Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Setting Boundaries for the Holidays With Melissa Urban
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 391 of Live Happy Now. It’s beginning to look a lot like the holidays. For many of us, that can look more like walking through a minefield than a winter wonderland. I’m your host, Paula, Felps. This week, I’m so excited to be joined by Melissa Urban, whose best-selling The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free is changing the way people learn to say no. She’s here today to talk about how we can set boundaries this holiday season with our friends, families, and coworkers to make it less stressful and more manageable. Believe me, once you’ve tried it, you’ll realize these are habits you want to carry with you into the New Year. Let’s listen.
[00:00:43] PF: Melissa, welcome to Live Happy Now.
[00:00:46] MU: Thank you so much for having me. It’s really great to talk to you, Paula.
[00:00:49] PF: What perfect timing to be able to talk to you because we have the holidays coming up. You have The Book of Boundaries. Oh, my God. Those two things go together.
[00:01:00] MU: Don’t they, though?
[00:01:01] PF: Or don’t go together too often. Once I got this book, I really wanted to talk to you and especially wanted to do it with a holiday theme. Before we dig into all that, tell us how you became the boundary lady. Is that who you are?
[00:01:14] MU: Yeah. It is now. At least that’s how a lot of my followers spouses know me on Instagram. “Oh, you got that information from the boundary lady, didn’t you?” I’ve been helping people set and hold boundaries since the earliest days of the Whole30. So I’m the Whole30 co-founder, and I founded the program in 2009. If you’re familiar with the Whole30, it’s a 30-day elimination program. So you’re eliminating foods and beverages for 30 days kind of as a self-experiment before you reintroduce them and compare your experience.
For those 30 days, you’re saying no a lot to break room doughnuts and your mother’s pasta and the glass of wine at happy hour. I quickly discovered that people were uncomfortable saying no, especially in social settings, especially when faced with peer pressure or pushback. So I started helping people say no, in the context of their Whole30, around food and alcohol and talking about their diets and the food on their plate and their bodies. That naturally led to them asking me, “Okay. Well, what do I say to my mother-in-law who’s always dropping by without calling, or the coworker who’s always gossiping, or my nosy neighbor who’s always asking if he can borrow power tools?”
My boundary conversations just very naturally spilled over into that arena, and they really kicked into high gear when the pandemic hit. Because I think we all realize during the pandemic that we lacked healthy boundaries around work and home and kids in school. It was all starting to run together. Especially women and especially moms were really burned out and exhausted. So I’ve been doing this work really in earnest since then.
[00:03:01] PF: This book is amazing. It is so comprehensive, and it covers everything imaginable. I was just so knocked out as I was going through it. In that book, you offer such a great definition of boundaries. I just loved it. It’s like I was underlining it. H many times can I underline? Because we talk about boundaries, but we don’t necessarily understand what they are. So can you tell us what you mean when you’re talking about boundaries?
[00:03:26] MU: Yes. I often think there’s a misconception. Boundaries are about controlling other people or telling other people what to do. Or putting these big walls up between you and other people or holding people at a distance. None of that is true. So I define boundaries as limits that you set around how you allow other people to engage with you. So a boundary doesn’t tell someone else what to do. It tells others what you are willing to do, the actions that you are going to take to keep yourself safe and healthy.
Ultimately, boundaries improve your relationships. They’re an invitation to the people in your life to say, “Hey, I have this limit. And you may not have been aware that I’ve had it but I’m going to communicate this limit to you clearly and kindly as an invitation. Because if you can show up in my life in a way that also respects this limit, our relationship can be so much more open and more trusting and more respectful and feel good to both of us.”
[00:04:33] PF: So it improves relationships, but it also really improves our mental health.
[00:04:38] MU: Yes.
[00:04:38] PF: Can you talk about what does it do for us to be able to set and maintain those boundaries?
[00:04:44] MU: So I want you to think about a situation in your life that brings on this idea of dread or anxiety. Maybe it’s –
[00:04:51] PF: How many would you like?
