I’m Melissa Urban, Whole30 co-founder and New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Boundaries, and I’m here to help you set boundaries in all of your relationships this holiday season. AMA!
I’m Melissa Urban, and on Instagram (@melissau), I am fondly (or not so fondly, according to your mother-in-law) referred to as “the Boundary Lady.” As the Whole30 co-founder and CEO, I’ve taught millions of people how to set boundaries and led them through successful habit change. Once people found out I was good at helping them say no to breakroom donuts or wine at happy hour, they began asking me how to say no to their guilt-tripping parents, pushy coworkers, and taking-advantage friends.
I’ve spent the last four years researching boundaries and working with my community, where I’ve crafted hundreds of scripts to help people just like you set and hold the boundaries they need to reclaim their time, energy, capacity, sense of safety, and mental health, and improve all of their relationships.
I’ve summarized all of this research, work, and learnings in my recent bestselling book, THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES, and today I want to help you set and hold the boundaries you need to head into the holidays and the new year feeling energized, self-confident, and firmly in touch with your feelings and needs. Imagine how you could feel about the holidays, knowing you won’t have to argue about politics, field questions about your relationship or baby-making status, break the bank buying gifts that people don’t need, or spend your day running from one house to the other just to make everyone else happy. This year’s holiday season can be different! The key is boundaries.
I look forward to your boundary-related questions–ask me anything!
This is tough, because unless you can find a compromise, you won't be able to effectively set boundaries with your families as a couple. There is almost always a compromise, though. If your partner thinks it's important that their family be able to drop by whenever they want, without needing to ask first, but you'd strongly prefer they call so as not to be disruptive, perhaps your compromise is, "If they come by without calling and it's not a good time for me, I'll say hello but feel no obligation to entertain or visit with them, and if you're not home, I may not answer the door if it's not a good time." If one of you likes to socialize with family far more often, maybe it's, "I'll come to family dinner once a week, but not every week," or "I'll come for Saturday morning coffee, but I may only stay a half-hour." I have a few conversation tactics in the book as well, but ultimately it's about finding a set of limits you can both live with, so you can enforce them effectively.
Is there one particular boundary that you've set around holiday gatherings you find yourself re-asserting?
I reassert my "no gift exchanges" every year, although with most people at this point, it's understood. This year, we told our families "we'll drive down for either Thanksgiving or Christmas, but not both" because I have been exhausted making the four-hour drive each way with the kid, the dog, and all of our stuff twice in a month-long period. We're staying home this year and plan on enjoying an actual vacation.
I reassert my "no gift exchanges" every year, although with most people at this point, it's understood.
Must be nice to have people listen to you when you say that.
The first year, some people bought me gifts anyway. I told them, "Thanks, but I was serious--no gifts this year." I left them unopened, didn't bring any for them, and ended up donating them after the holiday. The next year, people didn't get me anything, as requested. My mom asked that first year, "Instead of buying you something, can I make a charitable donation in your name?" I loved that compromise so she does that every year.
I had a family member assert the no gifts rule then everybody brought gifts anyway (including them). I of course didn’t bring anything and I’m sure they all had a good laugh at my expense. You seem like a nice enough person but a lot of our families are shitty and full of assholes. Reasonable boundaries only work with reasonable people.
Okay, I hear this. But hear me out--they said no gifts. You held to no gifts. You took them at their word and trusted they meant what they said, which is a healthy communication dynamic. You're NTA here, so you don't have to carry their judgment around.
The first year, some people bought me gifts anyway. I told them, "Thanks, but I was serious--no gifts this year." I left them unopened, didn't bring any for them, and ended up donating them after the holiday. The next year, people didn't get me anything, as requested. My mom asked that first year, "Instead of buying you something, can I make a charitable donation in your name?" I loved that compromise so she does that every year.
So an immediate family member went out of their way to purchase you something, you not only decided not to reciprocate the gesture, but further left their gift unopened once they handed it to you and proceeded to donate it after the occasion?
The fact that people are still asking questions in this IAmA, and not ridiculing you is mind boggling
I made it very clear: "I will not be exchanging gifts this year. I don't want you to buy me anything." Some people jokingly said, "Well I'm going to buy you something anyway." I replied, "But I wish you wouldn't. I don't need anything, I'm trying to accumulate less stuff, and for me, gifts actually take away from the season. I'm asking you not to. That's my gift." After that, what they chose to do is not my business, and once they give the gift, what I choose to do with it is not theirs.
When people learn to trust that you mean what you say and that you'll take responsibility for your own feelings and needs, THAT's a gift. But it's not my job to make you feel less bad for not believing me when I said I really would prefer that you not.
If someone tells you no, and you ignore them and violate their boundaries anyways, you are the problem, and hopefully you limit this disregard for other's wishes to gifts.
That's true for something unreasonable and which exceeds normal boundaries.
My wife is Lebanese and has a very huge extended family. Every second week we have to attend a wedding or family function or some kind of event. It's honestly endless.
I want to stay home and sleep or play video games. But attending these events makes my wife happy and all of her sisters attend with their husbands.
