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.)

51 comments on “The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test
  • 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.

    • I googled a sentence on this topic to see if anyone had written on it (hoping they had). My experiences with people saying they were proud of me (or at least making me aware in other ways that they were proud of me) first came from my own parents, mostly my dad. I felt great to know he as proud of me, especially after he had read my term report cards in high school. I was an ambitious student with a goal to attend university, which my father completely supported. Later in life, after having been to university, but not knowing what I really wanted to major in and which degree I wanted to get (prepped for teaching career, but not convinced it was the right career for me), I stopped my studies and took a good union job, which at least paid some bills and gave me teh good feelign of earning money. To try to sum this up, I mrried and ended up in a small, isolated village filled with people who either did not graduate high school or barely achieved that level of schooling. The only people there who went to university were the pharmacist, the physician/surgeon, lab technologist, x-ray technician and the like, as well as the school teachers. The rest were manual labourers. One of the wives of these manual labourers had befriended me in church and was an older woman. I did like here. I got into a conflice with her sons’ girlfriend because this young woman was working in a store behind the til and had made a gross error in punching out my cash register amounts on my bill and I had to go and confront her to get a refund as the store owed me about $50 due to her errors. She was very rude and grouchy with me and reluctantly corrected her errors after I asked the manager to get involved. I was very annoyed with her (mainly due to her attitude) and balled her out at the til. Later, I saw her in a restaurant and apologized for balling her out in public. Her future mother-in-law (my friend) told me later she was “proud of me”. I thought to myself, who is she to be proud of me? Isn’t she elevating herself above me to oversea my behaviors to make sure I was a “good little girl”? I still think she was doing this at the time. I had a lot of this type of treatment in that small community. The insiders felt they were all superior to newcomers, no matter what the newcomers’ backgrounds were.

      • I wouldn’t get anxious about it. Just let them be. We can all have slightly different interpretations of words which if not careful can start a war! Who determines the meaning of words? They can be in dictionaries but over time can have slightly different meanings depending how they are used. To me, to be proud of someone, you do not have to be “above” them in any way – although that is usually the case – ie older or more experienced (or snobbish if that is how you are) To me, you do have to have some connection with the person you are proud of. ie you have brought them up as parents and are proud of them for their achievements or manners etc. It is a feeling of relief and it was all worth while you bringing them up properly. You are happy they are an ambassador for you. If you teach someone maths and they pass their exam – same thing – they are good because they have taken notice of your teaching. However Simon Cowell for instance often says he is proud of a contestant he has never met before. I cannot understand that and think he is misusing the word.

  • 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.

    • But is that really very useful? Better than nothing, Neil, but it’s sad, Mr. Rogers had to do what parents ought to be doing. Do you really think this had a lot of positive impact on many children?

      • Marilyn, My life changed the day I heard Mr. Rogers tell me he liked me just the way I was. I started to cry with the realization that in my 40+ years I had never heard it from anyone but him. It was then that I realized that who I am is a unique, valuable, and loveable person. I don’t care that I had to hear it from a video-taped personage. I agree with you: it’s sad that he did what my parents should have done. But it had a very positive impact on this one child. And that’s enough for me.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

        • Yes, I think this is why my friend, even though older, was proud of me, I felt was being presumptious to put herself above me. I really don’t see that she had a direct influence in what I chose to do.

      • Thank You. I was talking about this statement ” Im Proud of you” to a friend.I was annoyed about someone saying they were proud of me who barley knows me. I was irritated by that remark. I thought who gave you the superiority, you seem to be giving yourself for my accomplishment My friend didn’t understand. She states I always tell someone I am proud of them. I again said. To be proud of yourself for your success is one thing, for another is to be proud, they had better have seen you come up through the trenches to witness that moment or to have been involved in the process.

    • Saying, I’m proud of you, is a great word and it’s an expression from the heart. It reaffirms the choice you made is good and right, nothing more.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

      • My sons grew up together and are spaced two years apart. They often tell each other they are proud of one another’s achievements and they all know it’s genuine. My boys are all each other’s fan club and it’s marvelous. Sure, they get angry with one another, as do all brothers, but they forgive and move on. And guess what? I am proud of them for being like this with one another. I can point them out to my friends and say, “Those are my sons!”