[00:04:53] MU: I know. Let’s just start with one. Maybe it’s a particular person, where every time you see their name come up on your phone or they walk by or you know they’re going to be at an event, you just cringe like, “Oh, I do not want to be with this person. I don’t want to engage.” Maybe it’s around a particular conversation topic, where you know that if the subject of your weight or your body or politics or religion or when you’re going to have a baby or your chronic illness come up, you just feel this sense of real anxiety or dread.
Those are all signs that a boundary is needed. When you think about how a boundary can protect our mental health, boundaries are what help us eliminate or at least dramatically reduce that sense of dread and anxiety, resentment, mistrust, all of the things that cause stress and cause us to show up not as our full selves in relationships. They really help us reclaim our time, our energy, our capacity, our physical space, our sense of safety, and our mental health.
[00:05:59] PF: Yeah. Your book really emphasizes how important it is to be able to create healthy boundaries. If they’re so good for us, why are they so hard? Why? They should be easy, right?
[00:06:10] MU: Well, first of all, and I’ll speak for myself, but as women and then especially as moms, we’ve been conditioned our whole lives not to have needs. As a mom, I am praised the most when I am selfless, having no needs, having no wants, no desires of my own, and putting everyone else’s comfort and sense of security and happiness above my own. Then when we do have needs and we express them, no matter how politely or kindly we do, we’re told we’re selfish or cold or that we have too many rules. Often we’re told those things by the people who benefit the most from us not having any limits.
I think there’s a lot for us to unlearn before we think about setting boundaries. Then on top of that, I’ll acknowledge, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to advocate for your feelings, to point out a way in which someone you truly care about was overstepping. Even if their intentions were good, it’s uncomfortable to advocate for yourself, and that does make the idea of boundaries feel challenging.
[00:07:20] PF: So do you recommend that somebody starts with like small boundaries and then kind of works up to the bigger stuff? Or do we dive right in and tackle the big issues? What’s the best way to approach this?
[00:07:32] MU: I think there are a ton of entry points here. So for some, I’d say starting with boundaries around food and drink, whether you’re doing a Whole30, which is essentially a boundary like boot camp, or whether you’re just going into the next event, practicing saying, “No, thanks. I’m not drinking right now. No, thanks. I’m not eating gluten right now. No, I’m good. No, thank you.”
Practicing that, I think, can be incredibly empowering because, A, you always have control over what you choose to eat or drink. Like I doubt anyone at that party is going to like sit on you and pour alcohol into your throat. Saying no to foods and drinks that you know don’t serve you also brings you energy and better sleep and a happier mood and improved digestion. So that has a spillover effect into other areas of your life and can really help build confidence.
In other times, when people read the book, they go, “You know what? My relationship with my coworker or mom or best friend has been bothering me for so long. I’m just going to go in and I’m going to like go in hard. I’m going to set the one limit that is going to bring me the most relief in my life. It’s going to help me reclaim the most time and energy and mental health, and I feel prepared, and I have the script, and like I’m going to go in strong.”
It kind of just depends on like what you’re up for and how big you want to go. But I don’t think there’s any one way to start a boundary practice. I think the important thing is just to start practicing.
[00:08:59] PF: Yeah. You just mentioned the script, and that’s something that I love about this book because not only do you say this is why you should do it, and this is how you do it. You actually give a script to talk us through that. How did you come up with those because you have something for everything?
[00:09:16] MU: I do. I have more than 130 scripts in the book, and each script has three different levels of boundary conversation. Your green level, which is sort of the kindest, gentlest. The yellow, which is, okay, you’re getting some pushback, and you really need to reinforce the boundary. Then the red, which is like, “We are at code red here. The relationship is about to be permanently damaged if I am not able to hold this limit.”
