Melissa Urban, THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free

Melissa Urban, THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free

Guest host Julianna Goldman interviews New York Times bestselling author and CEO of Whole30 Melissa Urban about The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free. Melissa reveals the inspiration behind the book, her thoughts on technology and “doomscrolling,” and the actual definition of a boundary. Then, she shares her best advice (with real-life scenarios and actionable tips!) on how to set boundaries at work and with family. Finally, the two discuss current social movements (like #MeToo, quiet quitting, and hustle culture) and how they impact boundary-setting.


Julianna Goldman: Melissa Urban, author of The Book of Boundaries, thank you so much.

Melissa Urban: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

Julianna: To get started, I found this book to be so incredibly empowering. I feel like I’m channeling it in all of my interactions with people. You are in my head. I would love for you to tell us how you got from the Whole30 to The Book of Boundaries. What was your aha moment?

Melissa: The Whole30 is a thirty-day elimination program, for people who don’t know. You eliminate foods for thirty days to see what happens to your energy, your sleep, your mood, your digestion, your cravings, your skin. Then at the end of those thirty days, you reintroduce those foods and compare your experience. Because it’s an elimination program, you say no a lot during those thirty days, to the breakroom donuts and your mom’s pasta and the glass of wine at happy hour. I quickly discovered in the earliest days of Whole30 in 2010 that people really had a hard time saying no, especially in social situations and especially when faced with some kind of peer pressure. I started helping people more than a decade ago say no to food or drink that wasn’t serving them or saying no to conversations about their body or weight or the food on their plate. Once they figured out that I was really good at helping them say no there, they started asking me about how to say no to their mother-in-law who is always dropping by without calling or their coworker who’s always gossiping or their best friend who’s always emotionally dumping. My conversations really morphed into other relationships and other areas of life. In the early days of the pandemic in 2020, I saw all of this come to a head when, especially for women and especially moms, school and work and home and kids and relationships all kind of bled together in a way that made us realize we needed stronger boundaries. That’s where the idea from the book came from.

Julianna: You became the boundary lady.

Melissa: I did, yeah. It’s so funny. I started getting messages on Instagram from people saying to me, my spouse now refers to you as that boundary lady on Instagram, which I thought was delightful. I loved it.

Julianna: Wear it loud and wear it proud.

Melissa: Exactly.

Julianna: Then you wrote, “My research shows that the main reason people don’t set boundaries where they need them is that it’s too damn uncomfortable.” Talk a bit about the research that you did for this book.

Melissa: Obviously, I read as many different areas of research into boundaries as I could, academic research, psychological research, business leaders, recovery leaders in the recovery community — that’s my personal experience — and then of course, in talking to thousands of people over the last twelve years in my own community. The number-one thing that came up and I think the number-one thing that I often saw lacking in some of the advice that I was reading from others was just how to navigate the discomfort. It feels icky to say no to somebody. I don’t want to let other people down. I don’t want to disappoint them at an even deeper level. I say yes, I’m a people-pleaser because I want to feel loved. I want to feel accepted. I’m afraid of doing something that might turn them off or me off from feeling loved. That sense of discomfort was really something I wanted to tackle head-on in the book by not only addressing it, but pointing out the flip side, which is that what we are already doing when we fail to set boundaries is already uncomfortable.

Julianna: How do you look at boundary setting in this era of technology that we find ourselves? Tell me if I’m right or if you agree or disagree. I feel like setting boundaries virtually is maybe sometimes a little easier, in text conversations versus setting them in face-to-face or over the phone. Do you feel like we need to tear down that wall, that it should be the same kind of discussions across the board? Is it nuanced?

Melissa: Obviously, it’s nuanced. It depends. Technology is here. It allows us to connect with people in a way that we otherwise could not. I get to stay in touch with my friends on the East Coast on a daily basis on a way that I couldn’t before text message or TikToks or email. If I want to set a boundary with someone that I don’t see on a regular basis but still want to engage and still want in my life, I might have to use technology to send it. I think that’s perfectly acceptable. I do think that we have to be aware of some of the limitations, though, in using technology, in the fact that you can’t read body language or tone, in the fact that people expect immediate responses from technology, especially via text message. Very often, technology can be challenging with some of the boundaries we want to set with ourselves. The world is at our fingertips when we think about social media, when we think about scrolling our newsfeeds. Yet those kinds of things, the alerts, the pings, habit scientists have found that they are the biggest drain of willpower. They can be severely detrimental to our mental health, to our time, to our energy. I think there are blessings and curses when it comes to technology. We have to try to use the technology in a way that works the best and the most effectively for us, not allowing it to work against us.

