Is setting boundaries selfish? Isn’t it better to be selfless? [Guest Post]

Morning friends,

My colleague Allison Cook has written a great article on boundaries and whether or not they are selfish. I thought it would be helpful for my audience so I asked her if I could share it with you all.

Question: Is setting boundaries selfish? Isn’t it better to be selfless? 

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 our job to care for everyone else?”
  • “Isn’t it good to be selfless?”

Nobody wants to think they’re 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 term that refers to your identity, your God-created self. It’s your unique personality, your thoughts, emotions, and physical body. It’s also your talents and your unique design as a woman made in God’s image.

Having a clear sense of who you are is critical to developing healthy relationships with others. In every relationship, two people have perspectives that matter – and you are one of those people. Click To Tweet

A strong sense of selfhood is marked by healthy confidence, which I define as an honest awareness of your strengths and growth areas. Selfhood allows you to enter into relationships with courage and clarity. It helps you love honestly, with intention, even when it means pointing out hard things or honoring your limits. It also allows you to receive helpful feedback from others.

Selfhood starts by getting to know YOURSELF inside and out, with God’s help.

Developing a sense of what you need to be emotionally and spiritually healthy is key to healthy relationships. Yet, very few people and very few churches talk about this vital truth.

Test this concept on yourself. Take a look at the chart below and notice which column resonates with your way of thinking. I’ll be honest and admit that for a long time, my thoughts were like the ones in column 3.

We all have a pretty clear idea of what it means to be selfish or selfless. But, neither of those extremes represents a healthy balance. Column 2 is the key.

Selfhood is necessary to establish healthy boundaries in relationships. It’s not selfish, and it’s not a doormat. Healthy relationships require two whole people coming together to negotiate their shared interests AND their differences.

Without a healthy sense of our God-given worth, 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 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 a fantastic 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. When Jesus said to “deny yourself,” he meant denying your “selfishness” – not denying your “selfhood.” Your selfhood is your God-given, imago-bearing “self.” It’s 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 a rock-solid sense of who and whose he was.

The fact that Jesus had boundaries is especially critical for women to understand.

In order to show up in relationships as Jesus intended, you have to have a clear sense of who and whose you are. In order to lay down your life for the sake of others, you have to understand who you are first.

If you want to set healthy boundaries with other people, start by claiming your God-given selfhood. That won’t happen by only being selfless. Instead, it starts by saying “Yes” to the beautiful soul that God made in you.

Setting boundaries isn’t selfish. It’s the path to health and fruitfulness that God wants you to experience.

Friends, share your biggest ah-ha moment or take away from reading Allison's article on boundaries.

Alison Cook, MA, PhD is a counselor, speaker, and co-author of Boundaries for Your Soul: How to Turn Your Overwhelming Thoughts and Feelings into Your Greatest Allies. For over 15 years, Alison has helped women learn how to heal painful emotions, develop confidence from the inside out, forge healthy relationships, and fully live out their God-given potential. Visit her website to receive the following 3 free resources:

Click here for the freebie.



  1. leaningonhope on August 12, 2020 at 10:22 am

    Hi Leslie.
    Thank you for this article. I especially love the lists of Jesus’ examples of boundaries. For the last “yes”, she said there were too many verses to name them. I wish she would have named at least some of them.

    -When Jesus said to “deny yourself,” he meant denying your “selfishness” – not denying your “selfhood.”- <This!

    It is amazing how so many scriptures are either not understood, taken out of context, or twisted for someone’s selfish gain.

    Allison made that chart that points to ways we can recognize in ourselves areas of healthy self vs selfishness. It helps to see the thought processes side by side. I pray He helps me to be aware of my inner motives, and to root out the selfish ones.

    • Alison Cook, PhD on August 14, 2020 at 2:05 pm

      I’m so glad you found the article helpful. A few of those examples of hard conversations are: the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27), rebuking Peter (Mark 8:33), conversation with Nicodemus (John 3). In each of these, Jesus had to tell people things they did not want to hear. Sometimes people left sad or angry. Yet, we know Jesus loved these people. He simply had to tell the truth. Praying along with you! Many blessings.

  2. Lori on August 12, 2020 at 10:42 am

    I love this! It helps me understand and accept that my selfhood can be part of my neighborhood as I follow Jesus’ greatest command of loving my neighbor as myself. It just fits for me since I am also part of God’s neighborhood. I’m here to love and support everyone around me. I can’t continue to do that if I don’t take care of myself.

    I think we can fixate on one verse being that answer we were looking for. I need look at the Bible as a whole. All of it is our answer, defense or instruction. When we read instructions to put something together, we don’t pick just one step or a few and skip the rest. Otherwise, what we are trying to put together isn’t going to work like it should or stay in one piece for very long. I think the same can be said with how we apply the Bible to our own lives.