I started writing scripts many years ago because my Whole30 community would come to me and they’d say, “Okay, I need to set a boundary around going to my office happy hour but not drinking.” I’m like, “Okay, how can I help?” They were like, “What do I say? I know I need to set the boundary. I know how it would benefit me, but I don’t know how to say it.” So I started helping people with actual scripts that sound very natural, very conversational. They don’t sound like therapy speak.
But because this is so uncomfortable, I find arming people with a script that they can practice at home. Tell your shower wall, “No, thanks. I’m not drinking right now,” right? Repeat it to your car, to your dog so that your body absorbs it somatically, and you get really comfortable with the phrase. I think it makes people feel more confident heading into the boundary conversations and makes them feel less like they have to wing it. It tends to help them not water down their boundaries so much that it’s ineffective. Or come out of the gate so strong, too strong that they do end up damaging the relationship in an attempt to set the limit.
[00:10:44] PF: What’s so great about it is the fact that you do give pushback, like if this is happening, instead of – Too oftentimes, if you’re doing like a role playing type of thing, the other party is like too easy. They make it too easy on you. So that’s something that’s so great about that. People can really practice really setting that boundary.
[00:11:02] MU: Yes. I want you to go into the conversations, assuming that the other person just didn’t realize that you had a limit. Once you express it, they will be happy to meet it. Because most of the time, that’s what happens. So you don’t have to go in geared up for battle. I want you to assume the best. Also, of course, I’m going to prepare you if you do encounter pushback or peer pressure, or the people in your life continue to forget that you set this limit. I want you to have the words to be able to enforce it at the same time.
[00:11:34] PF: That is so terrific and one area. This is why I wanted to talk to you. You’ve created scripts about the holidays. Oh, my gosh. There are so many minefields in the holiday season that I wanted to talk about. Can we start with families? This is so tough because the holidays are already challenging. Then we go home, and we start slipping back into these old family patterns and routines. So like, first of all, why do we do that? Why don’t we remain the adults that we are when we go back home?
[00:12:04] MU: I’ve never felt more like my 16-year-old self than when I sit down at my mom’s dining room table. I think it’s just childhood patterns and relationship dynamics run really deep. We absorb a lot of who we become as a person from our parents. So like my family, we didn’t model healthy conflict. We kind of practiced avoidance. I’m going to want to keep the peace at all cost. I’m not going to want to bring up things that are uncomfortable or say something that I know someone’s going to argue with. I’m going to want to be the peacekeeper.
If your parents grew up fighting and always wanting you to pick sides, you may withdraw in family situations. There are so many reasons why setting boundaries with family and family dynamics can be really challenging. But at the same time, it’s never too late to be the change agent in your family and start to create new relationships. The holidays can certainly feel like a perfect storm of boundary oversteps. I do want people to be prepared to go into all of these challenges thinking about, okay, what are the limits that I need to set specifically, and how can I communicate those effectively?
[00:13:13] PF: Do you start setting those before the holidays? Do you wait till you’re right there? How and when do you start unpacking all this?
[00:13:21] MU: Anytime you can have a boundary conversation well ahead of the situation, when you are not enmeshed in it, when in the moment. Of course, I want you to set boundaries in the moment if needed but if you can set the expectation ahead of time. “Hey, mom and dad. Really looking forward to seeing you for Christmas this year. Just so you know, we’re going to spend Christmas morning at home, just the three of us. We really want a quiet morning, and we’ll come by at around noon before dinner.”
Whatever boundary you need to set. “Hey, really looking forward to seeing you over the holidays. I know we disagree on politics, and it would make our visit far more pleasant if we could all agree just not to bring it up. Is that something we can all live with because it makes none of us happy when we have those discussions over the table?” Whatever the conversation seems like, if you can anticipate a boundary challenge and set expectation ahead of time and get buy in, that makes holding the boundary in the moment even easier.
[00:14:17] PF: So what happens if they buy in in advance? But then in the actual situation, things start denigrating. Here come the political comments. What do you do then? Because you’ve already said it, and now they’re breaking the rules.
