The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test

How many people in your life can say, "I'm proud of you," and you take it fully and without any sort of resentment or dismissal? Whoever those people are, they are probably your mentors.

Someone who credibly says "I'm proud of you" usually has two characteristics. First, he is probably higher status / higher power. Most of the time, having pride about someone else comes from a place of superiority. Second, he must know you well. Most of the time, to be proud of someone means you know where they've been and how far they've come — pride is a word about growth. If a homeless guy on the street (lower status) or Bill Gates (don't know him personally) tell me they're proud of me it won't have a huge positive effect.

To be sure, "I'm really proud of you buddy" can sometimes occur between friends. But this seems less common. Usually friends say "I'm so happy for you" or "Really nice job!" but not the p-word. And family can often be proud, but as with most things family, the obligation and bias dull the effect.

This topic came to mind because I recently saw a friend / mentor and told him about a meaningful professional accomplishment. The next morning, I woke up to an email in my inbox that was one line: "I'm really proud of you." It felt great, and as he falls into both of the categories above, was fully appreciated.

It got me thinking, "How many people could send me that sort of email?" And that's how I arrived at the "I'm Proud of You" litmus test.

#

Here are other litmus tests I've blogged about.

(thanks to TK and Andy for helping think this through.)

21 Responses to The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test

  1. Jackie says:

    I almost never tell anyone I’m proud of them, for exactly this reason. It’s very presumptuous.

  2. Arts says:

    Oh.. very good. I had an experience where a friend, who I consider in every way my equal, noticed that I made a healthy food choice (not that I didn’t before, but I think it’s the first time he noticed) and he said, ‘Oh I’m so proud of you!’. From that day on, I felt like I couldn’t really trust him, and now I know why. I think I instinctively recognized that the balance of power had somehow been upset, but couldn’t put my finger on it.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    Fascinating post in two regards. First, is there anything more emotionally potent than someone you really care about and admire telling you, “I’m proud of you?”

    It feels like I can name many movies where this serves as the emotional climax. Just think of “The Sixth Sense,” where the son tells his mother that his dead grandmother wanted her daughter to know that the answer to her unspoken question was “Every day.”

    His mother begins to cry, and he asks her, “What did you ask grandma,” and she replies through her tears, “Are you proud of me?”

    The same trope appears in many children’s movies (Babe, Mulan)–is there anything more important to a child than their parent’s love and approval?

    Second, this very fact helps explain why we resent it if the praise comes from someone who isn’t viewed as a mentor. In this sense, a mentor is a parent that you choose, and the desire for his or her love and approval is as natural as the desire for that of a parent’s pride.

    And if one doesn’t respect one’s parent, what is the reaction to such a statement? It’s probably contempt and anger.

    Similarly, if someone tries to imply a mentor relationship by telling you, “I’m proud of you,” it’s like a bad parent trying to claim the rights and status of a good one. You’ll feel mad and resentful.

  4. bob says:

    I say it often to former students. I teach high school.

  5. Neil says:

    Pretty much an entire generation of American kids heard it from Mr. Rogers.

    http://pbskids.org/rogers/songLyricsImProudOfYou.html

  6. Phranqlin says:

    What if you really are proud of the person? A friend persevered in getting her master’s degree after running into academic trouble as an undergrad. I was damned proud of her for overcoming this setback and told her so.

    • Kat says:

      But what does ‘proud’ mean? And do you really mean that you are damned impressed with your friend for her achievement? And as it was your friends’ achievement, oughtn’t she be the one who feels proud? I think we need to invent another word for that wonderful feeling in our own chest when someone we care for does something they feel proud about – and we agree that they should feel proud.

      • Dots says:

        This is why we say, “I am very happy for you!” They are the one to feel proud…it was THEIR accomplishment. If you had a hand in that success then I think it is ok to say, “I am so proud of you” as it does imply that the speaker played a part. It makes sense for a mentor or parent to say this, or a friend or other who served in some coaching role.

  7. Granted that in many relationships, “I’m proud of you” would strike a patronizing or otherwise false note. But I believe that spouses say it, and siblings.

  8. Ami Dar says:

    Yes, I agree that it can also be very strong coming from siblings and spouses/lovers. But I would also add another category: people who know you well *because* they have worked with you – and even for you – for a long time. They don’t have more power than you, and in some cases less, but their opinion matters because they know you so well, and because you respect them and what they think.

  9. Desi says:

    I have never said to my children, ‘I am proud of you.” My reason is that thry are responsile for their successes and I shoudn’t take any credit for it. The phrase, in my belief, implies my contribution as a parent. I don’t think my children have any problem with this because they know, in many other ways, I love them dearly.

    • Dots says:

      …but you do play a role in their success! Kids also like to know that they invoke parental pride…as long as it genuine!

  10. Arts says:

    Interesting perspective. When my parents tell me that they are proud of me, I generally take it to mean that they recognize something I have done on my own merit as being worthy of praise. It’s more potent because they have seen struggles in their life, and within that perspective, they still acknowledge the effort I have put into the achievement as deserving of recognition. I have never regarded the word pride as implying that the one feeling it is somehow responsible for it. I have always seen it as, ‘I’ve been there, done that, and think you have done it too.’