I could "draw a boundary" and say "no, im not attending your cousin's wedding" or "we will go to that party but we are not exchanging gifts". But it will upset my wife, make everyone feel awkward, and probably result in them eventually excluding us from the events in general.
Point is, life is full of bullshit that we prefer to avoid or not participate in. For the average stranger on the street or even a work colleague, I'm probably inclined to not do them any favours and tell them to go fuck themselves. For family and friends, we make compromises and do things that we otherwise might not prefer to do as a show of love and support.
Someone took the time to organise an event and extend an invite to me, so I am going to attend.
Someone took their valuable time and hard-earned money to go to the shops and personally select a gift for me (which i didnt really want or need), of course I'm going to open it and act like its the most amazing thing in the world.
Even to strangers and colleagues. If its so burdensome that it will be too oppressive, take up too much time, or take away from something you rather prioritise, feel free to say no. If its something that really will take very little effort and could make an impact on their daily life, why not just do whatever you can to help them.
I dont even want to accuse OP of being a sociopath or heartless. It's just a lack of emotional maturity, maybe some undiganosed autism or social issues.
What you're saying is, "I don't need to draw a boundary here, so you shouldn't either." And that's not how it works. Your family's culture is not mine. Your capacity is not mine. Your time, energy, and finances are not mine. There are no universal boundaries, but just because it doesn't make sense to you doesn't mean it's not a healthy limit for others to set.
You also need to take into account that I very specifically told everyone, "I will not be exchanging gifts this year. I don't want gifts from you. I want to spend my holidays with you focused on our time together." If you choose to deliberately ignore that and buy me something anyway, who's being rude here?
There's a weird flex happening here where people seem to think it's okay to purposefully disrespect someone else's clear, kind limit just because you don't understand it or agree with it. That's not okay.
Yeah.. this is not setting boundaries. This is being an unsociable dick to people that have the intention of spreading joy and happiness.
You're really pressed because I'm not giving my mom a gift. My mom is perfectly happy with this arrangement. I'm happy with this arrangement. Why are you so upset?
If this isn't a boundary you need to set, move on. But based on the hundreds of people I've talked to this year about holiday boundaries, this one simple act has transformed their season from stressful and financially-draining to relaxed and happy.
Or, you know, stay pressed.
How would you handle if one of your loved ones’ love language was gift giving, and even if they agreed not to get you one, they’d be sad if you didn’t get them one? Do you get the one person a gift, but then how to explain to others why you made an exception for only one person? I’m in this situation and I’m probably generally too good at setting boundaries and not always considering others as much as I could and I struggle with that a lot.
I would look for other ways to make the holiday special in a way that was meaningful to both of you. I’ve baked cookies for my family gathering in the past, and one year I made a mix CD to play on Christmas morning (which tells you how long I’ve been going “no gift”). You can make plans to cook them a meal or have them over for dinner in place of a gift, or write them a letter, or make a plan for a coffee date. Going no gift doesn’t mean you don’t celebrate the season or show your loved ones love, it just means you do that in ways other than purchasing everyone a present.
Are you going on vacation or staying home or are you doing a stay-cation? I wasn't clear and on this vacation (if not a stay-cation) won't you have to drive with the kid, the dog and all of your stuff?
We're staying home, like at our house! No other family, no driving, no plans other than what we feel like doing that week. (That's the whole reason we aren't doing a vacation. We talked about going somewhere warm, but that's still packing, traveling, and all of the stress that comes with it.)
What’s your favorite dinosaur?
The little-known Eubrontes. You can find preserved tracks on this locals hike in St. George UT, about 4 hours south of Salt Lake City: https://www.blm.gov/visit/red-cliffs-dinosaur-track-site
I'm great at setting boundaries, I have no friends
Should I possibly set less boundaries?
Are your boundaries keeping you from making friends? Do you even want more friends? There are no one-size-fits-all boundaries--or how we chose to spend our time.
Where do boundaries stop and narcissism begin?
I'm not a therapist, but boundaries are always designed to make the relationship better, or at the very least, preserve it. They're limits you set such that you can show up in the relationship feeling safe, open, trusting, and respected, and that the connection feels healthy and has potential to grow from there.
A narcissist is focused on control, manipulation, and perception, not improving the relationship for both of you. A narcissist is generally horrible at receiving boundaries, because in their minds, everything is owed to them and their needs are the only needs that matter. Setting a boundary with them will likely result in them doing acrobatics to persuade/gaslight/manipulate you into giving it up. They'll also likely couch their manipulative tactics as "boundaries" even though they don't benefit the relationship at all, or may not even have anything to do with them.
(Ex: I once had an ex say, "I won't be seen with you in that outfit," like it was some kind of boundary. He just hated it when I got attention or felt confident, and used every tactic in the book to manipulate me into playing small.)
once you publish a self-help book on the issue is probably when narcissism begins
Hot take. :)
What is the first 'step' in gathering the confidence to set boundaries?
How do you process the loss of relationships that come with setting boundaries?
