Boundaries or Sacrifice? How to Embrace Both

“We have to have boundaries,” my husband said, exasperation tinging his voice.

“I realize that,” I replied, trying to sound patient. “But being there for others means sometimes you have to let yourself be inconvenienced.”

“We don’t even have time to get all our own stuff done,” he continued. “We need to focus on figuring us out first.”

“I understand,” I answered. “Unfortunately, people’s crises and needs don’t wait till it’s convenient for our schedule!”

As first-time newlyweds, we had decades of single adulthood behind us. Now as we merged different lifestyles, even simple things like laundry and grocery shopping seemed to overflow our schedule. In the middle of our chaos, a friend had asked for help. My tendency to drop whatever I’m doing to run help someone else was clashing with my husband’s cautious, organized approach to life.

judy lane boyer

I don’t remember the upshot of that conversation. However, it highlighted a fundamental personality difference. I love to help people, but it can be a fault. Sometimes I use someone else’s emergency as an excuse to abandon my boring responsibilities. Other times guilt—or, in the workplace, fear—pressures me into taking too much on my plate.

My husband, on the other hand, has an organized tranquility I envy. Unlike me, he doesn’t forget to take his vitamins or change the toilet paper roll. Yet sometimes his adherence to routines and processes verges on inflexibility.

These opposite qualities did indeed attract us to each other. But they also represent a tension between values that society teaches us are good:

  • sacrifice, and
  • (more recently) healthy boundaries.

Sacrifice – Giving Something You Value for Greater Good

Cambridge Dictionary defines sacrifice as “giv[ing] up something that is valuable to you in order to help another person.” You can sacrifice to help a cause or even to gain something better for yourself.

Sacrifice has high currency in our culture:

  • We honor military and law enforcement personnel who die in the line of duty “for [their] sacrifice.”
  • We praise teachers and nurses who dedicate their lives to the young and the sick despite daunting schedules and low pay.

Our fiction romanticizes sacrifice. For example, Darth Vader redeems himself by dying to protect Luke Skywalker.

In fact, the Christian tradition which suffuses Western society is rooted in sacrifice–Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of all of humanity.

Boundaries – “Where My Property Begins”[1]

But in recent years, thinkers and therapists have asked us to rethink sacrifice. We should look to our own needs, they tell us. “If you begin by sacrificing yourself to those you love, you will end by hating those to whom you have sacrificed yourself,” said George Bernard Shaw. And in later decades, buzzwords like self-compassion and self-care have become common.

At the end of the twentieth century, Drs John Townsend and Henry Cloud hit the New York Times best-sellers list with Boundaries. They followed it with a widely-read series of books on boundaries in different areas of life. They say that having boundaries means setting limits between what is and is not your responsibility. That can often mean saying no to others who ask for help.

How can you know where to draw the line? When should you give up something you value for your employer, your friend, your mom? And when should you say no to protect your own needs?

Finding the Balance

“A healthy relationship finds a blend between setting boundaries and sacrificing for each other. It is a dance of give and take.”[2]

– Teri Claassen, renewed horizon Counseling.

It may seem confusing, but boundaries and sacrifice do not mutually exclude each other. In fact, having the right boundaries can help you to sacrifice—and find joy in it.

In Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend note some common myths about boundaries. These include that having boundaries:

  • Hurts others
  • Makes you selfish
  • Means you’re an unpleasant person
  • Will make you feel guilty.

Notice that these are myths. Cloud and Townsend explain that you should set boundaries to avoid sacrificing for the wrong reasons: fear, pressure, or guilt. Boundaries free you to give of yourself for the right reasons when you take responsibility for:

  1. your own needs and
  2. what you legitimately owe others.

This does not mean giving only when it is convenient or doesn’t make you uncomfortable. Convenience and comfort may well be two things you value that you should to give for a relationship or a cause that deserves it. Teri Claassen, writing for renewed horizon Counseling says it well: “[Y]ou can’t be in a healthy relationship and be completely selfish, but it is also not healthy to give up everything you need, either.”

To further explore the balance between sacrifice and boundaries, check out Teri’s blog post here:

[1] Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. Boundaries. 1992, Zondervan, Grand Rapids. Pp 3

[2] Claassen, Teri. “Dos and Don’ts of Sacrifice in Relationships,” renewed horizon Counseling. 2 Aug 2017, Accessed 1 November 2021.

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