    • Alison Cook, PhD on August 14, 2020 at 2:07 pm

      This is great insight, Lori. Thank you for sharing. Yes, I believe we often ignore the “as yourself” component of Jesus’ commandment to love others. He indicates in this statement that that both matter.

      • Nancy on September 13, 2020 at 8:07 pm

        9 years ago I was given the Boundaries book. Aside from the Bible it is the most important book of my life. For 9 years I’ve focused and prayed about the ‘as yourself’ component of Jesus’ command. In the process my motivation has become much more honest. I have worked very hard saying ‘no’ in order to ‘guard my heart’.

        Now, I have come to an astounding place where He is speaking to me about ‘loving others’ part of the command. To say ‘no’ to that part is to disown ones heart. Reading that recently, in the Boundaries book, really hurt. Somewhere along my journey, I mixed up ‘guarding my heart’ with hardening it. I got so used to saying ‘no’, that it became all about me and what I wanted.

        Galatians 5:13-14: but you my brothers and sisters were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh, rather serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled by keeping this one command ‘love your neighbour as yourself

        Yes, I like what Allison said about deny yourself meaning deny your selfishness, not your selfhood. Time for me to reclaim my heart by denying my selfishness.

  3. Susan on August 12, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    Great and comprehensive article, Alison. I feel so informed and able to apply the these concepts better and with greater understanding.

    When I completed reading it, this thought popped into my head: Hiding abilities behind a humble facade is selfish. Jesus directs us to, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works And Glorify your Father who is I heaven.“ Matthew 5:16.

    • Alison Cook, PhD on August 14, 2020 at 1:59 pm

      Hi Susan. I’m so glad you found the article to be helfpul. What a powerful insight! Thank you for sharing it. Alison

  4. Sunshine on August 12, 2020 at 5:47 pm

    I agree with what has been written, yet I can’t figure out how to live better when I so incredibly poor. Survival doesn’t allow much for lofty selfhood. There are only so many things you can do for free. After awhile, selflessness becomes a lifestyle, because there are few to no, financial choices.

    • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 7:10 am

      I would like to try to rewrite my reply, as I have a question. How can anyone live in healthy selfhood while in survival mode? I don’t have the luxury to contemplate pleasurable choices, explore new capabilities or contemplate relationships that i desire.

      As a person who lives in hiding from an abusive spouse, I struggle to maintain my physical and emotional safety at all times. The effort it takes to endure such a life consumes every drop of my energy. The Lord sustains and strengtens me through the spirit. He does give practical support and encouragement. However, I can’t relate to a discussion about selfishness, that is a luxury beyond my comprehension.

      I am not saying that I am chosing selflessness, I have been forced into it. When all one wants is food, water, shelter and some money, how can I think of anything else?

      • Jenny on August 13, 2020 at 8:14 am

        You have said this quite eloquently. You are talking about the hierarchy of needs. Of course, you cannot think about anything else, you have to get your basic needs met first.
        As those need get met, then you will begin thinking about the next things.
        I’m sad that you are in survival mode at this time. Prayers for you that God will reveal to you a path to ease your burden.

        • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 3:18 pm

          Ah, yes. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Good point.

      • Aly on August 13, 2020 at 8:32 am

        Your post is heart breaking! Are you separated in hiding and are you working with a women’s shelter or domestic abuse org?

        • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 1:20 pm

          I escaped over a year ago, but my abuser is still prowling around. I move around between three locations. The restraining orders have expired.

          I am smart, capable and have a job. I am thankful to be free, yet it is hard hiding. I am at a train station now. This weekend I slept in my car despite having a home and two other safe friends who will take me in.

          I can’t get mail at any locations because I could be tracked. I can’t use Facebook, Instagram or anything Apple. Not enough security for me. Life without abuse is better, but difficult in different ways. Today, I ate some fruit I found under a tree and I was able to get a towel and a pillow from.goodwill to make sleeping in the car easier.

          Obviously I have a phone to text and post, so that helps. I have money, but it is just enough. I am trying to live fully as best I can. Yesterday I found a partially eaten bar of chocolate on the sidewalk. That was a treat.

          • JoAnn on August 13, 2020 at 3:51 pm

            Sunshine, I am sure that your Heavenly Father wants more for you than survival, No, but safety and healthy living He can provide. We can pray that the Lord will stop your abuser somehow. We can also pray that the Lord will provide a safe place for you to live and a job that allows you to have more than barely enough. Is it possible for you to move to another locality? I am glad that you do have friends who can help. Thank and praise the Lord for that! Do some brain storming with your friends about how you can get away from this man: move away, change your name, improve job skills, social services…..whatever it takes. And may the Lord how you the way.

      • Autumn on August 13, 2020 at 3:29 pm

        You might find this book of interest, “Scared Selfless” by Michele Stevens, PhD.

        • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 6:59 pm

          Thanks JoAnn. There is no place safe as long as my abuser is alive. I have a professional degree and a very good occupation. My friends , as well as domestic abuse workers and the legal system have helped me escape. I work at varying intervals with a rotating schedule, again, to protect me. My employer provides security to walk me to and from my car. I have to flee an area when he finds me or figures out where I am. This from a man who says he is a Christian and claims he has the “hands and feet” of Christ.

          Anyway, enough about me. Back to the topic. I pray that life does get easier in the future. I have learned that my loss of personhood is a by product of abuse. This discussion remind me of the deep depravity and loss that becomes compounded the longer we stay in a destructive relationship. One can apparently lose their ability to be a person.

      • Alison Cook, PhD on August 14, 2020 at 1:57 pm

        I hear you, Sunshine. This makes sense and does speak to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your heroic, courageous efforts to keep your self safe amidst incredibly challenging circumstances are a beautiful example of “selfhood.” You are fighting for your physical safety daily. That is your holy work right now. The rest will come. Sending prayer and strength.

        • Sunshine on August 17, 2020 at 3:15 pm

          Thank you.

    • me-Julie on August 13, 2020 at 7:34 am

      Dearest Sunshine,
      Selfhood isn’t lofty, nor is selfhood merely for physical life and needs. It is a state of mind and heart. Jesus died on the cross for the Joy that was set before him.
      It is an inner peace that says yes to somethings and no to others. The way we are treated and to taking on too much to be a people pleaser or because of just the plain guilt of saying no. No to “you can’t talk to me that way” or yes! I need some time alone for prayer or to be with my children.
      Jesus is our example to follow. He wouldn’t ever make it burdensome. He LOVES us.
      He asks us to take His yoke upon us for His burden is light and His yoke is easy.
      You are dearly loved and created in His image. That is the most important thing.
      I read about a young missionary woman who lives in Uganda. Something she said stuck in my heart. She said the Ugandan people were so grateful and joyful people even in the midst of their deep poverty.
      Take heart dear one. Take it to Jesu in prayer.

      • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 1:23 pm

        Yes, I know Jesus. Yes, I have value. It was just the concept of selfishness that perplexed me.

      • Sunshine on August 13, 2020 at 1:47 pm

        I think the difference between me and the women of Uganda is that the society I live in is wealthy. I am extremely isolated in my situation. Most people can not comprehend what I have lived through, therefore it is extremely isolating. I do not know a single person who lives as I do.

        Thanks to everyone for the encouragement.

  5. Hope on August 17, 2020 at 1:01 pm

    I’ve read Leslie’s teaching on trauma bonds and wish I understood this better. What finally breaks a trauma bond once and for all? After 30 years I feel like I can’t stay and stay well. But it feels like a huge rubber band tries to pulls me backward into all the guilt, fear, confusion–and it takes an enormous amount of intention/energy/prayer to not get sucked back into all that. I get jerked back and forth inside–a LOT!! If this is partly a trauma bond (?), how do I get free of it? I love the Lord and I’m in a wonderful, alive church family that faithfully teaches the Word.

    • JoAnn on August 19, 2020 at 2:00 pm

      Hope, I don’t know if you will see this since a new blog post has come up. But to answer your question, the guilt, fear, c confusion, etc. that are troubling you, and so many others are because of lies that you still believe deep in your heart. As an example, With your mind, you can say that you believe that you are a precious child of God, while deep down inside, you believe you are worthless, or maybe you are afraid of something. The need is for the Holy Spirit to speak His truth INTO YOUR HEART. Once the Lord speaks His truth to you, a deep and abiding peace takes over. I have experienced this many times myself, and now I work to help others have the same experience. One way to facilitate this to happen, is to pray over the verses that speak truth to our hearts. Pray until it feels true. Trauma bonds are just lies that are embedded into our being, and as we are called to live in truth, we must ask the Holy Spirit to speak His truth into our hearts. Then we are free.

      • wilsondeena on August 21, 2020 at 11:18 pm

        Thanks JoAnn for noticing my post and explaining this a little better. What you describe is the trail I’ve been following…but sometimes my progress seems so very slow and the pull backward so strong that I think there must be something more to it that I’m missing…I’m grateful for growth I see in myself, but I long for a major breakthrough when it seems like such a long slog. Thanks for your encouragement!

    • Calalilia on August 30, 2020 at 2:46 am

      I found the book “The Betrayal Bond” by Patrick Carnes, and the exercises in it to be very helpful in understanding the relational patterns. I agree with JoAnn about letting the truth go deep in your heart. I attended a workshop called HeartChange ( that really helped me see myself through the Father’s eyes, experience his love, and shed some of those false beliefs.

      There are also prayers for breaking soul ties and trauma bonds. Those might help as well.

      I also believe that sometimes it is nigh on impossible to stay well.

  6. Barbara B on August 17, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    The chart is so helpful, contrasting selfishness with selflessness and putting selfhood as the goal. I was just talking with a friend today about the special place God has made in the world for each one of us. As we fill that place we are worshiping Him just by existing. That is selfhood.

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