The first step is looking inward to ask yourself, "What do I need, how do I feel?" If you've become accustomed to letting other people's needs, feelings, comfort, and demands dictate your actions, employing an automatic pause before you say yes to anything and using that time to reflect on your capacity, willingness, energy, time, and sense of safety is key to setting boundaries.
Unfortunately, the actions you may have to take to keep yourself safe and healthy may not always be the ideal desired outcome. I look at it like this: If the only way I can successfully remain in that relationship is to show up exactly how, where, and when you expect me to (and not as my fullest self), that's not a healthy, sustainable relationship for me. Try to set the boundaries that would preserve the relationship--you have to try. But if you learn throughout the process that the other person is unwilling or incapable of respecting your healthy limits, you have two choices: continue to show up in the relationship and feel anxious/resentful/angry about it such that it continues to harm your mental health, or cut ties and preserve your own sense of safety and peace.
My counselor told me that setting boundaries with loved ones is the "most loving thing you can do" for someone. I've tried to implement that, drawing a hard line on things I will and won't do, it remains hard and I feel guilty not getting into those old codependent situations. Do you agree with what my counselor said, and is there a way to better handle the guilt one gets from setting boundaries? Thank you.
I'd love to add to the message TRapillo13 shared, which is spot-on. Here's a passage from THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES:
When guilt comes knocking
These “boundary feel-bads” are referred to in psychology as “unearned guilt.” It’s not productive guilt, which is an important social regulator and helps us right a wrong when we’re actually at fault. Unearned guilt is a learned means of self-punishment that tells you to feel bad for putting your feelings ahead of others’, standing up for yourself, or “making” other people feel uncomfortable. We’ve learned this from a dozen different sources: tThe people-pleasing we’ve done with our parents, teachers, and other authority figures; the responsibility we felt for friends’ or family members’ feelings; societal pressures from the patriarchy, sexism, and mass-marketing; or from the abuse, trauma, or neglect we’ve experienced. The good news is that if this is learned behavior, it can be unlearned, and that’s exactly what we’re here to do.
Unearned guilt can arise when you set or hold a boundary, but you can pre-empt it first by acknowledging the feeling. “Hey guilt, I see you trying to barge in. You can be helpful, but I don’t need you here.” Then remind yourself why you’re establishing this clear, kind boundary. “I’m setting a limit to keep myself safe and healthy. I deserve that in this relationship, and anyone else in my life should want that for me, too. My boundary will be clear and kind. I have nothing to feel guilty for—I’m doing nothing wrong.” It can also be helpful to imagine you were giving advice to someone else with the same problem. If your best friend was struggling when people talked about her weight, would you back her up in setting a boundary? Imagining it’s your best friend can help you see that your boundary is reasonable, too, and there’s no need to feel bad about establishing it.
I talk a lot about unlearning the forces that make us feel guilty for taking care of our own needs, and with your own boundary practice this gets easier.
What do people frequently get wrong about setting boundaries?
That they're about telling other people what to do. Boundaries don't tell others what to do, they tell others what YOU are willing to do to keep yourself safe and healthy.
Also, that they're selfish, cold, or mean. Boundaries are a gift to your relationships. They say, "Hey, I have this limit, and you probably didn't even realize you were overstepping it. Rather than not say anything and show up resentfully or avoid you, I'm going to communicate clearly and kindly, and invite you to meet me in this limit so our relationship stays open and trusting, and feels good for both of us."
Finally, that clear, direct communication is rude, harsh, or somehow impolite. Rude is rude. Direct doesn't automatically equal rude. As Brene Brown says, clear is kind. What's not kind is expecting people to read our minds, then getting mad at them for doing the thing they didn't know we didn't want them to do.
In a relationship though don’t boundaries implicitly tell people what to do?
If I’m in a relationship and tell my SO that I have a personal boundary around discussing politics with her because I don’t enjoy the dynamic isn’t that designed to control her behavior? And by framing it as a boundary rather than a preference arent I implying that it’s my way or the Highway? Don’t talk about something you enjoy talking about or else I will leave and it will be your fault for violating my boundary?
And if I set a boundary about not going to holidays with her family because I find it stressful and bad for my mental health then it essentially forces her to choose between spending the holidays with her family or with me and strongly shapes her behavior.
I’m not arguing against setting boundaries necessarily. It just seems like there is not a clear distinction between setting boundaries in a way that speaks only to your own behavior and setting boundaries that functionally shape the behavior of others.
And it seems to me that one definitely could set boundaries that technically speak only to your own behavior but which are definitely still manipulative towards the other parties in the relationship.
I am not an expert obviously and i would welcome correction if I’m missing something. But this is why “boundaries” isn’t a framework I have personally employed. I worry I would be functionally manipulating those around me.
There's a lot to unpack here! The first thing is that it's like you're putting yourself in charge of other people's feelings and behaviors here, like you're in control. The second topic I'll weave in is throwing up rigid walls out of discomfort vs. being willing to turn in and ask, "is this the boundary I need, or am I just avoiding the discomfort of doing the internal work?" In order:
If you have a boundary about discussing politics because the subject makes you SO anxious and stressed that in any context or situation, it's harmful for your mental health, then you share that clearly with your partner. You're not saying "you can't be involved in politics" or "you can't talk about politics with others," only "that's not a conversation I want to participate in." Then, your partner takes responsibility for their own feelings and needs. If they really need to talk politics, they know to tap someone else--a friend, their mom, an online forum, or a work colleague. They're free to have that convo with someone willing to have it, and everyone's needs are met.
