The Book of Boundaries (2022) is a pragmatic and empowering guide to setting healthy relationship limits. It provides over 130 scripts to ensure you always have the right words to set boundaries and create healthier, happier relationships.
Introduction: Respectfully set and enforce boundaries to solve relationship issues.
Living next to a vampire is a pain in the neck. But you can’t very well ask them to switch diets. So what’s a poor human to do? The solution is simple: stay indoors. Vampires may be powerful creatures, but they’re polite enough not to enter your home without permission. The same is true for other kinds of belligerent bloodsuckers whose negative behaviors threaten to ruin your life: you have to set boundaries.
But how? This summary to The Book of Boundaries is here to help you. It will teach you what boundaries are, when and where you might need to use them, and a few specific scripts for deploying this valuable life skill. You’ll learn how to set and enforce boundaries to solve relationship problems while remaining respectful of others – including vampires!
Setting limits is being kind to yourself and your relationships.
Morning walks are a great way to start the day. They help clear your head and prepare you for work. But what if an elderly neighbor joins you uninvited? It can be tough telling them you prefer to walk alone. When you feel agitated, exhausted, or overloaded like this, it’s a sign that you need to set a boundary. Boundaries are essential for maintaining energy and self-esteem. It’s not just about stating your position; it’s about being kind to yourself. And kindness requires clarity. Repeat after me: “Clear is kind.” So, for the walking scenario, you might say, Hi! This week, I’m going to start walking by myself. I need this time alone to clear my head.
It’s easy to think of boundaries as something to use in difficult or dangerous situations. But the truth is that boundaries simply limit what we’re willing to accept from others. Setting limits isn’t easy. It can be uncomfortable. But so is constantly being anxious or avoiding certain people or subjects. Just remember, when you set a boundary, you’re also being kind to your relationships. You need to start speaking plainly and being honest about what you want. But how do you know when you should put a barrier in place?
The answer is when you hear your inner voice. You know, it’s the one which says things like, “Wow, I’m not going to answer that,” or, “Well, not really, but I feel like I have no choice.” Of course, these warnings aren’t always dramatic. Neither does the solution have to be. In the following section, we’ll use Melissa Urban’s “threat-level” system to help you decide when and where to place the proper restrictions to protect yourself.
Use the threat-level system if your safety or mental health is in danger.
A woman at the party eyed Melissa suspiciously. She asked Melissa why she wasn’t drinking, unaware that the author was in recovery. Melissa told her that she just didn’t feel like it that evening. Melissa didn’t believe she was in danger but chose to walk away. Later, the same party guest “jokingly” asked why she was acting so prudishly. Now Melissa’s alarm bells were ringing. Her thoughts curiously wandered to the Homeland Security Advisory System for risk management.
Was this a green threat? No. That was half an hour ago. The danger level is yellow. The drunk woman became preoccupied with Melissa as the evening progressed. She approached the teetotaler once more, insisting both of them drink shots. Then, boom! The threat level hit red. Melissa had to leave.
When someone threatens your safety or mental health in this way, you should be aware and ready to act. Thankfully, the threat-level system allows you to do just that. Green indicates the first unkind or awkward comment. Your reply should be firm. Here you’re giving people the benefit of the doubt. For example, you could say, “No, thank you. I’m not drinking right now.”
Use a yellow response if they ignore your Green boundary. Yellow is also a good choice if you know this person and think that stuff might hit the fan. Use powerful words like; “No. I have more fun when I don’t drink, so I won’t be drinking tonight.” Don’t bother justifying your boundary. Too much explanation is unnecessary. It often aggravates the situation.
A red threat signals danger. Use direct language. Make this their final reminder, and make it clear that you’re prepared to stand firm. Declare the consequence and be ready to enforce it, such as “It sounds like you’re saying I’m no fun without booze, which is upsetting. I hope you don’t pressure people to drink again. I’m leaving.” Every boundary you set must be enforceable.
It’s normal to feel anxious or guilty when setting clear boundaries. But practice will help you improve. Remember why you’re doing this; your needs matter. If you’ve experienced trauma, a boundary can be scary. If so, you should try counseling to help you regain control.