    • It’s 10 years later, and I hope that, by now, you have told your children, if you mean it, that you are proud of them. I, too, rightly believe that I had little to do with my offspring making his way in life in a manner that is worthy, but as parent, conveying “I am proud of you,” has distinctive and important meaning.

  • 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.’

  • 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.”

  • 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.

    • I am here for the same reason. My ex just said the same thing to me yesterday and it just didn’t sound right to me. I wanted to know whether or not I was overreacting.He had no hand in my achievements and since he was the one who caused me those problems, I feel he has lost every right to use that phrase with me.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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…, 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.

  • 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

  • PJ, I will give my thoughts on your post at the end of my post. I’m glad I found this interesting discussion, as I just had a man I am seeing state “I am proud of you” and it made me feel great, yet at the same time realized that it can come from a position of higher power so I needed to contemplate the relationship. After reading these posts, I think the following: a person will feel pride in another’s accomplishment when they feel deeply connected with the other. In other words, I care so much about the other person, that their accomplishment can evoke pride in ME. Now, of course, it’s diminished if the person throws the phrase around too casually – to colleagues, all family members, etc., but if they are a genuine and caring person, then I believe it shows a deeper connection. That’s why we feel pride in our children’s accomplishments. It does not take it away from them. It says, I love you so much that YOUR accomplishment can make ME feel pride. The proud feeling transcends from child to parent. It’s powerful. PJ, I think your ex still cares for you so your accomplishments evoke pride in her. Now whether it’s romantic or a deep friendship is a different question. That is why a long-term mentor can also feel pride. If it’s a long-term relationship, the mentor will genuinely care. The important piece is if they are genuine in their caring (and have been consistent, contrary to the parent that was never there but then feels pride). This is what makes the difference in whether the receiver feels “great” or “resentful”. It’s obviously a powerful word.

    • SFD – a bit late in the day to be commenting but I think your assessment of the phrase is spot on. If you care deeply for someone, it is entirely possible to “share” the sense of pride that they feel in THEIR achievement without your hijacking it in any way.

      A good friend of mine, who has had a tough life, has just written and published her first book. I cannot tell you how happy I am, for her, to witness her achievement and how much I admire her tenacity in overcoming all she has. The words “I am so proud of you” sum up those sentiments.

  • Also, I really like the litmus test of how you would feel on the receiving end. For even more than mentors, but for people who deserve your care and attention in life. Overall, it’s reserved for people who you trust and respect.

  • I like what Chris Yeh said about the (phrase/declaration), “I’m proud of you”,
    implying a mentor relationship.
    If there is a mentor relationship, fine, but when the relationship is supposed to be about equals,
    that’s a case of someone doing one-upmanship.

  • I think the phrase “I’m proud of you” is insulting, for the reasons noted above. I agree that it’s a phrase that is really reserved for the individual doing, or accomplishing something, i.e. “I’m proud of myself”, although saying it out loud doesn’t make it better. I’d opt for saying, “I’m happy for you”.

  • In the South, people are proud of you if they know you.

    If you get a new job, get a participant’s medal for a 10K or do anything deemed worthwhile, friends, family and acquaintances will say they are “so proud of you!!!”

    It’s just a colloquialism for “way to go” or “awesome sauce” or “good for you!” No one means to be condescending or imply they got you there in some way. They just say it.

    Might as well as them to stop saying “y’all” or “bless her heart.”

  • This post was actually very helpful for me! An acquaintance commented on a recent Facebook post I made that he was proud of me and immediately I felt so mad about that but couldn’t figure out why. After reading this, I now believe it’s because I don’t look up to him in any way and he doesn’t know me so well as to fully appreciate my accomplishment like my family would. I also have to let go of holding it against him, because I presume it was a well-meaning gaffe–instead of saying how happy he is for me, as he’s never been belittling before. Although it’s worth taking a mental note of that in case a pattern does develop.

  • I believe many people do not understand and appreciate the expression ” I’m proud FOR you”. To me, if someone I respect said they were proud of me, would mean much more and have a much better and more positive effect on me than if they said “I’m really happy for you ” because the feeling of someone being proud for me includes me, my efforts and achievements, and unites me with that person who said it at the moment of saying it. By being proud of me that person shares their mind and soul with my mind and soul and includes me in a certain extended period of that person’s life. However, the other expression – “I’m really happy for you” – is so overused that it immediately rings the bell of insincerity. This expression is much more self-focused, i.e. the person who says that is actually talking about themselves, not about me, and by saying that is drawing the recognition away from me towards themselves. In fact, whenever I hear this phrase from a colleague, I immediately understand that this person in reality is envious of my achievements and the phrase “I’m really happy for you “in fact means “I’m very unhappy that it’s not my achievement, that you and not me is getting the praise/ promotion/ degree/ lottery win, I hate you for that and I wish I was in your place right now”. That’s what I think.