If it's REALLY important to them that they be able to share these discussions around values/politics/social justice with their romantic partner, then THEY have a decision to make. They might say, "I'm willing to compromise this need because I love you--I'll find others to share this part of my life with." Or they might say, "This is such a core value of mine that I can't see staying in a relationship where I can't share this with my partner." Either way, that's THEIR decision to make, of their own free will.
Now the second part: If this is truly the exact boundary you need to stay healthy in any relationship, then it's up to the other person to decide whether they can meet their own needs in that context. But if you're throwing up this wall because the idea of exploring politics/social justice/anti-racism/whatever makes you uncomfortable and you're unwilling to explore that discomfort for your own growth, then maybe yeah, your "boundaries" are more like rigid walls, and you might lose the opportunity to grow here with a partner you really love. Only you know the motivation, and the degree to which you must firmly hold this boundary versus talking about it in therapy to unpack why this feels so scary for you. (Maybe you do, and end up in the same place! Maybe the boundary protects you WHILE you're in therapy. The two can coexist... but one without the other CAN feel like deflection/avoidance/manipulation.)
Healthy boundaries DO require a willingness to check in with yourself in brutal honesty and self-awareness and ask, "Is this the boundary I really need, or is there work I could be doing on myself that I'm just trying to avoid?" (I say this from deeply personal experience.)
Either way, your partner has to take responsibility for their own needs and feelings, just like you do--you aren't in charge of theirs. Does that help?
How can we set boundaries with ourselves? And, is setting boundaries with ourselves more or less difficult than setting boundaries with others?
Both. On one hand, self-boundaries are magical, in that they can instantly help you reclaim your time, energy, mental health, physical space, and sense of safety, and you don't need anyone else's cooperation to make them effective. On the other hand, if you tell yourself you won't check your phone first thing in the morning, and then you wake up and grab your phone right away... what's gonna happen? No one jumps out of the closet to smack your hand. It can feel as though there is no consequence when you break your own boundary, which can make them hard to hold with yourself.
I have a whole chapter in the book on self-boundaries, including all of the tricks for holding them. Some of my favorite self-boundaries include not looking at my phone before my morning routine is over, not checking email during work vacations or sick days, cleaning the kitchen every night before I go to bed, and not drinking.
What is a work vacation?
Not checking work email during my vacations (when I'm away from the office)
I feel controlling sometimes when I set boundaries. And maybe in that moment it is control and not boundaries. But how do I know? Where is that line between trying to control someone else's behavior and trying to honor ourselves and our needs?
Boundaries are never about controlling others or telling them what to do. Boundaries tell other people what YOU will do to keep yourself safe and healthy. You may phrase your limit in the form of a request at first, in an effort to share your limit clearly and invite them to meet you in it: "You know that no one has fun when we talk about politics, so can we all agree not to bring it up at Christmas?" In the moment, however, if they DO start talking politics and you ask them to change the subject and they won't, your boundary isn't "stop talking" or "you shouldn't believe that," it's "Cool, I'm going to go for a walk, then. I'll come back after dinner, maybe you can tell me about your vacation, Uncle Joe, I've heard Bali is beautiful." Your boundary is "I won't be party to these conversation," and you have your plan of action if others won't agree to meet you in your limit.
What makes whole30 not another fad diet?
I love this question! Thanks for the opportunity. (You can find me over on the r/whole30 often.)
- Whole30 was founded in 2009, and has millions of glowing testimonials from people experiencing life-changing results. (Recent favorites include "on Day 16 my panic attacks stopped" and "my Hashimoto's is now in remission" and Ashling's journey with Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia.)
- We're not a weight loss program or a prescriptive diet. We don't tell people how to eat long-term, we don't count or restrict calories or macros, and people don't weigh or measure themselves during the program.
- Whole30 is an elimination diet, which has been around since the 1920's and is still considered by most MDs to be gold standard in identifying food sensitivities.
- Whole30 has been endorsed and prescribed by hundreds of MDs, RDs, and mental health practitioners over the last 13 years
- The program is grounded in science, and we are always reevaluating the science and our 13-years of clinical experience to ensure the rules are the most helpful for the largest number of people. We make rule changes as needed (see our latest research project into MSG). We use a medical advisory board (MDs, RDs, functional medicine providers, and academics) to make these decisions.
- We don't assign morality to food, or you when you eat food. No foods are universally good or bad. Whole30 eliminates foods that are commonly problematic (to varying degrees, across a broad range of people) for 30 days, then reintroduces those foods carefully and systematically, like a scientific experiment.
- From there, participants learn how foods work in their unique body and context, and use those learnings to create their own sustainable diet--what we call "food freedom."
- The point of the Whole30 is to never need another Whole30 again, because you've learned what works best for you, and are eating according to your goals and your definition of health.
