3 Lessons in Boundaries

A line from one of my favorite Psalms is, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.”

What is your first reaction when seeing those two words together in one sentence: boundaries and pleasant?

For me, the idea that boundaries could be pleasant seemed incredibly foreign.

But when you need to establish boundaries, that need makes itself known sooner or later, whether you like it or not. As an Enneagram 2, Myers-Briggs ENFP, and overall people pleaser, it’s like I was designed to burn out. Living and working in D.C., I have found that burn out is a common issue shared among many who live and work here.

Whether it is a task before us, or people we desperately want to please, we seem prone to run ourselves aground far more than we should. We encounter difficult seasons and difficult people (as discussed here previously), but is our way of life sustainable? You might need some boundary work like me.

Since this is a short article, I am sharing three books I have read on the subject of boundaries and a major theme I learned from each of them. Two authors are responsible for these books, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. If you are not familiar with these authors, the book titles are Boundaries, Beyond Boundaries, and Necessary Endings. I would encourage you to engage with all of them at some point. But for now, I’ll give you an example. Then, let’s hit a major theme from each book, and see if my and/or your way of life is sustainable.

I Need Boundaries?

If there is one thing I can say about my 20s, it’s that it helped me realize I have limits – emotional, physical, and relational limits (this late realization is a common issue among Enneagram 2s and ENFPs). A simple example, from my own life, is that for a couple years I’d spend almost every weekend with a group of friends at one of our houses. I absolutely enjoyed all the quality time in that season, but it clearly was not sustainable in the long run; I did not sleep well, was not getting basic life things done, and was not taking time for myself. Eventually, I’d exhaust myself before I could say, you know what, I need to go home. Is this just me? Perhaps.

This issue is relatively harmless, but the pattern played out in other areas. I pushed myself to the breaking point and assumed I could bounce back from anything. Until a time came where I realized I wasn’t bouncing back so easy, if at all. All along, I saw warning signs, or felt them, yet chose to ignore them. Had I paid more attention to them, and taken them as valid, I could have made wiser and healthier decisions.


#1: feelings are valid.

Enter Boundaries. I found this book at a Barnes and Noble with a gift card that someone gave me. Little did I know how necessary it would be. I read, and slowly realized, one, I was not crazy, and two, I began to conceptualize the positive and negative patterns in my own life. These patterns were laid out in this book like a script.

After reading, I sat across from a friend, in conversation over pizza at Costco, who was one of the first to tell me that my feelings were valid. When I first heard him say that, I was grossed out that someone tried to acknowledge my mess of feelings. I was shocked at the visceral response I had in myself.

My upbringing taught me not to trust feelings, or that I felt too much. Any guard I had against my own boundaries or unhealthy environments was numb. I did not trust myself. From here began a long journey to acknowledging the validity, the reality, and honesty of my own thoughts and emotions.

So lesson one, engage what you’re feeling and those warning signs you have probably already noticed. It is important that you do this within a good network and community.

Beyond Boundaries

#2: the importance of grief.

Boundaries helped me figure out I wasn’t crazy and helped me acknowledge the reality around me. Beyond Boundaries gave me more practical tips on how to enter into healthy relationships and environments. The chapter that stood out the most to me covered grief.

Dr. Townsend writes, “Grief is what enables you to fully let go. It frees you, it clears your mind, and it helps heal the injuries. You must grieve what was… grief is letting go of what you cannot keep. Grief requires accepting, both mentally, and emotionally, that something you loved and valued is no more.” This is huge. Our culture does not value the importance of grief or teach you to make space for grief. Unfortunately, it can be seen as a weakness, when in reality, it takes so much strength.

Something new and impactful to me was Dr. Cloud’s discussion of a different type of grief. Grieving is not always about losing what is lost or in the past; sometimes it is necessary to grieve things that are still present and alive but will not be what we wanted them to be. In a sense, we are grieving our lost hopes, a lost job opportunity, or a relationship that was not what we hoped for.

So lesson two, there are times we need to grieve, not only the tangible losses, but things we hoped would be. This is a process, and as Dr. Townsend says, give yourself the gift of time.

Necessary Endings

#3: be willing to end things.

Whether in business, or any other endeavor, when something is not going well and is siphoning your resources, we seek to remove it. It is a principle of “pruning.” We remove the dead things in order to help a plant, for instance, thrive. It’s the same principle in our lives. What is sick and bleeding your resources needs to be re-assessed. Can this commitment, relationship, or thing, be modified, or simply cut out? Not all things can be but it deserves consideration.

For me, the realization that I don’t need to keep things going that are sucking the life out of me, was completely freeing. You need to know that you can let things go. And if you do let things go, you can pick up new, more beneficial things.

Lesson three, Dr. Cloud summarizes it nicely when he says, “So, I just had this incredible awareness that in a strange way, everything I have that is of value has come from being willing to end something that I was doing and go to the next step.”


There is a tendency in people who have never lived with boundaries, when they discover them, to implement a scorched earth policy, angrily obliterating anything in their path. I advise against this as it will do harm to you in the long run.

Time is generally on your side. Take time to compassionately assess yourself, your situation, and strategically decide what your next steps will be. Have honest conversations and live authentically. There is growth and healing waiting for you on the other side.

James Abyad is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He lives in Alexandria, VA, and loves people, food, music, geography, languages, and Tolkien. His full-time job is just another basic federal employee, specifically a contracting officer, while fully enjoying the Washington, D.C., region. After studying International Relations and Arabic at American University, he aspired to work in diplomacy or a related non-profit; yet, like most millennials, he is trying to pay his student loans off first. So, in the meantime, you can find him investing time in family, friends, community, church, spin, and eating. You can read his posts here.

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