[00:14:30] MU: This is why I give you yellow scripts. You’ve already set the expectation. They say, “Yeah, we understand. It’s not fun for anybody when politics come up.” Then you’re at the table, and Uncle Joe brings up immigration. This is where you say, “Oh, oh. Wait, wait. We agreed. No politics at the table, Uncle Joe. But, hey, I know you just went on vacation. How was it? I don’t think I even saw any photos. How did it go?”
So you address the boundary overstep. You say, “I am not participating in this conversation,” and you quickly change the subject to allow everyone to move on gracefully. If they continue to talk over you and talk politics at the table, your red level boundary is, “I already said I won’t participate in these conversations. Please excuse me.” You leave the table. You go for a walk. You step outside to make a phone call. You go in the other room with your kids, whatever that looks like. The red boundary is you holding the boundary by saying, “I am removing myself from this situation because it does not feel healthy to me.”
[00:15:26] PF: You are teaching everyone at the table such a fantastic lesson because whether they want boundaries in that moment or not, there are other things in their lives that they’re going, “Oh, I wonder if I can use this?”
[00:15:38] MU: Yes, yeah. Often all it takes is for one person. It’s a hard job to be the change agent in a family. But if you can do it, there’s a really good chance that other people in the family have felt like you too, and they just haven’t wanted to say anything. I have absolutely watched in my community the ripple effects of you setting your boundary trickle out very quickly to everyone else, who will then back you up in this limit.
[00:16:03] PF: How can it change families if all of a sudden, gosh, we’re not getting together, and we’re not ripping open old wounds, and we’re not fighting about our differences, but we’re looking for ways to actually get along and be together and find commonality? How does that change your whole dynamic that time and going forward?
[00:16:20] MU: Imagine what your upcoming holiday would feel like if you knew that when you showed up at your family’s house, nobody was going to bring up politics. Nobody was going to comment on the food on your plate or talk about your weight loss or their weight loss or their diets or your bodies. Nobody was going to try to make you feel guilty when after the meal, you said, “Okay, it’s time for us to go to dad’s house now. It was so nice to visit with you. Thank you so much.”
The sense of like immediate freedom and relief that you would feel, knowing you could go into these holidays with not only these preset expectations but the words to hold the boundaries, should you find in the moment that people overstep, I think would just absolutely feel tremendous. It would give you a sense of self confidence. It would remind you that you are in control and take responsibility for your own feelings. It gives you the power to actually hold the boundary because you’re not relying on anyone else to kind of hold that for you or to join you. If they decide that they can’t or won’t hold this healthy limit, you know the action you’re going to take to keep yourself safe.
[00:17:29] PF: You also talk about managing that guilt of not spending enough time with the other side of the family. Once you’re married, once you have children, it gets even more complicated. I’ve seen so many of my friends go through this, where they are just run ragged by the end of Christmas Day because they feel like they have to give both sides. Sometimes, it’s like four sides because you have divorces with the parents and then the grandparents. Nobody’s happy the end of the day because everyone’s just exhausted. So how do you manage that kind of guilt and everything that’s going on with separate sides of the family?
[00:18:05] MU: This is what psychologists call unearned guilt. This is not guilt because you have done something wrong, and it is biologically serving you and your community by you feeling bad and remembering that you did something wrong, so you don’t do it again. This is unearned guilt that we are choosing to take on. So in the simplest way, you don’t have to feel guilty. You can just say, “No, thank you.”
What I am doing now is creating traditions for my family. This is a time-honored tradition that my parents did when they had me and their parents did when they had them. We are creating a new family unit now, and I want to create traditions with my children the way that my parents did with me. There’s a chance that your mom didn’t feel comfortable setting boundaries with your grandmother. That might be a big part of the reason why they get so upset and defensive and hurt when you set boundaries with them from this sense of like jealousy that they wish they could have done this with you when you were kids. You’re doing it now.