  11. Alice Bachini-Smith says:

    Basically, it’s an ambiguous expression. Sometimes people use it to appropriate the achievements of others, which is a sad and awful thing.

    Those of us who were brought up around this attitude are understandably wary of the phrase, and likely to avoid it.

    But some of us never heard the expression in our lives till we were adults. I’d have fallen over from shock if I ever heard it from anyone in my family (& still would!). When I tell my kids “I’m proud” they are surprised and pleased. They know I mean: “I am so impressed by what you did, and proud to be able to call myself your mother.” If I said this to a friend it would mean the same thing.

    Language gets corrupted. But arguing about what words mean is pointless- meanings vary. The truth here is, different people say and hear different things in the expression “I’m proud of you.”

  12. Mlo says:

    Thanks for all the interresting comments and opinions on how people use the phrase “I’m proud of you”. My native language is not English, but I have fallen into the unfortunate (for somethings) of social netwoks, like facebook. My boyfriend’s ex, posted a “i’m so proud of you” on a photo he posted: something he achieved. Wondering where that may be coming from.
    From what I read, she falls into the category of “know them well” but I wonder if it’s not something a bit out of place.
    Thanks!

  13. Catherine says:

    I have always struggled with this word. My mother said it to me when I graduated from college and I will never forget it. I was very irritated and angry. I was actually kicked out of my house at 16 by her and her new husband and had financial trouble during my years in school that she had contributed to, how in the hell can she be proud of me when all she did was hinder me? This is 20 years ago, and I still remember this moment.

    On the other hand, my brother has said it to me, and although he did not play a role in my achievement, it still meant something positive to me and it felt good.

    My husband just said it to me a couple of days ago (for a little achievement I just made in my physique) and it made me happy as well.

    I guess – its an odd word and I stay away from it because I know how sensitive I am to it. I use the other terms – like “I’m so happy for you”.

    Thank you for starting this. I know I’m a couple of years behind, but was thinking about it this morning.

  14. A very concise and articulate post. Exactly the information I was looking for – thank you!

  15. M. says:

    My former partner just recently told me that he was proud of me after major accomplishment.
    Initially this sit didn’t sit well with me. But I gratuitously accepted his compliment. I guess after receiving the compliment, I felt that he was patronizing me, because I have only had my parents or teachers say they were proud of me. I realized that I needed to open myself up to friends and partners as well.

  16. eric says:

    It’s my feeling that I should only express pride in something I’ve accomplished. What someone else does might make me proud to be his or her friend/teacher/partner/whatever… and that’s exactly how I’ll express it “I’m proud to be your fill-in-the-blank.” ( Or even “what you’ve done makes me proud to call myself your ____”). I can take pride if I made a contribution, but I have to frame it that way. Otherwise I feel like I’m horning in on someone else’s territory — their right to be proud of their own accomplishments. And I’ll encourage them to be proud. But to be proud of them? That’s something for a parent to say or a parental figure…but only occasionally. Encouraging children and others to be proud of themselves is healthier.

  17. I have a little brother who is rather insecure and jealous of me, a very controlling person that thinks having a relationship with each other means that I put up with him trying to make me feel “less than” in the power scheme, which is precisely why I totally avoid him… My YOUNGER brother about my creative talents has to say…..”I am extremely proud of you”…..for a bit, this has thrown me off, and I was not able to quite articulate how this really got under my skin, why I did a search on the phrase and have been thinking about it…and yeah, it does seem a major insult when an emotionally uncool person whose relationship with you should be on equal terms has to act like a parent, always making a show of being “the bigger man saying “boy, I am so proud of you”. It’s really a way of saying “I am really the one who is special, I’m the boss”….and what it deserves is not “thank you” but rather, “well kiss my ass you condescending bastard…..get a life”……this “proud of you” nonsense is also related to people who have to say “WELL GOOD FOR YOU” when doing something mundane…..like, someone catches me reading a book in public…oh, you are reading…WELL, GOOD FOR YOU!! Totally the sort of thing that deserves a fist to the nose. As if I’m mentally retarded and reading a book for the first time in my life, and hoping to get a cookie and a star sticker.

  18. PJ says:

    This is a very interesting discussion for me. Let me tell you why. About 5 years ago, an ex college girlfriend and I began emailing each other occasionally (not often just once every 2-3 months or so). She and I are both married. Last week, I went back to my college homecoming without my wife. I live about 200 miles from the old college & she lives in the same town as the college is located. Prior to going back, I asked if she’d be going to the homecoming tailgate and football game. She said yes and then she said she wanted to go with me. So we arranged to have her drive to the hotel where I was staying and we drove there together. We had a really nice time. We laughed a lot and re-lived some old memories. Because we ran into a bunch of other classmates that were also there, we didn’t spend time exclusively with each other but we did sit together at the game. After the game I took her back to her car, gave her a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. She reciprocated. I drove home and when I got home I texted her that I had arrived home safely. I also told her I had a great time & that she picks up my spirits. She texted back that “I make her smile” and that she’s proud of me. That “proud” phrase didn’t bother me at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder, “what does she mean when she says she’s ‘proud’ of me?” Probably no big deal but would be interested in input from others especially other females. Thanks. PJ

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