Gina Barreca: The power of praise, pride to lift, inspire

By Gina Barreca - The Hartford Courant

Was there a time when hearing the simple phrase “I’m proud of you” made a significant difference in your life?

My family was long on love and short on praise. There were smooches and hugs and pats on the head, but neither my older brother nor I recall that any of the relatives in the immediate family (about 119 of them) ever said, “I’m proud of you, kid.”

They could have said it in three different languages, too, given that the crowd spoke Italian, English and the French of the Quebecois. But they decided that if we caught any of that nasty American self-esteem going around, we might become infected with a sense of self-worth.

Who knows what might happen if a child felt good about himself or herself? He might become arrogant enough to want to get his own job and not go into the family business, or she might want to plan her career instead of her wedding.

They might feel secure enough to move more than 20 minutes from the family house and not feel compelled to call the minute they got home to say they were “safe,” having traveled such a distance. They might take jobs out of town, get an education out of state or find a partner who didn’t slide into the prefab cut-out the family decided would be the best fit.

Pride wasn’t considered a sin, necessarily, but it was a stain: something you’d want to wipe off as soon as you realized it was there.

For example, when I was on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” back in the 1990s, I was feeling pretty good about how I did; I appeared on the program three times, all connected to the books I’d written. I knew enough not to tell my relatives in advance, but one of my aunts happened to catch me on TV and called.

I was surprised, and for about two full seconds, I was pleased. Then in a confiding voice, my aunt said, “You sounded fine, but it’s too bad you looked so heavy. It’s really true about the camera adding 20 pounds.”

Bull’s-eye, Aunt Sally. I had been proud of myself for sounding funny, being articulate and not falling down on the set despite wearing heels, but you managed to deflate instantaneously my sense of accomplishment by focusing on the fact that my too-tight suit made me look as if I were in the larval stage. Thanks a lot.

Our family’s inability to show pride or offer praise without caveats and sarcasm taught my brother and me the importance of being generous and authentic in recognizing the achievements of others — and each other. When Hugo tells me he’s proud of me, I know he means it; he knows I mean it when I say it about him.

I never say “I’m proud of you” lightly to family members, to my students, to my colleagues or to my friends, yet I have the good fortune to be able to say it often.

I’m proud when a former student gets a piece of writing published; I’m proud when retired colleagues who have put off making a will finally put their affairs in order; I’m proud when a friend struggling with depression chooses to re-evaluate her treatment options; I’m proud when my pals phone their senators, write letters to congress and make sure their voices are heard.

A friend from college, Pat McClendon, tells a more encouraging family story: “When my grandfather, John Ferguson, who was born in 1898 in North Carolina and received no formal education past the eighth grade because if you were black you were told ‘that was all the education you needed,’ attended my graduation from Dartmouth in 1976, he said, ‘I’m very proud of you. You have done what I could not.’”

It made Pat proud, she writes, “And not only for my own accomplishments.”

Like empathy, compassion or love, pride in no way diminishes the one who gives it.

Pride isn’t about seizing victory in a competition but valuing a triumph over adversity. Authentic pride acknowledges a sense of common achievement.

Pride isn’t about grabbing the spotlight; it’s about sharing the illumination.

By Gina Barreca

The Hartford Courant

Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at

Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She can be reached at

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