Julianna: I really appreciated the part in the book where you said — it was the fall of 2020 where you had to check yourself on, was it doomscrolling or looking at your phone before bed each night?

Melissa: Yes. I had gotten into the habit. It was fall 2020. It was COVID. It was social justice. It was the elections. I had gotten into the habit of doomscrolling through Twitter on my phone right before I went to bed. Inevitably, I would find something that outraged me, incensed me. I would start angry-typing comments back. I’d come to bed mumbling to my husband, “Can you believe that this is happening? I read this or that.” Finally, he had to have a little intervention. He caught it in a more direct way than I did. He was like, “You need to get off your phone before bed.” I was like, “Oh, you’re right.” This is the catalyst for all of these negative consequences that are spilling into the rest of my evening and the rest of my next day because I’m not getting a good night’s sleep. That sense of stress or dread or anxiety is the first sign, often, that a boundary is needed. In that case, my husband helpfully pointed it out to me.

Julianna: One of the great things about this book is how you structure it. You tackle boundary setting by topic: work, love, friendship, family. I’d love to get into some of those specifics. Big picture, one of the questions I had when I was reading this is how to set boundaries when you’re trying to set them with people who don’t respect boundaries.

Melissa: It’s really important to remember and I think it’s a common misconception about boundaries that boundaries are about telling other people what to do or controlling other people and that your boundary is only enforceable if somebody else agrees to it. The good news is that that’s not the case at all. If that were the case, you would be at the mercy of everybody else’s behaviors to hold your own boundaries. A boundary doesn’t tell other people what to do. It tells other people what you will do to keep yourself safe and healthy. To that effect, you can’t or should not set a boundary that you aren’t willing to enforce. In some situations, it looks like, initially, expressing your boundary in the form of a request. I have this limit that maybe you didn’t know I had. I’m at the table, and somebody starts talking about politics. I would say, excuse me, nobody has any fun when we talk about politics at the table. Can we agree to talk about other subjects? Then I would change the subject. Aunt Rose, tell me about your vacation.

That is an expression of my limit in a way that is very clear but also very gentle. It invites them into my limit and says, if you respect this, I’m going to have a much better relationship with you. We’re all going to have a better time. This limit is healthy for us and for our relationship. If they choose not to respect it and they continue to talk about politics, then you say, if we can’t change the subject, I’m going to excuse myself from the table. That is the action that you can take to keep yourself safe and healthy. If they refuse to stop, you leave. The consequence or the boundary itself, it’s not always an easy thing. If you’re talking about setting boundaries at work and your boss is deeply committed to disrespecting even your most reasonable limits, like, please don’t call me when I’m on vacation, the boundary itself might require you to request a transfer, report them to HR, or quit your job. They’re not always easy to hold. The point of a good boundary is that it is always enforceable to some degree by you.

Julianna: You alluded to this earlier on the family front, the in-law who shows up unannounced. We’re recording this around the holidays, so there’ll be a lot of family interactions for everyone. Talk us through that situation.

Melissa: If you have an in-law, if you have a parent who continues to drop by unannounced and you haven’t said anything — you just grin and bear it. You open the door, and you’re like, ugh. Hey, girl. Come on in. Then you’re short. You’re cranky. That’s hurting your relationship. It would be much kinder to share a boundary. Your entry-level, green-level boundary would be, hey Carol, would you please call before you come over and give us at least an hour’s notice? There you go. Perfectly clear. Perfectly kind. Now Carol can just say, sure, yeah, no problem. If she doesn’t like that and she stops by again without calling, you hold the boundary in what I call a yellow response, which is, you answer the door. You say, oh, Carol, you didn’t call. Now isn’t a good time. Would you like to schedule a time to come back this weekend, or should I call you in an hour when I’m free? You essentially are saying, you didn’t call. That is my request. You refused to respect that request for whatever reason. It’s not a good time for me. You’re not coming into the house. The red boundary, if Carol continues to show up on your porch time and time again without calling even though you and your spouse have clearly asked her not to, you don’t answer the door. At this point, this is, honestly, Carol just being deliberately rude and disrespectful of your very reasonable limit. It might sound harsh. Remember, you’ve given Carol a number of opportunities to meet you in this limit. She’s simply chosen not to. Now this is how you hold the boundary.

