“The catch about not looking a gift horse in the mouth is that it may be a Trojan horse.” – David Seller

Having recently gotten married, I received a lot of gifts from close friends and family. If there is anything I’ve learned it’s that some of these “presents” come with strings attached.

A gift is an act of altruism, of generosity. The point of gift-giving is to show love and appreciation for another person. It’s not about a dollar amount. It’s not about custom. It’s about being thoughtful — an important thing to remember with the holidays fast approaching.

When should you look a gift horse in the mouth? Maybe you know right away you’d refuse a very expensive gift, especially if it came from someone who didn’t make a great deal of money. But what about considering the giver? Could there be strings attached to this generous gift? If you accept it, will you be held to certain terms later? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does this person have a long history of making unreasonable requests or having unrealistic expectations of you?
  • Have they ever brought up something they did for you or gave you in order to coerce you into doing something for them? This could be a case of history repeating.
  • Do you communicate with them regularly? It’s bizarre for someone to send you something out of the blue when you haven’t heard from them in a long time.
  • Is the gift all about the price tag? People who give lavish gifts often do so as a symbol of status. They might even leave on the price tag.
  • Has this person shown a pattern of manipulative behavior? This could mean asking to borrow money, but it could also mean asking for an abundance of emotional support.
  • Is the giver an opportunist? Some people are only there when they need something from you and the opportunity to send you a gift or congratulate you could be an excuse to open the door.
  • In the history of your relationship, have you given more than you received? This question is key. It’s difficult to take inventory of a relationship like this, probably because most of us aren’t walking around asking ourselves, “What have they done for me lately?” It’s also difficult to be honest with yourself when emotional support and friendship is an abstract thing. You can’t hold it in your hand. But in the end there is an appropriate level of give and take that every relationship requires.

If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions, you may be dealing with a gift that has strings attached.

So how do you look a gift horse in the mouth? It can be unpleasant to refuse a gift, but if you stay polite, even formal, you can do it. It helps to stay focused on the long term. Taking something now means giving something later. If you’re not prepared to be indebted to this person, the best thing to do is to deal with the discomfort of refusing a gift.

True altruism means unselfish devotion to others’ welfare. Giving a gift is meant to be a way to express that devotion. It’s an important thing to remember this holiday season. With Black Friday sales and end of the year deals, the spirit of giving tends to take on a new meaning: stuff, stuff and more stuff. It’s an easy mentality to get caught up in. Be mindful of what you accept from others and make sure it doesn’t conflict with living your truth.