You know how every dietitian in the world says, "There is no one size fits all approach to diet, you have to figure out what works for you?" Whole30 is HOW you figure out what works for you. We're a tool, not a prescriptive "this is how you should eat."
Note, the program is contraindicated for those with a history of disordered eating, as any restriction can be triggering (and on any elimination diet, you are restricting food groups for a set period of time). Also note that while elimination diets would be best performed under the direction of an RD or MD, that requires a significant amount of privilege. Accessibility is one of Whole30's core DEI values, and our program is and has always been free of charge to anyone who wants to complete it.
Hope that helps--I can provide as many additional resources as you'd like.
Thank you for replying and details. One follow up question if you have time. Do you have materials or any studies for individuals that have had a kidney transplant? since whole30 is not a one size fits all I’m curious if there is any best practices that have been found for transplant patients.
We do not. We're very careful to say we're not a medical treatment program--that's not our scope. While many MDs recommend our program to their patients for various conditions (as part of a comprehensive treatment plan) this is a circumstance in which I'd recommend working with your care team to determine whether the program is a good fit for your context, and following their directions, even if it meant changing the program.
Why do AMAs always have a product to sell?
I was invited to do this AMA, and I'm sharing a lot of information freely here. If I was trying to sell my book, I'd be linking to it. I like helping people.
I slightly suffer from codependency and struggle at setting boundaries. What advice would you have for me?
I'm not comfortable offering advice around codependency, as I'm not a therapist. (It's an additional level of context, like other mental health conditions, that require a level of experience that I don't have.) I love Sara Kuburic (The Millenial Therapist) and Brittney Cobb (A Black Female Therapist) for their advice on codependency.
Why refuse to give advice on this topic when you are promoting your book which ostensibly contains advice on this topic? What determines when you're comfortable giving people advice and acting as an expert?
I don't offer advice in areas in which I don't feel qualified or have enough personal experience. This person asked about boundaries in the context of codependency. I haven't done any research into codependency, or have any personal experience with codependency, which means I feel unable to provide the necessary nuance for setting and holding boundaries in that specific context.
If you think that makes me less credible in areas in which I am telling you I have done extensive research and do have extensive experience, so be it. But I learned a long time ago that saying, "I don't know" or "I'm not the best person to help you here" is both more credible and more helpful than talking out of my ass.
If you think that makes me less credible in areas in which I am telling you I have done extensive research and do have extensive experience, so be it.
I didn't mean to imply that. If I'm honest, I'm skeptical of the marketing-speak in your blurb. To me, the pitch is that you gained experience as the CEO and co-founder of a brand based on restricting food intake, which has honed your ability to teach others to set boundaries.
That was my understanding when I wrote my comment - why would this person feel uncomfortable diving a bit further into pop psychology? Your comment makes it sound like you're running a research lab. What do you mean by "research" and "experience"?
Sure. First of all, the Whole30 does not restrict food intake, so maybe there’s just a fundamental misunderstanding about what the program is, but that doesn’t really matter here.
You know how James Clear is a self-taught habit expert? He’s done a ton of research and had a bunch of personal experience, and then he wrote a book about it? That’s me. I’m not a therapist or psychologist, but I’ve been using boundaries to help me maintain my recovery (from drug addiction) for 22 years, and helping people effectively set and hold boundaries through the Whole30 for the last 13 years. I’ve done years of my own research into habits, psychology of change, and specifically the subject of boundaries. I created my Green/Yellow/Red framework for boundaries in 2004, have written hundreds of scripts and boundary language for people, ran hundreds of real-life test cases over the years to see what worked for people and what I needed to tweak, and developed original concepts around communication and relationships to support the book.
And still, there are some questions around boundaries that I don’t feel comfortable answering. If you want to talk about setting and holding boundaries with someone with suicidal ideation, or somebody who has severe anxiety, or another context that is specific, nuanced, related to an area where I don’t have experience, I’m going to defer the question to someone else—most likely a trained mental health practitioner.
The book is really good. I know my shit. I also know enough to say, “I don’t know” where applicable.
Having a specialty in one area does not mean you're an expert in all related areas. You don't go to an optometrist and expect them to know how to do a root canal
Right, but maybe don't write a book positioning yourself as an expert on boundaries if you are uncomfortable being an expert on boundaries.
Isn’t that an example of being an expert of boundaries? You can’t be an expert at everything
It honestly is. My self-boundary is "I don't pretend to know more than I know." Otherwise I feel like an imposter, and my advice could even be harmful.
Why are boundaries so hard? What societal and cultural factors are at play?
They're hard because they're deeply uncomfortable, for so many reasons.
First, especially for women (and double for moms), the patriarchy, stereotypically rigid gender roles, religious influences, diet culture, even trauma and addiction have all conditioned us not to have needs. Moms are praised the most when we are selfless. We're expected to put everyone else's needs, comfort, and feelings ahead of our own. We rarely even make our own list, and if we do, we're at the very bottom. And all of these forces are why, when we DO express a need or a limit, we're called selfish, or b*tchy, or told we have too many rules.