Julianna: You also advise on which partner should be having those kinds of conversations with the in-law in question or the parent in question. Talk a bit about that. It’s not black and white. There are situations where a husband should be talking to the mother-in-law if that’s the best way to get through to her.

Melissa: My general rule is, handle your own parents. If we as a couple are trying to set a boundary with my parents, I’m going to have the conversation and say, on behalf of us, my family, my spouse and I, my kids, we have this limit. We have agreed to this limit. We are asking you to respect it. I’m going to take the lead in having the conversation. My husband is going to do the same with his parents. We are on the same page. We are backing each other up so that if his mom goes to him or goes to me and says, “Do you agree with this? Are you going to let this limit come between us?” we are both on the same page. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes the in-laws would rather respect or would be more likely to respect the pregnant person’s request in the relationship. If I’m the pregnant person, then I might say to my mother-in-law, we can’t handle visitors right now. I’m nine months pregnant. This is not a good time. You’re welcome to come, but we’ll find you an Airbnb or a hotel. They’re more likely to listen to me than my spouse. Sometimes parents might want to listen to the professional in the relationship. If you’re trying to set a limit around your kid’s food or eating and one of you is a doctor or a psychologist, go ahead and use that to your advantage. I like the idea of handling your own parents because there are such complex relationships stemming from childhood that often happen when you marry into someone else’s family. You don’t want to put yourself in an awkward situation where now you’re seen as the troublemaker, the one who’s coming in and causing all of the disruptions. It’s really important for you and your partner to be on the same page.

Julianna: What is a script for parents or grandparents weighing in on parenting?

Melissa: Overparenting. I had to do this with my dad. He means well. He really does. Every grandparent wants to give you the benefit of their experience or thinks that the way they did it is maybe the right way. Obviously, parenting has changed a lot in a generation. My parents were very authoritarian. We are not so authoritarian. We take other approaches to parenting. In the moment or if you know that this is something that happens often, you can say ahead of the next visit, hey, we’re coming to visit. Can’t wait to see you. Just a reminder that when I’m there, I am his parent. I need you to respect my rules for him.

Julianna: To preempt the visit?

Melissa: Exactly. Before you ever get there, set the expectation if this is something that comes up often. In the moment, what I might say is, in the presence of my child, if I’ve said my child can have five more minutes of iPad and my dad is like, “Nope, he’s had too much. Put it away,” “Grandpa, remember when I’m here, I set the rules. Son, you’re perfectly fine to have five more minutes. When you’re done, put the iPad away. Then come find us.” I’m going to remind everybody in the moment that I’m the parent. If this kind of overparenting continues and it’s really causing stress for my child and stress for me and stress for the relationship, I’m going to have a hard conversation with Grandpa about how the way we show up and visit with him might have to change if he will not respect my role as this child’s parent and take the grandparent’s time-honored tradition of butting out.

Julianna: Why do you think that women have the most difficult time setting boundaries?

Melissa: We have been conditioned from so many different systemic factors, the patriarchy and the stereotypically rigid gender roles that the patriarchy brought us, religious influences, diet culture, the way that our families modeled boundaries or lack thereof. We’ve been conditioned to not have needs. As moms, we are praised the most when we’re selfless, when we put everybody else’s needs and wants and feelings above our own. Ours don’t even show up on the list. That’s when we are the most worthy. When we do have needs and express them, even if we express them kindly, if they’re even the least bit direct, we’re told that we’re selfish. We’re told that we’re rude. I can say something in a meeting that is very direct, and I’m told that I’m abrasive or aggressive. When a man says the exact same thing, he’s decisive or bold. There are just a lot of factors that women have to unlearn and reclaim their voice and this idea of, my needs are worthy too. My feelings matter too. I have to put myself on that list. In fact, I should put myself at the top of that list because if I am not healthy and happy and mentally strong and feel physically safe, I am of no good use to serve anybody else.

Julianna: Over the last few years, have you found in your research that women — this is a blanket generalization — are better at setting boundaries? You make the point, which I think is really important, in the book that setting boundaries comes from a place of privilege. Do you find that women have been emboldened to set boundaries for themselves, especially in the workplace, after the last few years with COVID, remote work?