Now that you know why limits are necessary let’s look at more uses for them.
Saying no helps improve your workplace.
Like a raging whirlwind, the pandemic swept through everyone’s lives. People had to adjust to a new world. Eventually, we established a new morning routine, work hours, and leisure time to feel normal again. But the line between home and work is still blurry for millions. Email inboxes are overflowing. Phones buzz in the middle of the night. It’s hardly surprising. After all, we’re hardwired to take as much time, energy, and attention for ourselves as we can. Given this, we should reassess our boundaries to maintain a positive and productive work environment. But where do we start?
Well, the most common types of work constraints are time-based. Do you find yourself constantly bombarded with new tasks and deadlines? You’re not alone. Another aspect to note is personal time. Perhaps you don’t take enough vacation or sick days or continually come home exhausted. Also, personal space and energy can become an issue if people constantly intrude on your mental health or privacy at work.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s time to make changes. But how do you start saying no, particularly to your boss? You can start by combining your threat level with a boundary script. So, if a job is dumped on you once, it’s a green alert; you can say, “I can add this to my in-tray if you’re OK delaying or removing other tasks.” If your signal switches to yellow, try saying: “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time. I already have so much to do.” Finally, if things really go wrong, contact the people involved. For example, you can email them and say: “I’ve reached a tipping point. Any extra work would be harmful to my performance and mental health. Let’s set up a meeting to discuss potential solutions.” Make a record of your jobs and any extra requests your manager may need to be aware of.
Prepare for resistance. Coworkers or bosses may call you “unprofessional” or chastise you for “not being a team player.” You might also have to deal with passive-aggressive comments but keep in mind that healthy boundaries are good for you and the company’s bottom line. They make you more productive at work and energize you when you’re not there.
Is it common for you, your coworkers, or your managers to work extra hours without pay? Reading your company’s handbook and HR policies can help you figure out what’s OK and what’s not. And don’t be afraid to write everything down.
Putting your needs on paper ensures everyone is on the same page. That just about wraps up business. Now let’s discuss family boundaries.
It’s fine to tell your parents exactly what you need from them.
Grandma has the best candy and enjoys giving it to her grandchildren. But, when mom drives them home, her kids are left with enough energy to power the sun. It feels like a betrayal because Grandma has already been asked not to do this. If you’ve been through this or something similar, you need to draw the line. But how do you go about doing so without jeopardizing future visits?
First, remember that “clear is kind.” Second, talk to the grandparents and try to find some common ground. Use this time to thank them for all they did to raise you and to acknowledge how much they love your children. Agree that their rules apply when the kids are at their house. But it’s your rules when it comes to your kids’ health. While it can be difficult if your parents don’t agree with your parenting style or practices, remember, this is your life and they’re your children. It’s perfectly fine to tell your parents exactly what you need or expect from them.
As we’ve already said, the most challenging part of setting boundaries is finding the right words. If you have an obnoxious or awkward grandparent, use the following script, “Please don’t give the children sweets before I come to pick them up; it makes them fidgety on the way home. I’d gladly give them snacks to bring with them next time.” Remind the grandparents that they’ve earned a vacation from parenting. Politely tell them you know what’s best for your family. If this has happened before, switch to a yellow script and state: “Mum, I’ve asked you many times not to feed the kids sweets before I pick them up. If you can’t respect that, I won’t be able to bring them over anymore.”
Again, prepare for resistance. Most families aren’t familiar with somebody enforcing new rules. But you shouldn’t be concerned with how others react to your limit. If you can’t persuade your parents to reconsider, you may have to go nuclear! Engage your red script and include your consequence, which should sound something like this: “I’m not going to let the kids sleep over but you’re welcome to come to our house and visit.”
Since the family dynamic can’t change overnight, you’ll likely need to practice and repeat your boundaries. But small steps forward are better than none at all. So that’s taken care of the grandparents. Next, let’s talk about another sensitive subject: the in-laws.
The “magic number” can help couples reach an agreement.
The pop-in. It’s the scourge of the modern world. We’ve all been there. You’re minding your own business, enjoying some alone time when you hear your back door open. “Hello? Is anybody in?” You feel your heart sink in frustration. You know you’ve just lost a couple of hours of your day to please somebody else.