They're uncomfortable because all of these forces, especially trauma/abuse/neglect, but even just generally dysfunctional family patterns, have led us to believe if we're good/quiet/invisible/make people happy, we'll be safe/loved/worthy--so we become people-pleasers. We eat our own feelings, go along to keep the peace, and accept burnout, resentment, and anxiety as par for the course, as long as everyone else is happy and comfortable. And the people who benefit the most from us having no limits are the ones who push back the hardest when we finally do try to set them.
Boundaries weren't modeled for us, and they're not taught to us in school or in the workplace, but they're a necessary life skill (like financial planning or time management) that unfortunately we usually learn in moments of crisis. In THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES, I help people un-learn all of the things they think they know about needs, limits, and clear communication so they can set and hold the limits that will improve all of their relationships.
First, especially for women (and double for moms), the patriarchy, stereotypically rigid gender roles, religious influences, diet culture, even trauma and addiction have all conditioned us not to have needs.
Where do you think you fall in the "diet culture promotion/perpetuation" as CEO and co-founder of Whole30?
We're working on a detailed campaign around this very question as we speak. As far as existing resources, I've already got a website hub for people coming to the Whole30 to lose weight, explaining why that's not what we do. There's another article contrasting the Whole30 with weight loss diets.
What I'm working on now further addresses our space in the spectrum of diet culture vs. anti-diet culture (We're somewhere in the middle.) I won't say too much here because I want the opportunity to fully flesh out my thoughts, and it's still in process.
However, I'll also acknowledge that my earlier work (like the first book, ISWF) has far more elements of diet culture than recent works. Even then, we weren't a weight loss program, we didn't restrict calories, participants weren't getting on the scale... but I used terminology like "good food choices," and inflammatory terms like "toxic" when it comes to food. I can't re-write a book published in 2012, but it's out there, and if that's your first exposure to Whole30, well, I don't love that. However, our voice and tone have been very different for many years.
I'll also add that though I don't have a history of disordered eating, I've been un-learning diet culture along with everyone else, since I started the Whole30 in 2009. And I'm still un-learning it. I believe Whole30 offers people an alternative to weight loss dieting, equating body size with value, equating thinness with health, and moralizing food (or you when you eat food) by offering a tool to help you discover the ideal, sustainable diet for you instead of a prescriptive model--and we do a very good job of that today.
However, there will always be an element of restriction to the program, because that's what elimination diets do, and in some people's eyes, any restriction (even for health purposes) will always equate to "diet culture." I disagree with that, but I understand everyone will view the Whole30 through their own lens and lived experience.
More on this to come--thanks for the opportunity.
How do you manage friendships where your boundaries don’t align?
I have a whole chapter on this in THE BOOK OF BOUNDARIES. First step--set boundaries to see if you can preserve the friendship. If you don't try, you'll never know. Be clear, be kind, and see if you can adjust the friendship within your limits. If you cannot, and maintaining the friendship is too costly to your mental health, safety, energy, or time, you'll have to dramatically change the way you engage, or cut the friendship off. I have strategies and scripts in the book.
Is there such a thing as too many boundaries?
There is such a thing as too RIGID boundaries, where they do become walls that keep people out. And there is such a thing as "I'm being punitive/reacting in anger/trying to manipulate you, but I'll call it a boundary." But if your limit is truly designed to protect your health (physical and mental), energy, time, physical space, and capacity AND make your relationships better or preserve them at all, then that's a healthy limit for you in this relationship in this moment.
We were low/no contact with toxic in laws for nearly 2 years. Husband is insisting we start to reignite the relationship for the sake of his comfort and also children to get to know their cousins. Any advice on our first meet up in the new year? I have a history of giving in too much. Thank you in advance
Are you comfortable with reopening the relationship, and can you and your husband set terms ahead of time as to what is and is not allowable during this trial period, to protect both you and your kids? What behaviors will you not tolerate from them, what are some limits you might set around conversation topics, or length of visits or other factors that made you go no contact in the first place? (Because that’s a serious decision, so I’m assuming there was lots of harm caused in the past—and I have no idea if there is any evidence of changed behavior or accountability in their part.)
When it comes to boundaries with parents, you and your spouse have to be on the same page, or you stand no chance of effectively setting a boundary with either set of parents. I would talk about some of your fears in reestablishing the relationship, and ask your husband if he’s willing to start slow such that you can make sure your mental health is protected as you begin to reconnect. That first visit could be coffee, not a week-long stay at your house. Good luck. ❤️
What would you advise to abused men who have difficulties setting boundaries with their partners?
What if hers are always more important and his are always second place?
I'm sorry you (or the person you're asking about) went through that. In this context, talking with a therapist who can help the abused person unpack the abuse and the way that might be showing up in their current relationship would be helpful. I don't know whether her limits are reasonable and this person is struggling to see them as such because of their trauma, or if her limits aren't at all reasonable and her partner is feeling scared to speak up because of their past. Basically, I can't say how much the past abuse is still a part of the current relationship, so it's hard to answer.
