Question: Is setting boundaries selfish? What if taking care of my own needs causes discomfort for somebody else? Isn’t it better to be selfless? (Virginia H.)
Answer: Whenever I talk to women about the importance of setting boundaries, I tend to hear push-back in the form of these questions:
- “But, isn’t it selfish to tell someone else no?”
- “Didn’t Jesus teach us to deny ourselves?”
- “Isn’t it our job to care for everyone else?”
- “Isn’t it good to be selfless”?
Nobody wants to think they’re being selfish. But, consider this reality: There is a big difference between selfhood and selfishness. Furthermore, selflessness is not always the right choice. Here is one way to illustrate what I mean:
Selfishness = “It’s all about me.”
Selflessness = “It’s all about you.”
Selfhood = “It’s about you and me.”
Selfhood is a psychological term that refers to your individual identity, your “you-ness,” as I like to say to my clients. It’s your unique personality, your preferences, your thoughts, your emotions, your physical body, your talents, your story—all of the beautiful elements that make up who YOU are.
A strong sense of selfhood is marked by healthy confidence, what I define as an honest awareness of your own strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. Selfhood allows you to enter into relationships with confidence and clarity. It gives you the courage to love honestly, with intention, even when it means pointing out hard things or honoring your own limits.
Selfhood starts by getting to know YOURSELF inside and out.
Developing a sense of your SELF is the most foundational step to setting boundaries. Yet, very few people and very few churches talk about this important truth.
Test this concept on yourself. Take a look at the chart below and notice which column resonates with your own way of thinking. I’ll be honest and admit that for a long time, my thoughts were like the ones in column 3.
Well have a pretty clear idea of what it means to be selfish or selfless. But, neither of those extremes represents healthy balance. Column 2 is the key.
Selfhood is necessary to establish healthy boundaries. It’s not being selfish, and it’s not being a doormat. Healthy relationships require two whole people coming together to negotiate their shared interests AND their differences.
Without selfhood, our fears drive our decisions. We take the path of least resistance, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We call that path selflessness, but really it’s a lack of selfhood. It’s not what God wants from us.
Jesus Had Boundaries.
Selfhood is rooted in the idea that you were made in God’s image (see Genesis 1:27). You bear the image of God inside your soul. You are God’s handiwork, created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).
Jesus exhibited an amazing example of selfhood, and a lot of preaching focuses on his selfless actions. But, the way he acted often gets misconstrued. The selfless acts of Jesus were always rooted in his clarity of focus about who he was and his larger purpose.
Jesus knew who he was, and he was clear on his mission. Jesus was no pushover. He knew the power he had, but he chose to wield that power for the benefit of others. That’s very different from the kind of selflessness that comes from not knowing how to stand up for yourself.
In fact, Jesus was very clear about the boundaries he set, even as he navigated challenging relationships. To use his own words, Jesus knew how to let his “Yes” be “Yes” and his “No” be “No” (Matthew 5:37), whether he was taking time aside for himself or with other people. Consider some of the following examples:
Jesus said “Yes” to taking time for himself (Luke 9:18)
Jesus said “Yes” to choosing friends carefully (Luke 6:13)
Jesus said “Yes” to honoring his emotions (Luke 22: 39)
Jesus said “Yes” to developing his potential (Luke 2:46; Luke 4:18-20)
Jesus said “Yes” to sticking to his convictions (Luke 4:43)
Jesus said “Yes” to hanging out with who he wanted (Luke 5)
Jesus said “Yes” to asking for help (Luke 22:38)
Jesus said “Yes” to joy in his work (Luke 10:21)
Jesus said “Yes” to hard conversations (too many verses to note)
Since Jesus fully claimed his identity, talents, and purpose, he was also able to say “No” as needed in the context of various relationships. Here are just a few examples:
Jesus said “No” to being “on” all the time (Luke 10)
Jesus said “No” to pleasing and performing (Luke 23)
Jesus said “No” to toxic behavior (Luke 11:37-54)
Jesus said “No” to manipulation (Matthew 4:1-11)
Jesus said “No” to bullies and abusers (Matthew 18:6; John 8:1-11)
Jesus said “No” to hiding your light (Matthew 25:14-30)
As you can see, Jesus was no doormat. Therefore, when Jesus said to “deny yourself,” he meant denying your “selfishness” – not denying your “selfhood.” Your selfhood is your God-given, imago-bearing “self.” Your soul that was made to shine who God is through your life.
Jesus said “Yes” to his identity as God’s beloved Son. He claimed that identity and protected it, which allowed him to heal people, transform lives, and ultimately change the course of history by his death and resurrection. His ultimate act of selflessness was rooted in rock solid sense of who and whose he was.
The fact Jesus had boundaries is especially critical for women to understand.
In order to show up in relationships as Jesus intended, then your interests, your needs, and your values are absolutely critical. In order to lay down your life for the sake of others, you have to know WHO YOU ARE first.
If you want to set healthy boundaries with other people, then you have to start by claiming your God-given selfhood. That won’t happen by being selfless. Instead, it starts by saying “Yes” to yourself.
Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s the path to health and fruitfulness that God wants you to experience.
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Have you believed that setting boundaries is selfish? When you hear the concept of “selfhood,” what does it mean to you?
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