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Saying no at work feels a bit like cliff diving — something I hear can be rewarding, but, wow, it seems risky.
I think declining professional offers is particularly difficult for me because, to do it, I have to wade through a whole heap of anxiety. As a freelancer, I’m afraid that if I say no now, I won’t get more work later. I worry that colleagues won’t like me as much, and that I’ll alienate my network
And yet, saying no at work is something I need to do. After all, I have a life outside of work. And as my freelance writing career progresses, sometimes I have more work offers than I can reasonably take on. I’ve got to set aside people-pleasing and ambition and get real with my limits.
To support boundary setting, I’ve started tracking the big no’s: major projects I’ve declined to take on. After I screw my courage to the sticking place and dash off the email, I open a digital document and log my victory. It’s called “Work I’ve Declined,” and it gets longer all the time.
This list-making is a type of self-administered exposure therapy, a kind of targeted learning used in mental health therapy. In exposure therapy, you see through experience that you can feel and be safe in the face of what once provoked fear, according to the American Psychological Association. A leading clinical guide notes that exposure therapy has been used to successfully treat anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and phobias.
In this case, I’m adapting exposure techniques to teach myself that it’s safe to say no at work. I can handle what happens when I say no.
Like formal exposure therapy, this process has stirred up anxiety, especially at first. It’s way easier in the moment to close my eyes through the scary parts and not pay attention. To say no and never think about it again. But when I block myself like that, I also block the opportunity to learn. I interrupt the possibility that things could be different next time.
Things are starting to change. It’s getting easier to say no when I need to. It feels a little less like falling each time.
There are other benefits, too. The list helps me notice what I’m doing so I can better see what’s really going on. My log is evidence that my skills are in-demand. It’s proof that I’m growing personally, as well. It’s become a way of giving myself credit and a tool for paying attention. In other words, this exposure therapy hack turns out to be another way to practice mindfulness.
Of course, it’s not all zen. Sometimes I still feel like I’m crawling out of my skin. Like an alien might burst out of me, grab my laptop, and scream-type “YES. I WILL ABSOLUTELY TAKE THIS ON.” But, so far, I’ve kept myself together. I’m trying to re-interpret the internal itchiness as affirmation I’m stretching in new ways, not as a warning I’m about to explode.
I think a lot of growth comes down to tolerating discomfort so you can get to the point of payoff. Unlike those cliff divers, I don’t expect I’ll take a big leap anytime soon. But it feels good to say that I’m moving forward with open eyes.
You can find a version of this essay on Medium here
New Writing From Me
In a way, I’ve been training my whole life to review kids winter boots. First, I was a kid in chilly Chicagoland. Then, I became a mom to three kids in even chillier Minnesota. I got to put all my experience to work to find out The Best Kids’ Winter Boots of 2023.
The update I wrote to Reviewed’s best breast pumps of 2023 covering Babyation’s The Pump — a pump unlike any other I’ve encountered in nearly eight years of pumping.
Books I Think You’ll Like
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride traces the life McBride’s mother. Told alternatingly in her voice and his, the two perspectives reveal a complex, persistent woman. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, but left completely in her late teens, marrying two Black men, raising twelve Black children, and generally associating with mostly members of the Black community. For a long time, McBride’s mother wouldn’t directly acknowledge her whiteness, something I’d imagine would be met with derision now but, in their telling, comes across as a complicated, understandable response.
I’m half Ashkenazi Jewish, and Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities by Emily Tamkin is the kind of book I’ve been waiting for, though I didn’t know it until I started reading. It traces the history of Jews in America. The author doesn’t shy away from complexity and contradiction, which helped me better make sense of the different ways people in my family (including myself) have responded to being Jewish. I found my family’s story in these pages, but even more meaningfully I came away with a better understanding of how our stories fit into the bigger American context.
Behold The Dreamers: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue is essentially a slice of life novel that mashes together a lot of huge topics — capitalism, immigration, the financial crisis of ‘08, addiction, gender, higher education, marriage, class, and more I’m sure I’m missing. Sometimes novels like this seem like a thinly-disguised op-ed, but not this one. The characters feel honest, like people I’ve met. I liked some characters more than others, but no one was the bad guy. They were all human, occasionally frustratingly so.
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