Thanks so much for having me today! I enjoyed talking boundaries and Whole30 with all of you and would be happy to stay connected. Find me on Instagram and brush up on your boundaries before the holidays with The Book of Boundaries. Bye!
Hi! I would say she's not doing anybody any favors by covering for their poor work performance--not her, not these colleagues, and certainly not the organization. Also, this is not sustainable. First, I'd have her update HER boss on the issues she's been having and the steps she's taken to remedy, to demonstrate she's being proactive. Then I'd ask for boss's help. "If others don't meet deadlines or specs, I can't keep projects on track. Short of doing their work for them, which I can't do and isn't the right answer even if I could, do you have any advice?" Leave this open-ended. (As a manager, if I know a team member in another department isn't doing their job well and it's affecting MY team's performance, I'm sure as hell going to go to THEIR boss to discuss.) And maybe her boss will come up with other tools or resources she could create that would be helpful.
Now, she's got the expectation set with HER boss that she will not be doing other people's jobs, or covering up for their shoddy work. Which means the next time a co-worker misses a deadline or hands in work that is incomplete, she can hand it back to them and ask them to correct it using the resources she's already provided, or let her boss know the project will be late because the deadlines she established weren't upheld. (Make sure she documents EVERYTHING in writing. In person convos should be followed up with an email: "Just so we're clear, we confirmed XYZ in that last meeting.")
Her boss should realize that keeping dead weight on the payroll isn't a good idea, and neither is burning out a talented, conscientious, high-performing employee. At the very least, this should help your wife regain some of her capacity--or it will demonstrate clearly that this isn't the kind of org capable of taking good care of a high performer like her.
What other books, articles, or projects inspired your book? Are there other resources for boundaries you look to when you are thinking of how to respond to folks' requests for advice, or for your own boundary needs?
The biggest inspiration came from my Whole30 community. I've been helping people set and hold boundaries around food and drink as part of their Whole30 commitment since 2009. Once people figured out I was good at helping them say no to breakroom donuts, birthday party pizza, and wine at happy hour, they started asking me how to say no to their pushy mother-in-law, gossipping co-worker, and energy-vampire friend. The scripts in my book all came from real-life conversations I've had with my community over the years, the advice I gave them, and the feedback they provided about how the conversation went.
I’m on round 2 of whole30 and I haven’t looked/felt this good since my college rowing days. I have a severe sweet tooth and just obliterate treats. So taking control of that impulsive behavior has been awesome.
What’s your favorite whole30 meal?
This made my day!!!! I love hearing about NSV results like this, well done. I have a few I rotate through. The Smoky Sweet Potato Chili from The Whole30 Slow Cooker (https://whole30.com/recipes/whole30-smoky-sweet-potato-chili/) is a weekly rotation all winter long--with Kite Hill sour cream on top, and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast. (You can make it with butternut squash cubes too, but I like all the carbs of sweet potato.) I also love the Pork Chili Verde from Whole30 Friends & Family (https://whole30.com/recipes/whole30-pork-chili-verde-from-the-whole30-friends-family/) and we do the chicken meatballs with spaghetti squash from Buck Naked Kitchen all the time (https://whole30.com/recipes/whole30-spaghetti-squash-with-chicken-meatballs/).
Every morning for breakfast, though, I eat my own Ground Meat with Stuff Over Stuff "recipe." Brown a pound of any ground meat. Chop and saute a shitton of veggies (I use bell pepper, mushrooms, grape tomatoes, zucchini, and onion), then mix unseasoned. I portion out a big scoop, put it over something (zoodles, spinach, mashed potatoes, lettuce greens), then top it with a dressing or sauce (pasta sauce, hot sauce, BBQ sauce, curry sauce). It's super easy, uses up veggie leftovers, and lets me mix my flavors up with just one cook-up.
Thank you for your comment on what you eat day to day! I'm doing a modified whole30 right now and have been looking for more recipies to try. I have a few favorites in heavy rotation, always looking for more. When I did whole30 in 2018, I looked and felt great, co-workers noticed, it was like I took off years. Thanks to this post, I just downloaded the audiobook version of The Book of Boundaries. Thank you for all that you do, Melissa. Wishing you and yours a beautiful holiday season!
We have a TON of free recipes on whole30recipes on Instagram, and on our website at whole30.com/recipes. Branch out and try a few new things, and when you find a favorite, add it to a list. I find that I love going back to my favorite recipe from two years ago that I haven't made in ages. I'm glad your Whole30 has worked well!
I'm an introvert who suffers from misophonia. Is it an appropriate boundary to set to live in separate homes (the homes can be next door if needed)? And if so how would you bring that up in future relationships?
I am also VERY introverted, and I tried this with my now-husband. I asked him, “do you think we could get married, but does not live in the same house?” He firmly said, “that would not work for me.” So I went back to therapy to figure out how to manage my energy such that I could live with someone again, and we’ve been happily married and co-habitating for two years.
It’s important to remember, as I talk about in the book, that you can do it anyway you want. The only people it has to make sense to and work for are you and your partner. If it’s important to you to maintain a separate household, then you’ll want to look for a partner who is comfortable with that. If you suggest that boundary and it doesn’t work for your partner, it’s their responsibility to tell you, just like my husband did. And then both of you can make the decision that’s right for you.
