Utah author and entrepreneur Melissa Urban’s new book discusses boundaries

Urban, co-founder of Whole30 diet program, says people need a sense of where to draw the line.

(The Dial Press) Melissa Urban, Utah-based author of "The Book of Boundaries."

Melissa Urban said she has been talking about boundaries — the ones we set for ourselves and for each other, and the ones we don’t — for a decade.

But it was in the last three years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, that all the boundaries started to collapse.

“It really came to a head in the very early days of the pandemic,” Urban said. “We all realized that work, home, school, kids, health and relationships were all bleeding together. Natural demarcations that we had, like the commute from our jobs to coming home, those were all gone.”

The idea inspired Urban — a Utah author, blogger and self-help expert who co-founded the Whole30 diet program — to write “The Book of Boundaries” (The Dial Press, hardcover, 368 pages), which debuted in October at No. 3 on The New York Times’ bestseller list in the “advice, how-to and miscellaneous” category.

“I had the idea for the book in the middle of the night in October 2020,” Urban said. “I woke up with a fully formed proposal in my head.”

Urban’s community — people who got interested in her advice after taking part in Whole30 and following her online platforms — needed a book like this, she said, because they were becoming “incredibly burnt out,” their physical and mental health declining.

The Whole30 crowd and those who watch and read her online overlap in a Venn diagram, she said. “There are people who found me through Whole30 and now stay for the content I share,” she said — but there’s a difference in what she shares with each of the two groups.

Urban can be more real with the people who come to read her personal accounts, covering such topics as her co-parenting and being a recovering addict, either in her writing or her social-media posts. (She has 52,000 followers on her TikTok account.)

“I can talk to them in a far more direct and vulnerable way because they’re talking to me directly,” Urban says. “I can’t share that level of vulnerability or transparency on the Whole30 side, because there are so many people brand new to the program who don’t know me.”

Still, the jump from Whole30 — the “30-day dietary experiment” she and others launched in 2009 — to “The Book of Boundaries” was incredibly organic, she said.

“The Whole30 at its heart is an elimination program,” Urban said. “You’re giving up food for 30 days and seeing how the absence of those foods impacts your energy. Then you’re reintroducing those foods and comparing your experience.”

During those 30 days, she said, people say “no” to, for example, wine at happy hour or mom’s pasta — setting boundaries around food and drink choices.

So, Urban said, it was a natural transition to move on to the next phase: Saying “no” to the pushy mother-in-law who’s always gossiping, or the friend who is emotionally dumping on you.

According to the publisher, the book features more than 130 scripts “with language you can use to instantly establish boundaries” with anyone in your life, along with “techniques to create healthy habits around food, drink, technology and more.”

How does someone who’s so open about her life write a book about creating and maintaining boundaries? Urban said she’s aware of the tension between those two opposites — but that as someone who has lived a very public life since 2009, she’s conscious of her personal boundaries.

“I actually have a very concrete system for myself, borrowed from a phrase from [author/lecturer] Brené Brown, in which I share what is personal but not intimate,” Urban said.

The line dividing the two is strong. For example, Urban won’t share about her son, or aspects of her relationship with her husband. She will share, however, what she had for lunch, the vacation she took (but only after it’s over), or that time she got chlamydia.

Everything is shared, she said, after she has thoroughly processed it herself.

“I have very clear boundaries around how I show up, and that allows me to show up publicly, very authentically, but still protect my sense of self and safety,” Urban said.

The most important boundary, Urban said, is to regularly build space to check in with herself, to see how she feels or what she wants or needs.

“Far too often, especially women and moms, we’re so reactive in how we show up in the world, because people tell us how they want, need or expect us to show up,” she said. “It can become really hard to even know where we need to set boundaries.”

Urban’s advice for the holiday season – a time when drawing and holding to boundaries is particularly challenging — is that it’s important to remember that everyone deserves to have holidays that they will enjoy. “I find that it’s so easy for people to not enjoy their holidays at all,” she said, “because they haven’t carved out any kind of space or experience for themselves.”

Urban said she’s under no false notion that creating boundaries isn’t difficult. “It’s uncomfortable to advocate for your own needs, especially if along the way anytime you have had a need or advocated for it, you’ve been told you’re selfish for it,” she said.

People, she said, have endured generations of conditioning from such systems as “patriarchy, stereotypically rigid gender roles and religious influences” that “have taught us that not only should we not have needs, but when we do have needs, speaking them aloud is somehow selfish.”

Breaking free of that conditioning is challenging, Urban said, but worth it. “It’s a momentary discomfort,” she said, “that can lead to tremendous improvement not only in your mental health and energy, but in your relationships.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.