This Makes It Easier To Say No At Work

Emily PG Erickson
3 min readFeb 17, 2023

How an exposure therapy hack has helped me set professional boundaries.

Photo by Bart Kerswell on Unsplash

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.

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Emily PG Erickson

Former mental health researcher sharing insights about psychology and parenting. www.emilypgerickson.com