Normally, to combat intrusion, you might use a script saying something like: “Please call ahead before you visit.” Unfortunately, dealing with in-laws is more difficult than a standard inconvenience. It requires a more balanced approach. So how do you stop the pop-in without upsetting the applecart? It starts with an honest conversation with your partner.
Now, your other half is likely aware of how their parents act. They probably ignore any concerns so they can have a quiet life. So talk to your partner openly and ask them to respect your boundaries. If you’re already on shaky ground, try the magic-number tool to help you reach an agreement. This method is simple. Ask yourself, On a scale of one to ten, how much does it bother me when my mother-in-law shows up unexpectedly? Then ask your companion, “How important is it to you, from one to ten, that your mother can come and go as she pleases?” If you rate the situation an eight and your partner scores their answer a five, you both know which path to take before you set the boundary. And without complicating matters further.
Of course, each situation is different and some compromise may be required. But as long as you’re honest and know that setting the limit is more important than any power play, the magic number is a great way to start a conversation. Limiting family members can be challenging. So, next, we’ll cover personal relationship boundaries.
Say what you mean and trust your partner to do the same.
The start of a relationship can be so much fun – full of mystery and ambiguity. Though if you don’t progress past this point, you can soon face problems. Imagine you’re in a relationship and things are going great. You’re happy and excited about your future together. But then something happens that leaves you hurt and confused. Typically, the root of the problem is that you didn’t say what you meant, which can be just as damaging to a relationship as lying. So what can you do to prevent this?
Start by grabbing a chisel and carving the following phrase into stone, or put it on a plaque and display it on your desk. Whatever. Just remember the golden rule of relationships: say what you mean. Always say what you mean and trust your partner to do the same. When discussing difficult situations, speak clearly and kindly and hold them to the same standard.
Communication must flow both ways. So if your partner says, “I want to hit the town tonight – I’ve been feeling down and need time with my friends,” accept they mean it. If your spouse going out makes you feel abandoned, say so. Note that this isn’t gender-specific. Both parties must decide which option they’re willing to give up.
To recap, the golden rule prevents drama. It helps create a positive relationship dynamic by promoting communication, trust, and respect. As you can see, boundaries can be helpful but aren’t always necessary.
Setting clear, kind boundaries helps you identify your needs and encourages others to respect them. When they work, you’ll feel more confident and realize that setting limits isn’t selfish. With your newfound confidence, you can then set boundaries in other areas. You can suddenly say no to things that don’t serve you.
Of course, you can also set boundaries for yourself – who doesn’t need a little self-control every now and then? There’s always one more chocolate to eat or Instagram scroll before bedtime. The freedom that comes with setting a boundary can help you stick to it. Say you need to reduce your phone use; tell yourself, “I’ll be rested if I don’t look at my phone one hour before bed and I’ll get a better night’s sleep.” Suddenly, those late-night scrolls seem a lot less appealing. Automating boundary-setting can help. Keep your phone out of your room to avoid temptation.
So that’s it. You’re now ready to establish some boundaries. If you’re still worried and don’t see a specific solution in this summary, create your own alert scripts based on your threat levels. You’ll be surprised at how much better you feel and how much your life improves.