  • I grew up being complimented for my looks . . . but with my Mothers words of wisdom always echoing. She only ever said it once but it has stuck with me forever:
    “You cannot be proud of anything you were born with, only with what you achieve”. Consequently I now cringe every time I hear the term being used out of context . . . until recently when a Goddaughter won an amazing internship, beating 2000 other applicants, and her other Godmother put a message on Facebook saying how proud she was of her. Suddenly I found myself questioning my rather lame “I’m thrilled for you”. I’ve been lurching between ‘How can you be proud of someone else’s children?’ but then challenging that with ‘But then as we do both have a close relationship with her we probably have had some influence on how she’s turning out’ . . . .
    So thank you Ben, for after read the above I feel happy with my “I’m thrilled for you”, “You must feel really proud” and the like. I now understand that it’s because I don’t feel superiority over anyone, and I’m perfectly happy with that . . . . 🙂

  • I dislike the phrase entirely, regardless of how we are involved in the individual’s life: parent, teacher, mentor, etc. Whatever influence we had on the person, or information we gave the person, what they did with it is their accomplishment not ours. They can be proud; we should be happy for them, and grateful that we played any part in it.

  • I think that the phrase really bothers me, because it’s like saying, “Wow, I didn’t think you were good enough to ever achieve -insert whatever here.-” My fiance said it to me last night while I was doing the dishes. I have a one year old boy and a two month old boy, and I had my first day back at work yesterday. I very quickly responded with a snappy, “Why?” He said “…because you were up last night with the baby, and went to work, and you’re still cleaning this late at night.” Um… What a shock that I am hardly sleeping, cleaning constantly, working again, taking care of two babies, doing his laundry/dishes/cooking… It really rubbed me the wrong way that he was “proud” of me. For what? For doing what I’m supposed to do? For going back to work when I’m still hardly sleeping, due to having an 8 week old at home? Like I wasn’t doing enough before? Like I’m only worth anything just because I’m making money? I am still so mad, but I haven’t said anything about it. Maybe I’m mad, because it makes me feel like he thinks I wasn’t doing enough before I started back at work- like carrying children inside of my body for nearly two years, plus birthing them, plus never sleeping, plus cleaning for HOURS upon HOURS everyday, plus cooking, plus plus plus wasn’t enough to be proud of. Maybe instead of telling me he’s “proud” of me, like it’s such a surprise, maybe he should have just offered to do the dishes. That would have shown so much more appreciation for what I do 24 hours a day, instead of a measely “I’m proud of you.”

  • I’ve had multiple people tell me they’re proud of me like my parents, grandparents, elders but it just doesn’t mean anything to me, I don’t have any emotional response from any of them and my response ends up being ok or yup.

  • I’ve been totally using that word all wrong sheesh, all the complaints about the misuse of the word makes me feel bad about what and how I been addressing my peers and friends.

  • Ben Casnocha – It is a darn good thing that you wrote your opinion; that I found it tonight, and that comments continue to be accepted. I don’t know that you provided a litmus test, but the article acted as such for me.

    I know that it is in the nature of the internet that you can confirm, and get consensus about most any belief you have, but, if that is what has happened here, I’m OK with it. I am livid because a couple of arrogant, condescending people who had been known briefly, posted, “We are so proud and impressed…,” on a stinking FB page, I do not use FB, etc.), belonging to my close friend, on her business page. I feel virtually murderous towards them. But worse, my friend thanked them. One might consider that the mature thing to do, or the business savvy thing to do, but she has had nothing to do with them for years, because they are arrogant and condescending. I think the internet and social media have eaten her brain that she would not only allow their @#$@ing clueless comment to remain public, but that she thanked them? I am trying very, very hard not to implode. I would almost join FB in order to make the comment, “Why are you “proud and impressed? You had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this you pond-bottom suckers.”

    Ah. But this will be seen as an overreaction. It isn’t. You would have to know the whole story. Thank you.

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