive to rejection may listen to their initial gut reaction without further evaluating the information being used to draw conclusions. When you do this you are basing it upon the belief that emotions are always accurate. Yet, emotions aren't always accurate. They can be influenced by past experiences, fear, and expectations. We need to listen to our gut instinct but we also need to evaluate it. Because sometimes it can be wrong. Which is what occurs with sensitivity to rejection. The expectation of rejection based upon past experiences causes a person to inaccurately perceive rejection when it may not be occurring.
This reactivity to perceived rejection is described by the psychological concept of “rejection sensitivity” researched in depth by Dr. Geraldine Downey. At the Social Relations Laboratory, Columbia University, she and her colleagues have studied rejection sensitivity, the conditions for when it is manifested, and how it impacts relationships. According to Dr. Downey, rejection sensitivity consists of three components: there is an expectation of rejection, a tendency to inaccurately perceive rejection, and an extreme negative reaction to rejection.
The expectation of rejection develops from the normal awareness of our world to quickly identify threat and either neutralize it or avoid it. Rejection is considered a threat because it prevents our primary objective in life to connect with others for the sake of our personal survival as well as for the survival of our species. Therefore, awareness of the threat of rejection helps us to identify situations requiring our attention so we don't lose our connection with others.
Although the biological imperative to connect with others galvanizes us to modify behavior in reaction to rejection, it does not typically produce a hyper-awareness to the possibility of rejection because such an expectation undermines the goal of affiliating with others. The expectation of rejection attracts your attention to certain details and away from the big picture just as the expectation of a running play in football draws the focus of the opposing team from a passing play. As a result, the expectation creates greater awareness of certain behaviors but may diminish your ability to discern other possibilities. The football team expecting a running play may react effectively if a running play occurs, but are unprepared if a passing play should ensue. In the same way, expecting rejection causes you to be less able to interpret and react to non-rejection.
You may be objecting at this point to the idea that your sensitivity to rejection creates the perception of rejection when it has not occurred. You may protest “I have been hurt! I'm not imagining it!” And, you are right. You have been hurt by rejection. That is not in dispute. Your previous experiences with rejection contribute to the increased sensitivity you experience. The development of sensitivity to rejection and hyper-awareness of rejection is influenced by a genetic predisposition to emotional sensitivity and can follow from early traumatic life experiences, excessive rejection by peers and overly-critical parents or other adults, as well as micro-aggressions towards certain groups of people.
Emotional sensitivity. Some people are born with greater emotional sensitivity which means they experience emotions intensely. This intensity, without proper guidance, can lead to confusion and misunderstandings in reaction to normal events. For instance, a child who is emotionally sensitive is picked last for a team. She feels intense shame. Considering that emotions are messages, the message she receives is that being chosen last is an awful experience. Another child who is not emotionally sensitive may not register this in the same way. She may shrug off the rejection as not being personal.
Thus, emotional sensitivity may predispose a person to developing sensitivity to rejection. However, guidance can help reduce this tendency: “The children who were picked first may be better athletes than you. That's okay because you are good at other things. Everybody has talents. Focus on developing your talents and don't worry when you aren't as good as someone else.”
Trauma. When people have experienced traumatic events, either as children or as adults, one of the most enduring and detrimental consequences is the loss of trust in the world around them. Trauma teaches that bad things exist in the world. In an effort to be prepared, a person who has suffered trauma becomes more sensitized to expecting further traumatic events. In addition, many traumatic events have a personal aspect to them. Children who are abused, for instance, frequently hear the message, either directly or indirectly: “You are the cause of this.” Even adults are often blamed for traumatic events: “She shouldn't have been in that neighborhood at night” or “They shouldn't have lived in a flood zone.” Blame and criticism, forms of rejection, linked to the trauma can set off sensitivity to rejection.
Excessive rejection. When someone is singled out in childhood with rejection, as occurs for many children who have developmental disorders such as Aspergers or other disorders such as Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or who are just developing more slowly physically or whose family may have problems known by the community, the lesson learned from these experiences is that others can be hurtful and rejecting. In addition, parents who are overly critical and punitive teach the child: “I must be really bad if my own parents don't like me.” Excessive rejection throughout childhood lays the groundwork for a child to expect rejection, to be hyper-sensitive to signs of rejection, and to view others' behavior as rejecting even when it might not be.
Those who are part of certain groups based on race, gender, disability, etc. may also have more life experiences of rejection. Of greatest concern, because subtle rejections are more difficult to detect, are micro-aggressions usually involving indirect or passive-aggressive behaviors. If someone overtly rejects you, it is easier to say, “That person is biased. It is not about me.” However, micro-aggressions are almost imperceptible, often not intended to be an insult, and sometimes only definable by how the recipient feels. For example, “Your people are so athletically inclined” or “mathematically adept.” Or, “this is my gay friend.” The subtle nature of these aggressions which make it difficult to determine when rejection occurs contributes to sensitivity and self-doubt about rejection.