About the author
Melissa Urban is CEO of the Whole30 and an authority on helping people create lifelong healthy habits. She is a six-time New York Times bestselling author (including the #1 bestseller The Whole30); and has been featured by Dr. Oz, Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and CNBC. She lives with her husband, son, and a poodle named Henry in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Communication Skills, Personal Development, Self Help, Psychology, Relationships, Mental Health, Inspirational, Leadership, Parenting, Social Skills, Interpersonal Relations, Happiness
Table of Contents
Author’s Note xi
Introduction: How I Became the “Boundary Lady” 3
Part 1 Boundary Beginnings 31
1 A Crash Course on Boundaries 33
2 How to Use This Book 65
Part 2 Your Boundary Practice 77
3 The Real Work/Life Balance: Setting Boundaries in the Workplace 79
4 When the Drama Is Your Mama: Setting Boundaries with Parents and In-Laws, Grandparents, and Other Family Members 125
5 Relationships We (Mostly) Chooses: Setting Boundaries with Friends and Neighbors 180
6 Love, Marriage, Sex, and Dishes: Setting Boundaries in Romantic Relationships 222
7 When You Can’t Just Walk Away: Setting Boundaries with Co-Parents 284
8 Clearing the Table: Setting Boundaries Around Food, Alcohol, and Table Talk 306
9 Handle with Care: Setting Boundaries Around Sensitive Subjects 348
10 Gifts to Future You: Setting and Holding Boundaries with Yourself 392
Part 3 Boundary Benefits 427
11 Gifts to the World: How to Hold Your Boundaries, and Everyone Else’s 429
12 The Magic of Boundaries 460
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • End resentment, burnout, and anxiety—and reclaim your time, energy, health, and relationships. As the co-founder of the Whole30, Melissa Urban helped millions of people transform their relationship with food. Now, in this powerful and practical guide to setting boundaries, she shows you how to prioritize your needs and revolutionize your relationships.
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Mindful
Do your relationships often feel one-sided or unbalanced? Are you always giving in just so things will go smoothly? Do you wish you could learn to say no—but, like, nicely? Are you depleted, overwhelmed, and tired of putting everyone else’s needs ahead of your own? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to establish some boundaries.
Since launching the mega-bestselling wellness program the Whole30, Melissa Urban has taught millions of people how to establish healthy habits and successfully navigate pushback and peer pressure. She knows firsthand that boundaries—clear limits you set to protect your energy, time, and health—are the key to feelings of security, confidence, and freedom in every area of your life.
Now, in The Book of Boundaries, she shows you how boundaries are the key to better mental health, increased energy, improved productivity, and more fulfilling relationships.
In her famously direct and compassionate style, Urban offers:
- 130+ scripts with language you can use to instantly establish boundaries with bosses and co-workers, romantic partners, parents and in-laws, co-parents, friends, family, neighbors, strangers—and yourself
- actionable advice to help you communicate your needs with clarity and compassion
- tips for successfully navigating boundary guilt, pushback, pressure, and oversteps
- techniques to create healthy habits around food, drink, technology, and more
User-friendly and approachable, The Book of Boundaries will give you the tools you need to stop justifying, minimizing, and apologizing, leading you to more rewarding relationships and a life that feels bigger, healthier, and freer.
“Melissa Urban shows the way forward with clarity, vulnerability, and humor.”—Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies
“I always tell my therapy patients that boundaries create trust, comfort, and safety in a relationship, but many people struggle with how to effectively communicate what they need. In The Book of Boundaries, Melissa Urban helps you identify your boundary needs, offers actionable scripts on what to say, and shares proven tips based on a decade of experience helping people live more freely by holding their limits with confidence.”—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk To Someone
“The Book of Boundaries is funny, direct, and smart, bringing you actionable tools and science-backed strategies for setting boundaries using language that feels kind, natural, and empowering. Melissa’s straightforward scripts and practical tips makes it easy to identify your limits and communicate them with confidence, so you can start putting yourself first and create a life that feels bigger, freer, and more authentically YOU.”—Mel Robbins, New York Times bestselling author of The 5 Second Rule
“Helpful as hell and lovingly direct, Melissa Urban is the boundaries big sister we all so desperately need. Through her insightful advice and easy-to-follow scripts, Urban teaches you how to stand up for yourself without walling yourself off from the people you love.”—Tara Schuster, author of Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies
“Setting healthy boundaries is good for your relationships, your business, and your finances. The Book of Boundaries shows you how to stand up for yourself, say no, and communicate your needs in a way that leaves you feeling confident and empowered. Through her stories, personal experiences, and research, Melissa Urban gives you the tools, affirmations, and language you need to reclaim your time, energy, and health.”—Tiffany Aliche, New York Times bestselling author of Get Good with Money
“Melissa Urban has written the playbook for creating connection, protecting our peace, and expanding our lives. At once insightful, personal, funny, and direct, The Book of Boundaries should be required reading for anyone who has relationships with other humans.”—Ellen Vora, MD, psychiatrist and bestselling author of The Anatomy of Anxiety
“Urban’s encouraging tone and detailed ‘scripts,’ which provide examples of what one might say in common situations to establish boundaries, make for an empathetic and pragmatic outing. This helpful manual is a boon for those unsure of how to set limits.”—Publishers Weekly
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Chapter 1: A Crash Course on Boundaries
Boundaries aren’t mean
A woman named Nancy recently sent me a message on social media: “I take a walk by myself every morning, for my own mental health. Lately, my elderly neighbor has been inviting herself along, waiting for me to come outside, then joining me. She’s very nice, and it’s clear she likes the company, but this is the only alone time I get in my day. How can I say no to her without feeling mean?”