That can be very challenging for older generations. But I think it’s perfectly acceptable to think about and decide as a family together, what do we want our holidays to look like? Then to notify other family members what you are and are not willing to do.
[00:19:24] PF: That’s terrific because I know in our family, my partner’s uncle, it was tradition. Christmas Eve was at his house. What was very funny is everybody complained. Nobody wanted to go there. For years, everybody has to go to Uncle Bobby’s, and we’re just like, “They’re complaining the whole time.” So about three years ago, probably about five years ago now, her brother’s like, “We’re not going to do it,” and everyone’s like, “Wait a minute. We don’t have to do this?” “Let’s just say that’s no longer a family tradition.” It’s amazing because it’s like you get time back, and you get this freedom that just didn’t seem to exist prior to that.
[00:20:00] MU: That’s such a good example of one person. Like everybody thinking it and just one person being willing to say it. Yes. I like to remind people, you can do it any way you want. So we have this nontraditional approach to Christmas with my parents, where it’s like, “Hey, whether we celebrate it on Christmas Day or January 29th, it kind of doesn’t matter. We’re going to have Christmas in a way and a time that works for all of us.” They’ll keep their tree up late, and we’ll hold presents for my son. But we get to celebrate in a way that doesn’t stress everybody out.
So you can have those nontraditional celebrations. You can choose to not go anywhere at all, and you don’t need an excuse to stay home. It doesn’t have to be, well, we’re going to take a vacation this year. It can be we just don’t want to travel, and we want a quiet Christmas at home, and we’re not accepting visitors, and we’re not going to go anywhere. We’ll happily FaceTime with you. If we celebrate Christmas in July, then that’s fantastic too. But I encourage people to think outside the box because you can create traditions any way you choose as a family.
[00:21:04] PF: We’re just not used to thinking we can do that. We’re just not used to thinking that we can go, especially in the holidays. That we can just say, “Yeah, we’re not participating in that tradition. We want to create our own.” But how important is it for our children to see us taking that initiative and for them to understand like, “Yes, I can create my own boundaries going forward.”?
[00:21:25] MU: Yes. It’s so important for your kid. People often say, “How do I impart this idea of healthy boundaries with my kids?” It’s setting and holding healthy boundaries on behalf of you and the family and modeling that for your kids. You’re also doing this on their behalf. My son does not enjoy being in a car most of Christmas day, as we travel hours and hours between all of the families. But he loves that he gets four Christmases, one with us, one with grandma, one with Grandpa, one with his dad. He loves that we get to spread it out over the course of a month.
So it really does make everybody’s time easier, and you can acknowledge your family members’ disappointment, “I’m sorry that we won’t be spending the day with you,” while still holding the boundary. We’ll make sure we have plenty of time to visit two weekends from now when we come, and we’ll do all of the Christmas things. We’ll sing carols, we’ll sit around the tree, we’ll play games, and it will be just as festive.
[00:22:21] PF: That is such a wonderful way to approach it. The other thing that really interferes – Not interferes. That can take some time is our work place during this time of year. You’ve got holiday parties, and those are often obligatory. How do we set boundaries around that? Because we’re walking a fine line since it is work, and some things might be required.
[00:22:43] MU: It is challenging, of course, to set boundaries in the workplace because of the power dynamics in play. I think a lot of times, companies sometimes – It’s not that they leave it until the last minute, but you’ve got projects. You’ve got deadlines. You’ve got goals kind of that you want to wrap up by year end. Again, setting expectations ahead of time is key. If you are going to be taking time off during the holidays, it’s requesting that plenty early, reminding people ahead of time like, “Hey. Just so you remember, I’ll be out. I would send this email out like December 1st. I’m going to be out from this point to this point around the holidays. I will not be checking email or Slack. I will not be participating in meetings.”