As a result of the predisposition due to emotional sensitivity and/or of these various experiences, you may develop the expectation that rejection will occur. Once you believe that rejection has a high probability, it is a simple step towards the development of misinterpreting other people's behavior as rejecting. This can be particularly true when someone has been rejected in subtle, passive-aggressive ways that can be easily misinterpreted. For instance, let's say that Freda in our previous example had been deliberately left out of group activities by her friends in adolescence—she may expect that people will act in such a way and be more sensitive to similar situations in adulthood.
Your perception is shaped by the details you notice based upon your expectation. For instance, if you are waiting on the side of a busy street for a friend to arrive in a white car, you are more likely to notice white cars. Unfortunately, unless the awareness of rejection cues has been properly honed through evaluation and training it oftentimes leads to inaccurate perceptions similar to how a less well-trained athlete may react to meaningless or even diversionary tactics by the opponent. The lack of guidance during childhood, personality, and previous experiences affects the way rejection is perceived.
Learning a different interpretation of events can help people when faced with rejection. However, if others provide irrational interpretations confirming the feared rejection then the feeling is reinforced instead of diminished. In Freda's case, if her mother had explained when she was rejected during adolescence, “Sometimes girls will be hurtful when they are growing up because they are feeling insecure and uncertain. It is not about you. When people act that way it is because they have a problem” Freda may not have become as sensitive to being left out of activities.
So the experiences and guidance a person receives helps to shape a person's perception, for better or for worse. Also, as discussed previously, personality can impact a person's perception of rejection. Such as an introvert may be less likely to seek out guidance and support from others.
Thus, all perception needs to be considered from other points of view and within the context of the situation. If you base your conclusions solely on your previous experiences you may miss the full understanding of the behavior.
A key component of rejection sensitivity is an extreme negative reaction to the possibility of rejection. This reaction often stems from the perception of emotions as intolerable. The belief that emotions are too uncomfortable to tolerate often makes them even more intense and difficult to manage. This intolerance of the emotions connected with rejection causes the person to go to extreme lengths to avoid having to feel these emotions. Unfortunately, though, tactics such as avoidance, emotional distance, accusations, and trying to control only increase the likelihood of actual rejection.
Again, lack of guidance, personality, and previous experiences influences the development of this extreme reaction.Even when serious trauma occurs, the guidance and support a person receives can greatly improve the ability to tolerate negative emotions. For instance, a child who was sexually abused by a family member may be less fearful of being hurt in the future if the parents rally around the child to protect her than if the parents are fearful of creating conflict in the family and don't respond to the needs of the child. Instead of the child only having negative emotions and memories, the child also has the knowledge and memories that the emotions can be tolerated with the support and love of others. Such knowledge increases the likelihood that the individual will rely on others in the future rather than shrink from contact due to fear of further hurt.
A person who is sensitive to rejection may be more likely to perceive their partner or friend's behavior as rejecting. This perception can cause the individual to feel as if rejection occurred and to feel the pain of that rejection. The beliefs about others' intentions and that you have been rejected by those important to you causes ongoing insecurity, distress, and dissatisfaction in relationships. Yet, it is not always the relationship that is the problem but the perception of the relationship that is the problem. This is especially true if you are approaching relationships with the expectation of rejection and sensitivity towards signs of rejection. When you feel pain and distress due to your partner or friend's behavior, you are likely to want to withdraw or lash out in some way.
People who have rejection sensitivity tend to compare themselves negatively to others. Because of their self-perception, they tend to expect that others will view them in the same negative manner they see themselves.
However, this negative self-perception is often not an accurate reflection of how others view them. For instance, a young man with Asperger's, mercilessly ridiculed during his school years, understandably developed sensitivity to rejection due to this treatment by others. When one of the popular girls in his high school showed him attention he believed she was setting him up to make fun of him sort of “Carrie” style. He avoided her overtures. Sadly, years later he discovered he was wrong when the girl shared with his mother her disappointed that he didn't like her in high school. He wondered how different his life might have been if he hadn't made the assumption she intended to hurt him.
In addition, those with a fear of rejection often believe their social overtures to others are more apparent than these signals might actually be. For instance, these individuals may believe their object of interest noticed them smiling when that person may not have. As a result, when that person does not respond to the smile, the individual with rejection sensitivity believes that it is deliberate rejection and reacts with disappointment.
Thus, as you see, rejection sensitivity causes unnecessary negative emotions, distress, and reactions. Changing these and developing an expectation of acceptance and approval allows you to approach relationships in a different way. Instead of feeling scared or angry, you can approach your relationships feeling more confident and secure. When you have greater confidence, you may experience greater success in relationships.
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Dr. Monica Frank