Apologies if this is worded incorrectly, English is not my first language. Setting boundaries sounds like it takes a lot of courage and will power. Do you have a particular story or incident where you or someone else established boundaries, that you personally are the proudest of? How has that experience of setting clear boundaries benefited you or said person?
I have a million stories. Just today someone told me a story of finally standing up to a pushy co-worker who insisted that her time was more valuable and kept trying to put meetings on this person's calendar when it clearly showed they weren't available. She set a clear boundary, the co-worker apologized, admitted she was stressed, and suggested they create a weekly standing meeting so they didn't have to keep finding a time last minute. I could feel this person's relief through the phone. Boundaries have the ability to IMMEDIATELY release anxiety, tension, dread, resentment, and anger.
How long has it been since you've been in a happy relationship for an extended period of time?
Currently! Four years (married almost 2). Healthiest relationship I’ve ever been in—worked really hard for it, too.
What locations are on your travel wishlist?
I want to go back to Iceland and Norway and take my family this time. Hiking in the Dolomites and Switzerland. Antarctica. Anywhere I can be in nature and ideally spend time hiking. But there are so many glorious places in the U.S. too! I want to go back to the Pacific NW to hike, and even some parks in Utah I haven't spent much time in, like Goblin Valley and Escalante.
Cats or Dogs?
Dogs. I love ALL dogs. I like zero cats. I also like only one child, and that's my own.
How does the idea of setting boundaries connect to a person's psychology and human nature?
I'm a big fan of Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies book. She describes four archetypes for how people respond to inner and outer expectations. The Upholder (my type) and the Rebel may find it easier to set and hold boundaries than the Obliger (people pleasers).
I'm also an Enneagram 8, the Challenger. I imagine boundaries are a lot easier for 8's than they are for 9's.
However, ANYONE can learn the skill of setting and holding boundaries. It may come more naturally for some, but it's available to all.
What would you say is the "best" way to get others to recognize and understand the boundaries you're setting if they have an inherent disagreement to those boundaries?
They don't need to agree with or understand your reason for the limit in order to respect it. If you don't want to be asked about your baby-making status, they don't need to know why--that's simply not a conversation you want to participate in. If they demonstrate they're willing to respect that, feel free to share more in an effort to deepen the relationship--but don't over-explain or over-justify because you think it will help them come around to being respectful. That often backfires.
I have noticed that caffeine does have a big impact on my anxiety, but have the hardest time coming off of it (it feels like such an ingrained habit!). Any tips for cutting down or cutting caffeine out completely? Also, how can I better communicate to others in social situations that I am not consuming this beverage for my own well-being?
Hi!! I have a two-part article on this on my website: https://www.melissau.com/xomu/giving-up-caffeine-part-1/
I don't drink caffeine and I gave it up more than a decade ago, so I have tips for weaning off and what I drink in place of regular coffee. As for telling people, I just say, "I don't drink caffeine, but I'll have an herbal tea." If they ask why, I say, "It makes me feel like shit, to be honest."
How to you manage setting boundaries in the situation where you may be financially dependent on the person? Common examples would be the young person who does not make enough money to pay rent in their city and must live with family. Or even the grown adult child who knows that their only chance to ever own real estate will be to inherit it, and thus feels obligated to spend more time with older parents or grandparents who bought their home when real estate was laughable cheap?
I have a whole section in the book on boundaries and favors, because this is tricky territory. Ideally you'd suss out any strings and set any boundaries before you accepted the favor. Like saying, "Thanks for offering to let me move in. If I do, are there expectations around how often I eat dinner with you, what time I come home, or how I spent my weekends?" If the favor has already been established, you have to decide what's more important--the benefit of the favor, or holding your limit. Some strings are too heavy to bear.
Any relation to Karl Urban?
I live far away from my parents, and have a sibling close by my parents' house. My mother confessed to me one day that she was sad that she only sees my sibling "once every two weeks". This has caused me to completely disengage from my parents - I used to feel bad about not being close, but then I realized that even if I was close, she would want to see me once a week at a minimum. Is there a good way to tell my mother that her expectations are insane and lay out a reasonable timeline for phone conversations?
Since you live far away, this isn't your boundary to set--it's your siblings', if they choose to set it. Let your parents work out their own schedule for visiting with your siblings, and you continue to visit when you are able. If they start guilting YOU for not coming home more often, you can set a boundary there, like, "Mom, please don't pressure me about coming home more. I miss you too, but a guilt trip doesn't make me feel good or help our relationship." Then, see what you are willing to offer to stay more closely connected, if anything. (If sending a few extra photos during the week feels easy to you and would make her really happy, maybe that's an effort you're willing to make.)
What advice do you have for couples who come from different backgrounds, and thus have completely different conceptions of what are acceptable boundaries?
For example, I'm from an individualistic culture, and my partner is from a more collectivist culture. We regularly disagree on acceptable boundaries for issues like personal space, touch, and family obligations.
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