Make it very clear that you are out of office. If we need to have meetings ahead of time to set deliverables, let me know. I’m going to have XYZ cover my deliverables during this time period. So everyone knows who to go to. Those little reminders along the way can really help to set the expectation so that when somebody does send an email or text to you to ask you a question, you can say, “I am out of office and not responding to text. I’ll be back in the office on this date.”
So I think that’s really important to communicate very clearly. But then you also have to set the boundary with yourself that if you say you’re out of office, you’re not checking email. You’re not responding to just like that one Slack message really quick because now you’re changing the expectation, and people will take as much as you are willing to give.
[00:24:04] PF: Yeah. You have some great illustrations in your book about that. About the poor woman who was on vacation.
[00:24:10] MU: That was my sister. That was my sister. It was –
[00:24:13] PF: Oh, my God. I was horrified.
[00:24:15] MU: Whose boss is like –
[00:24:15] PF: [inaudible 00:24:15] story real quick because that’s just horrifying.
[00:24:18] MU: She worked in a very toxic workplace environment, where her boss tracked her down on her first vacation in over a year and like called her off of her paddleboard in the middle of the ocean for something that was absolutely not an emergency. Though my sister tried to set boundaries a number of times in that organization, they very clearly demonstrated that this was not a place where boundaries would be respected. So she did all she could to create a healthier workplace environment and could not and ended up finding a new job. But at least she tried.
That’s what I say to people in the workplace. Your only options are not to let your employer or coworkers continue to run you over or quit and get a new job. There are a number of options in the middle where you can try at least to set and hold boundaries around your work time, your personal time, your ethics or values or your personal space. If they don’t hold and you’re not able to maintain those boundaries because the workplace is simply not amenable to them, at least you know you’ve done everything you could to try to make your workplace culture healthy.
[00:25:22] PF: Yeah. That is so terrific. Can you talk about what happens to us when we start practicing setting boundaries? Because it seems like once you’ve kind of mastered it, you’re probably going to get pretty good at it in a lot of different areas that you didn’t even think about going into it.
[00:25:37] MU: I think you do. Boundaries kind of bring about this sense of inertia, where an object in motion stays in motion. What happens is it becomes like this self-affirming prophecy. So you steal yourself and you say, “I deserve to set this limit. My needs are worthy. My comfort is worthy. My feelings matter, just as much as anybody else’s, and I am going to set this limit because I know it is for the best for my health and safety, and I know it’s going to improve the relationship.” You set the limit, and the other person respects it, and your relationship improves. Now, you’re like, “Okay. Now, I have the self-confidence to seek out other areas,” and you feel more comfortable setting them. You feel more comfortable holding them.
Other people in your life experience this real sense of safety around you because they know that you mean what you say and that you will take responsibility for your own feelings and your own needs. That is a very comforting and reassuring place to be, and you’re allowing other people in your life to say no to you. So now, you’re both showing up where you want to, how you want to in a way that feels good to both of you. It has this tremendous cascade effect, this ripple effect that will move through all of your relationships at work, with family, with friends, with total strangers on the street. It really is such a powerful, transformative experience that anyone can start literally right now.
[00:27:02] PF: That’s so excellent. This book is absolutely incredible. It is so informative, educational, inspiring, and funny. There’s just so much that we can take away from it. This is terrific. We are going to – In the wrap up, I’m going to tell people how they can follow you on social media, where they can find you, where they can buy your book. But as they enter the holiday season, what’s the thing that you most want them to keep in mind?
[00:27:27] MU: I want you to keep in mind that your comfort, your joy, the sense of magic and wonder that the holidays can bring are all at your disposal this year with a healthy boundary practice.
[00:27:41] PF: I love it. Melissa, thank you so much for coming on the show, for writing this book, and for sharing this with us.
[00:27:47] MU: Thanks so much Paula. It was a joy to talk to you as well.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:27:54] PF: That was Melissa Urban, author of The Book of Boundaries: Set the Limits That Will Set You Free. If you’d like to learn more about Melissa and her work, follow her on social media, or buy her book, visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.