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'You Matter' Falls on All of Us

by on February 24, 2020 5:00 AM


I had a conversation with a Penn State student last week that has resonated with me.  The student, a freshman, was talking about the transition to college from high school and all of the different areas of life that are impacted. We talked about how to make this large university seem “smaller” and how to build connections. He talked about the success he had in high school and particularly, high school athletics.  With amazing insight and empathy, he made the connection to mattering.  

“Yeah” he said “there were about 15 guys on our team who really mattered. It mattered if they weren’t there or how they contributed. The next group of guys might be able to work hard and someday get in but they weren’t in the top 15.  Those guys at the bottom – it was tough for them. I don’t know how they came to practice every day knowing that they didn’t matter.”

Out of the mouths of babes. To matter. The dictionary describes it as “to be of importance; to have significance.” Mattering as a construct of how we view ourselves and our sense of worth are pretty closely tied together.

Social science researchers Rosenberg and McCollough first introduced the concept of mattering as a factor in how we see ourselves in the early 1980s. Since then, professionals in many fields have come to understand that our view of if and how much we feel we matter is linked to everything from relationships to job satisfaction and to mental health. Rosenberg and McCollough differentiated interpersonal mattering – mattering to an individual or individuals like our parents, our spouse and our family – to broader societal mattering which is more related to how we assess how we matter in our school, on a team, at work or even in our community.

In the classic movie “The Breakfast Club” there is a scene where the jock, played by Emilio Estevez, says to the troubled kid, played by Judd Nelson, “You don’t even count. If you disappeared forever, it wouldn’t make any difference. You may as well not even exist at this school.”

In the heat of anger, the biggest insult he could lob was “you don’t matter.”

Although It is sometimes called other things, our sense of if other people are aware of us, miss us in our absence, rely on us or need us — if we are important to others — mattering is a basic human need. There is almost nothing worse than feeling that we don’t matter.

As a middle child, a large part of my adolescence sturm und drang was spent contemplating this concept of mattering.

In my early days as a new manager, my mentor reminded me that employee satisfaction on the job is often not about salary or getting the big corner office. We talked about the many studies that link job satisfaction and happiness on the job with being recognized for contributions and being made to feel that one’s contribution is important to the mission. In other words, mattering.

We all want to matter. Somewhere. To someone. It is human nature to hope that someone is aware of who we are and what we do. To notice when we aren’t there. To depend on or need us in their lives.  

As my mom got older and her social circles became smaller, her children at the peak of their careers, the grandkids launching their lives, she used to talk about purpose. It’s clear looking back now that some of her sadness and anxiety was questioning this idea of mattering. As I start looking at my next phase of life – work, family, kids – I wonder how this mattering will change for me too.

To be of importance. To have significance.

I confess when the Black Lives Matter movement got started, I wasn’t sure what that group was trying to say. All lives should matter, right?  After some long conversations with a friend who is Black – those kinds of conversations that are uncomfortable but rooted in mutual trust and respect – I had my eyes opened.  To use the analogy of my student’s high school lacrosse team, if you or your group feels like you are never going to get playing time on the field, get the attention of the coaches, the reps in practice or the opportunity to contribute — or what you are getting is even worse — you would probably quit, give up or become really angry too.

At the root of so much that is wrong with our current state of affairs is the feeling that we don’t matter. The kid who feels invisible who brings a gun to school. The cost of employee turnover in work settings where their efforts and contribution aren’t recognized. Depression and related health issues for senior citizens who don’t feel needed or valued.  Those horror stories of cyberbullying where unsupervised children driving other children to suicide through social media messages of “you don’t matter.”

As a society, we need to get better at showing others that they matter.  

The internet is full of amazing stories of teachers who have figured out a way to make kids in the classroom feel like they matter. From child-of-the week programs to those activities where kids write down what they like about each of their peers and share them anonymously, there are some amazing ways to show people “you matter.” One of my recent favorites is a teacher who at the end of every week asks her pre-teen students to write down who they want to sit next to the following week. By noting who isn’t being picked, she is able to set up classroom strategies to show those potentially lonely children “you matter.”

I think “you matter” falls on all of us. Taking time with our children to let them know how special they are. Letting our employees know we value their contributions and that they aren’t expendable. Working with our students, even in a university of 40,000 students, to know that the community would not be the same without their special talents. Sharing with our loved ones that they are important to us and that we need them in our lives. Reaching out to someone who may be lonely or sad and telling them “you are important.” Finally, telling ourselves that a sense of importance and who we are starts with self-love and recognizing our own strengths and value so that we can share those with others.

I see and value what you do. I need you in my life. Your contribution means something. You matter.



Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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