Is It Selfish to Set Boundaries?

As a follower of Jesus, I find that it sometimes feels awkward to set boundaries in my life.


As you can imagine, because of this blog and my podcast I get lots of requests from people for “just five minutes” of my time… to have coffee… to be interviewed… or even to work on a project pro bono, because it's “for the Lord”.

Add to that the demands of clients and customers, friends and family, members of our church… and you begin to see the dilemma.

You face the same dilemma, whether you realize it or not. People are asking you for “just five minutes”, too. If you are like me, each individual request seems so small, so easy to say “yes” to. The problem is, when you start adding up all the “yesses”, you might be startled to realize it's impossible for you to fulfill them all.

So what do you do? Is it even okay to say “no” to requests that seem nothing but good? Or is that selfish? This passage from a book I am reading might be helpful:

“We are trapped in a rat race, not just of acquiring money, but also of meeting family and business obligations. We pant through an endless series of appointments and duties. This problem is especially acute for those who sincerely want to do what is right. With frantic fidelity we respond to all calls to service, distressingly unable to distinguish the voice of Christ from that of human manipulators. We feel bowed low with the burden of integrity.

But we do not need to be left frustrated and exhausted from the demands of life. The Christian grace of simplicity can usher us into the center of an unhurried peace and power. Like Thomas Kelly we can come to know by experience that God “never guides us into an intolerable scramble of panting feverishness.”

Freedom of Simplicity, by Richard J. Foster

Even Jesus Set Boundaries

He frequently withdrew from the crowds, even though they were seeking him. They wanted to be healed, saved, delivered. But at that time, when He walked the earth as a physical human being, Jesus had the same physical limitations as you and me. He needed rest. He needed solitude. So do you.

Take stock of your existing commitments. Add up how many minutes, hours, and days you have already committed to others and their agendas. You may, as I was, be shocked to find there is little or no time left for the things that are most important to you.

If that's the case, what do you do? Here are three suggestions:

  1. Honorably disengage from commitments you cannot (or should not) fulfill. If you have said “yes” to something you now realize you should have said “no” to, it's not too late. Go back to the person you made this commitment to, and say something like: “I'm very sorry, but I now realize I overcommitted when I said yes to this. If you hold me to my promise, I want you to know I intend to do my very best to honor it. But I'm asking you to please consider releasing me from this commitment, and I'm asking you to forgive me for putting you in this position.” Approached like this, most people will be quick to release you from your obligation and also to forgive you. What about those who won't let you out of an obligation? Unless it is physically or ethically impossible, do your best to make good on your promise.
  2. Fulfill commitments from which you cannot be released. It's best to do this as quickly as possible. And, I might add, do it cheerfully. Even if you are upset that the other individual will not release you from your promise, remember that you created this mess to begin with. It's your job to clean it up. It's not your job to punish them for holding you to your word.
  3. Practice the “automatic no”. My automatic response to any request these days is, “Thank you for asking, but in order to honor my existing commitments I have to say no to this request.” But, you may ask, what if this is the one time you want to say “yes”? I would recommend still starting with “no.” Sleep on it. Pray about. Make sure it really is in alignment with your values, and with your priorities. If it is, you can always go back to the person and say, “I've been considering your request and if the offer is still open, this seems important enough that I'm willing to adjust some other things in my schedule and say yes.”

“No” Is Okay

It's possible for you to say no, and still be a loving person. Boundaries, properly set, protect you so that you still have the time, energy, and resources to pour into the people and purposes that are most important to you. Consider setting boundaries in the following areas:

  • Time. You have a finite number of hours in each day. Be realistic about what you can do in any given period of time.
  • Physical. Be clear about what the limitations are on who can touch you, and who cannot.
  • Mental. You are an individual with a free will, and your thoughts and opinions are your own. It's okay to set boundaries and say, “I don't agree with you” to other people.
  • Spiritual. It's important to discern what your personal will is, and what the will of your God is. His will is perfect, and it is for your benefit, even thought we do not always understand it. That's because while He is a loving father, He is also God, the awe-inspiring Creator of the universe. He is not simply “a bigger one of us”.
  • Emotional. If you are not careful, other people (especially those closest to you) will inflict their own unhealthy, manipulative emotions on you. You need to set clear boundaries regarding what emotions you will “own”, and what emotions you will not allow to influence your behavior.

This is a complex subject, one that can't be dealt with fully in a blog post. I highly recommend reading the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend for a thorough exploration of when to say yes, how to say no, and how to maintain control of your life.

Question: In which areas of life do you find it difficult to set and maintain boundaries?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • I’m finding as I watch the pages of the calendar continuing their endless procession that I’ve gotten better at setting boundaries with others, but I still struggle to set boundaries with myself: how much of the news I’m going to read, how much TV to watch, how much exercise & etc.

    These boundaries typically fall under the heading of “Discipline”, but there’s an internal dialogue that should result in settled decisions about my own behavioral boundaries.

    I’ve seen that some pastors have a much harder time setting and maintaining boundaries. They are the “people pleasers” who look to others for affirmation. This insight was expensive; it required some growing up on my part! Even now, when the potential for others to be dissatisfied with me, I remind myself that my wellbeing does not depend on them.

  • Setting boundaries is most difficult for me in the areas of my life I don’t have clearly defined goals. Where I have no plan. Spending the time…which was almost painful to find…to set clear priorities, goals and to create some filters to use in decision making has been a life changer for me. I think I’m going to look at my filters though, I like the idea of the automatic no.

  • Dan Tredo

    I used to find it more difficult to say no when I was more insecure about myself. In my ‘getting older’ age I feel like I’m much more confident about who God has created me to be. From that place of strength, its easier to say no and to set boundaries on my time. I don’t live to please other people as much as I used to. I think my strength is coming more from within now (the secret place where Christ resides) and not as much in other peoples approval of me. All of that helps me to say no better than years ago. But, having said that – its certainly not mastered by any means. It’s an area that needs vigilance always. Thank you Ray for an article well written and well thought out.