I get where Nancy is coming from. We (especially women) are often told that it’s selfish to put our own feelings and needs first. This is a common objection to boundaries: that setting them feels cold or punitive, like you’re building a wall between people and creating division. But remember, boundaries aren’t walls, they’re fences. And good fences make for good neighbors.
Boundaries allow those who care about us to support us in the way we want to be supported. They provide a clear line between what we find helpful and harmful, so people don’t have to try to read our minds. They let us engage in relationships fully and openly, knowing we’ve clearly expressed our limits and made it easier for others to respect our needs. In fact, the best way to preserve a relationship often includes setting boundaries within it.
Nancy liked her neighbor and wanted to have a good relationship with her. If this neighbor kept crashing her morning walks, Nancy was going to become resentful, then angry, and perhaps even lash out one morning out of sheer frustration. Setting a boundary here would be an act of kindness, allowing Nancy to care for her neighbor without putting her own needs on hold to do so.
I asked Nancy how many mornings she might be willing to spend in her neighbor’s company—from zero days to every morning of the week. She replied that she’d enjoy walking with her once a week on the weekend, so I sent Nancy a script for her to use the following day: “Good morning! Hey, I’m going to start walking by myself again during the week. This is the only alone time I get, and I really need it for my mental health. Would you like to join me on Saturday morning when things are more relaxed?” Nancy loved the suggestion. This allowed them both to get what they wanted—some quality time when they’re both feeling relaxed, and the alone time Nancy needed to recharge during the busy work week.
You’re not being mean when you set boundaries, you’re being kind—to yourself and your relationships. But that doesn’t mean they’re not uncomfortable. Any conflict can be uncomfortable—if your burger comes out rare instead of medium-well, I’m betting at least some of you would just eat it rather than speak up. Setting boundaries can be uncomfortable because when we set a boundary, we’re expressing a limit that hasn’t yet been established (while perhaps pointing out someone else’s inconsiderate behavior), and asking if the other person is willing to make an adjustment for the good of the relationship.
If that just made you throw up in your mouth a little bit, you’re not alone. My research shows that the main reason people don’t set boundaries where they need them is that it’s so damn uncomfortable. I won’t try to pretend otherwise—I feel it, too. It’s not always easy for me to say no to an esteemed work colleague, to ask my husband for alone time, or to tell my parents, “I won’t discuss this with you further.” Speaking up in the moment, advocating for yourself, and asking for what you need is uncomfortable. But what’s both uncomfortable and damaging is reaffirming the story that someone else’s feelings are more important or worthy than your own—which is what you do every time you swallow your healthy boundary in an effort to keep the peace.
The truth is, when someone oversteps your limit, there is no comfortable solution. But one path is paved with short-term discomfort that leads to major long-term improvements in your health and happiness . . . and the other path is just an endless circle that leaves you feeling unworthy, anxious, angry, and resentful.
One of those sucks way more. And for those of you stuck on the sucky path, I have to ask . . . how’s that been working out for you, really? How has it felt to honor everyone’s needs but your own? To sell yourself out to keep other people happy? To take on too much whenever people demand it? To spend all that energy on people, conversations, or behaviors that never give you anything back? Said with so much love: I bet the reason you’re reading this book is that it’s not going very well at all. What I’m giving you here is a better way—one that leads to more fulfilling relationships, improved self-confidence, better health, and more time and energy for the things that are important to you. It may be uncomfortable, but I guarantee it will be worth it. Boundaries are how we care, stay supportive, and give to those we love without sacrificing our own health and happiness in the process.