Melissa: I would go back even farther than that. I would say the Me Too movement helped empower women to use their voice in whatever those settings are. Yes, I think open discussions around privilege and allyship, open discussions about the impacts of toxic masculinity on all of our lives, on all of our culture, not just how it affects women, and watching other women use their voice in a public way to not only set and hold their own boundaries but lift others up and kind of pass the mic have been really empowering. I definitely am seeing this conversation. Boundaries is very much in the zeitgeist. I am seeing the conversation now. I think we’re seeing Gen Z step up and do it in a way that many of us felt like we couldn’t in our early twenties. That’s really gratifying to see. I still think women have a long way to go. I still think we struggle with it far more intrinsically than a man would just given the society we live in.

Julianna: I’d love to dig deeper into this Gen Z divide with boundary setting. I feel like, yes, on the one hand, I so admire the boundaries that younger employees are setting for themselves. On the other hand, I hear from friends, former colleagues, I see it just in my own interactions, that sometimes those boundaries seem somewhat unreasonable. I don’t know if that’s just because I’m old now — well, that’s not how we grew up — or if because there needs to be some sort of snapback to reach a middle ground.

Melissa: Obviously, it’s case-by-case basis. I do think that capitalism have moved all of us so far in the direction of being beholden to our companies. Gen Z is talking about quiet quitting. They’re not quitting. What they are saying is, I should be able to expect my paycheck for doing my job. I should not have to always give more of my personal time to the company. I don’t have to be passionate about my job as long as I’m doing a very good job. I should be able to leave the office and go home and not think about work because this is my personal time. I should not expect to be texted on the middle of a paddleboard in Barbados for my first vacation in three years. They’re not quiet quitting. I think the pressures of capitalism and the way that at least I have been entrenched into especially entrepreneurship where you hustle twenty-four/seven — you’ll sleep when you’re dead. You’re working when they’re resting. That is such an unhealthy, toxic place to be. I feel like the boundaries that I’m seeing now are perfectly reasonable, but they feel like such a wild swing because of how far we’ve all been pushed by the fact that human nature will take as much as we are willing to give. We have been conditioned to just give and give and give without limits, especially in the workplace.

Julianna: That brings up two questions. One, what does entrepreneurship look like in ten years from now? The entrepreneurs of Gen Z, what is the culture that they are creating? Second question is, can you have boundaries in a hustle culture?

Melissa: Yes. To answer the second question, yes. You should because you are of no good to anyone, not your creativity, not your productivity, not your focus, not your customers, not your clients, if you don’t protect your own time and energy and space and mental health and focus. A boundary-less environment serves absolutely nobody. You can probably get away with it for a little while, but you will end up burned out. You will end up burned out. Your business will suffer. Your health will suffer. Then you’re going to have to spend all of that time digging yourself out of that debt when you could have just set some healthy boundaries. Maybe you would have not exploded quite as quickly. I don’t want an explosion if it just leads to a dramatic crash right afterwards. I think the concept of boundaries and entrepreneurship is a very hot topic right now. People are talking about rest as resistance and recovery. Nap Ministry is doing wonderful work in there. People are talking about this idea of, no, I get eight hours of sleep a night. I don’t take calls until ten AM because I have my morning routine that I’m deeply committed to for my health and for my mental health and for my productivity. Yes, I think you absolutely can and should. As for what entrepreneurship looks like ten years from now, I don’t know. It’s so interesting to watch Gen Z say, I don’t have to always be in pursuit of climbing the corporate ladder. What if I just really like where I am right now? I don’t need a promotion. I don’t need a title. I don’t need a raise. I’m perfectly happy with where I am. We see tiny houses and van life. I don’t know if maybe that is a backswing or resistance to the kind of capitalistic culture that we may have been brought up with and whether that will level-set. I’m sure if we look back at history, there are cycles and there are trends of this, waves. It will, if nothing else, be interesting.

Julianna: I recently, within the last few months — I can’t remember the authors to give credit to. They were talking about the concept of guardrails versus boundaries. The guardrails are what we expect from our places of employment, our government. Those are the protections, like when you’re driving down a road and there are guardrails. They prevent you from driving off the road. The boundaries are what we set for themselves. I wonder if there will be this evening out of Gen Z pushing greater guardrails in place to be able to back off some of the boundary setting that we’re talking about, or the degree to which they’re setting the boundaries.

Melissa: I think this is what the conversation around quiet quitting has been missing for a long time. We’re talking about it from the perspective of the employee who is saying, I want a fair exchange of labor for value. I will not keep giving myself to the company without recognition, without reward, without appreciation. We have to look at it from the top down as well. As an organization, am I building the kind of culture that when we do ask you to go above and beyond — there will be periods of that in any business lifecycle. Will employees be willing to do that because it is infrequent, because it is not expected, because it is appreciated, because it is rewarded, because it is acknowledged? If we created that culture from the top down where boundaries are respected and encouraged and modeled — I am preaching what you are watching me do. Now these extra periods of work or pitching in or team player are actually feeling like an equal exchange for the employee. Now I think we’ve got it coming in both directions where we have a truly healthy workplace culture.

