How to Set Healthy Boundaries: Advice From Whole30® Co-Founder Melissa Urban

August 22, 2022

There’s always been an overlap between food and mental health, and for good reason. The two are inextricably linked, and no one knows that better than Whole30® co-founder and CEO Melissa Urban. 

“I’ve been helping people set and hold boundaries around food and drink through the Whole30® for the last 12 years,” Urban explains. In her online community, people would often ask her for advice on setting boundaries in regards to food, which quickly led to questions about setting boundaries in other areas of their lives. Urban felt the conversation was an important one, so she opened her DMs to questions on a weekly basis—and they immediately came flooding in. “Once people realized I could help them say no in one area, they began asking for advice on how to say no to their pushy mother-in-law, their toxic boss, and their emotional-dumping friend,” she says. 

This year, Urban will release The Book of Boundaries, her first book that explores a topic outside the world of nutrition. “People shared that they had used my boundary scripts and tips to radically transform their lives and improve their relationships, and asked if I’d ever considered writing a book on the subject,” she remembers. 

“Just like the early days of your Whole30®, establishing a boundary practice has a learning curve and can feel uncomfortable,” Urban says. “But life without boundaries is also uncomfortable. Avoiding certain people, constantly putting your own needs last, feeling resentment, dread, or anxiety before certain interactions (or huge swaths of your life, like work)—that’s uncomfortable too, and for most people, it’s not working out that well.”

We asked Urban to share some of her best tips from The Book of Boundaries, and her answers may inspire you to change your relationships for the better. 

Q&A with Melissa Urban, Whole30 CEO and Co-Founder and Author of The Book of Boundaries

In what ways can setting boundaries improve your life?

“Boundaries are limits you set around how people are allowed to engage with you, so that your time, energy, capacity, and mental health aren’t being sacrificed for the comfort or convenience of others. It’s worth acknowledging that you are worthy of setting those limits. Your needs matter, and it’s not selfish or mean to create a healthy dynamic where you care about yourself as much as you care about the other person.

Boundaries are designed to make your relationships better. They allow you to interact in a way that feels good to you both, knowing that you’re respecting each other’s needs. Without boundaries, you’ll likely feel anxiety, resentment, or anger around this person, and that’s not a healthy or sustainable dynamic for either of you. More than anything, boundaries are about freedom. Setting these limits will bring you the freedom to enjoy your interactions with co-workers, loved ones, friends, and neighbors, knowing your mental health, capacity, and value are being cared for and respected.”

What types of boundaries do you think are most often overlooked or neglected? 

“Boundaries at work are often overlooked because of the power dynamics at play. Yes, you work for a boss, and yes, your company pays you, but you still have every right to demand a working environment in which you feel respected, valued, and cared for. 

For similar reasons, people also find it hard to set boundaries with family members, especially parents and in-laws. If boundaries weren’t modeled for you by your own parents, you likely grew up without them, and being the change agent in an established family culture can feel intimidating. Through the magic of boundaries, you have the power to change those dysfunctional family patterns for you, and for everyone else. Setting boundaries with your family members can completely change your relationships, and set up future generations for healthier dynamics going forward.

Self-boundaries are also an often-overlooked category. Yes, you can set boundaries with yourself, and if you want Future You to be happy, healthy, productive, and at peace, you should! Self-boundaries are tricky because the consequences of a boundary over-step aren’t always obvious, and enforcement of those consequences is only up to one person—you.” 

How do you apply the concept of boundaries to nutrition, food, and health?

“Setting boundaries around what you eat or drink for the good of your physical and mental health can be an easy runway into a new boundary practice, for a few reasons. First, what you put in your mouth is always up to you, so you have the power to hold your own boundaries here. I offer a dozen ways to say No, thank you, in the book that leave zero room for argument—no one is going to accuse you of lying if you say, I just don’t feel like ice cream.

Setting boundaries here can have a powerful impact on your energy, sleep, mood, health, and self-confidence, and that spills over into the rest of your boundary practice. When you successfully hold your boundaries around breakroom donuts, your new plant-based eating plan, or wine at happy hour, you will gain the confidence to politely push back on your micromanaging boss, tell your brother he can’t borrow your car again, or ask your besties to please stop talking about weight loss at the table.” 

What are some practical and actionable tips for creating and maintaining healthy boundaries?

“In the book, I share the three steps in any boundary practice:

  1. Identify the need for a boundary
  2. Set the boundary using clear, kind language
  3. Hold the boundary

The first step might be obvious, but people often overlook pausing to ask themselves exactly what boundary would serve them best. If your in-laws constantly drop by without calling, what is your boundary? Maybe they need to call first or you’re not obligated to open the door. Maybe they can drop by whenever they want to see the kids, but if you’re busy, you won’t stop what you’re doing to visit. You can do it any way you want, but getting clear on your limit first will help you set the most effective boundary.

When it comes to step two, you have to actually set the boundary. A subtly-dropped hint, eye-roll, or passive aggressive jab doesn’t count. Pro tip: Practice your boundaries out loud! If they don’t sound authentic and conversational, reframe until they do. Get comfortable, so when it comes time to set them, they feel natural and sound confident.

Finally, setting the boundary is just half the battle—you have to be prepared to hold it, too. If someone disrespects a boundary I’ve already set, at first I’ll assume they simply forgot and I’ll restate the boundary word-for-word as a reminder. If they continue to push back or forget, I’ll elevate my boundary language to share the potential consequences if they’re not able to respect my limits. And if push comes to shove, I’ve already thought about my worst-case scenario and the actions I’ll take to keep myself safe and healthy if they prove unable to do that for me.”

Red Flags that May Signal a Boundary Overstep

According to Urban, knowing when you need to set a boundary is the first step toward better relationships (with yourself and others). Here are some signs to look for that may indicate that you need stronger boundaries: 

  • You feel dread or anxiety around a specific person or conversation topic
  • You consistently avoid certain people
  • You feel like the relationship is one-sided
  • You agree to everything just so things can “go smoothly”
  • You feel drained in someone’s presence or after you leave
  • You’ve considered “taking a break” from that person
  • You seethe inside your head after certain interactions or conversations
  • You’re willing to inconvenience yourself to an unrealistic degree just to avoid confrontation with someone 

“The Book of Boundaries” by Melissa Urban comes out on October 11, 2022, and it’s currently available for pre-order.

This article is related to:

Life Tips, Mental Health

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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