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Beware of the naked man who offers you clothes.

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Often in life you will encounter people who are generous and kind, and people who would give you the shirt off their own back, so to speak. Some of these people are actually just trying to be helpful, and their kindness is genuine. They give because they care, and they expect nothing in return. However, if someone is offering you something that they clearly cannot give themselves, be cautious. As the old saying goes, “Beware of the naked man who offers you clothes.”

There are a few ways one can interpret this quote and they all fall somewhere on the spectrum between benign and malicious. One, I see this as someone who is like how I used to be. I was a people pleaser and felt like I had to help everyone else and solve their problems. I was so externally focused that I neglected myself and couldn’t even help myself. Which leads me to another meaning behind this saying.

A variation of this quote is attributed to an African proverb that calls out hypocrisy. When I first got married, I read a book by an author who offered marriage advice. She was well-known and I thought a lot of what she said made sense. A few years later, I discovered that she had been married multiple times and had very destructive, unhealthy relationships. All that being said, it doesn’t mean that what she had to say wasn’t helpful or right, but it sure cast a shadow on her own credibility as an expert.

We see this kind of hypocrisy everywhere, like with politicians who talk about why public education is great, yet they send their own kids to private school. Or someone who is not in shape offering diet and exercise advice. 

But there are also certain other kinds of people who use generosity as a means to manipulate and control those around them. You may have known people like this in the past, or perhaps you even currently have one or two of them in your circle of acquaintances or work colleagues. These people will be generous and kind only when it serves them in some way, or when they want to bank some points so that they can demand payback later.

They might do something extraordinarily nice for you today, and then come back a few weeks later and ask for a big favor, and usually it’s something that you will not feel comfortable doing. If you decline, they will remind you of the times they have helped you in the past, and they may even try to make you feel guilty for not returning the favor, even if the favor is far larger than the help they originally gave to you.

Then you find yourself in a difficult position because you feel obligated to return the favor, but at the same time you feel like they are asking too much in return, so it creates an inner tension that pulls you in both directions. This tension will be even greater if you are a person who is exceptionally sensitive and caring, because deep down inside you likely have a powerful desire to help others. Unfortunately, people who are shrewd and calculating can easily spot generous souls such as yourself and take advantage of your kindness.

It’s often best to handle a situation like this by being honest with the person, while also taking a stand and firmly defending your boundaries. You could say to the person, “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do that at this time. I do want to help you, though, so how about if I…” Then offer a compromise, something that you are able and willing to do.

Their reaction will usually reveal their true motivations. A person who is genuinely in need of help will be understanding and appreciative of your offer to help, even in a small way. A person who is trying to use guilt as a manipulation tool will be more likely to get angry, argumentative, or crank up the guilt tactics even further so that you will give in and do what they want.

Once you recognize this pattern, it becomes easier to avoid falling into the trap. Through your words and actions, you can make it clear that you are happy to help when you can, but you also will not be manipulated into giving more than you are prepared to give.

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