Julianna: I want to switch gears just quickly back to family and children and setting boundaries with children. I’ll do a real-life example. It’s 5:35. My son walks in, wants to snuggle. His light hasn’t come on. I really, really want to snuggle. I don’t want to ruin him and give him issues by me rejecting his snuggle advances or whatever, but I want to sleep still. What is the script?

Melissa: I know. I know. I don’t talk about boundaries with kids as much because my son is only nine, so I only have personal experience up until that age. I feel like the conversation should be really nuanced with somebody who has an understanding of basic child development and where their brains are. Dr. Becky Kennedy is fantastic with boundaries with kids. I had the same thing. He is not allowed to come into my room, or was not, until 6:23. He negotiated me down from six thirty, which I thought was wonderful, at four years old.

Julianna: Brilliant.

Melissa: What would happen is he would knock on the door, and it would be 6:15. I would say, “We’re not available. It’s not snuggle time yet. You can go play. You can go read. You can go color.” All of those things were out in his room for him. “At 6:23, come back in. I can’t wait to see you.” I would explain to him that he needs that quiet time in the morning, that I need that quiet time in the morning to get good sleep. We had to enforce it a few times. It was kind of sucky and kind of hard to do it. I’m reading Dr. Becky’s parenting book now. I’m like, did I even do it right back then? That was years ago. I do think it’s important for kids to see that boundaries are healthy, that it is certainly not a rejection. It feels real safe for him to know that there are these limits. They don’t budge. They aren’t malleable. They are reliable. Now I see him at nine freely and confidently setting boundaries with us around when we can come into his room. We can’t read this one journal. I can’t pick out his clothes anymore. That feels really good to me.

Julianna: I bet. I bet it’s nice to see your kid standing up for themselves.

Melissa: Yeah, he is. I’ll jump onto the couch now with him. I’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, do you want to snuggle and watch this show?” He’ll be like, “I don’t want to snuggle, but I would like to watch the show.” It’s like, okay. We sit side by side and watch.

Julianna: My daughter, sometimes she’ll go, “Kisses are not on the menu today.” I’m like, “That’s fine. Let me know when they’re back on the menu. I’ll be here.”

Melissa: I love it. That’s so encouraging.

Julianna: If The Book of Boundaries came out of the Whole30, what’s going to come out of The Book of Boundaries?

Melissa: What a good question. Right now, I am very deeply entrenched in helping people through the holidays, of course. There are just so many conversations to be had around boundaries and self-empowerment in all of your relationships. I haven’t thought too much farther ahead than that. Once you give birth to a baby, a book baby even, for people to be like, what’s the next thing you’re working on? I’m like, I don’t know. I just want to rest and enjoy it. I definitely want to, though, continue the conversation around boundaries, continue to expand it, and continue to offer people scripts around how they can set boundaries in their own life and then share those really empowering stories I’m getting to help other people realize that maybe this is something that they can do too.

Julianna: Beyond the book, how can people get that support? Where can they find you?

Melissa: I have a newsletter called XO, MU. My website is just I offer all kinds of boundary advice and life advice and relationships. I talk about recovery and addiction and all kinds of subjects. I’m, of course, on Instagram talking about boundaries all the time also, @MelissaU, and on TikTok. I’m loving being on TikTok, @Melissa_U. It is like the Wild West over there. I’m super into it. You can find me there too.

Julianna: What’s your favorite TikTok that you’ve done? Did I even say that correctly? Probably not.

Melissa: Yeah. It’s so weird, the ones that explode with ways that I would never have imagined. I talked very casually about the shared set of expectations that my husband and I have around household management and the fact that I don’t ever ask him to help and he never asks me to help because we understand that if there are dishes to be done or trash to be taken out or laundry to be put away, we just do those things. We don’t ask the other person. Man, did that get a lot of comments, a lot of positive comments from women and a lot of interesting comments, let’s just say, from men.

Julianna: How diplomatic. Melissa Urban, thank you so much for the time.

Melissa: Thanks so much for having me. It was great to talk with you.

Melissa Urban, THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free

THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free by Melissa Urban

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