‘Matter’ of fact: Why feeling you’re valued is so important


Raise your hand if it makes you feel good when you know you matter to someone. Turns out you have lots of company. “Mattering” is the general belief that you are important to others. The polar opposite is “anti-mattering,” which – as the name suggests – means that you feel like you don’t matter to other people or the world.

New research reported in the New York Times suggests that people who feel like they matter experience more self-compassion, relationship satisfaction and greater belief in their capacity to achieve their goals, while feeling irrelevant and unappreciated is associated with burnout, self-criticism, anxiety, depression, aggression and increased risk of suicide.

Dr. Peggy Russell, professor of psychology at Indian River State College’s main campus in Fort Pierce, says that teens are especially vulnerable to feeling like they don’t matter to others. “It’s common for teens and adolescents to feel that way,” she says. “Their connection to social media heightens the feeling, especially for girls in that age group.

“If you don’t have parents who make you feel you matter and you were trapped at home with them during the pandemic, you really suffered.”

An article published earlier this year in Good Housekeeping Magazine concurs with what Russell says. It states that feeling like you matter is a specific thing that’s different from feeling loved.

It goes on to say that adolescents who perceive that they matter are more likely to experience happiness, self-compassion, empathy, self-efficacy, resilience, academic achievement and life satisfaction, and are less likely to binge drink and struggle with addiction.

On the flip side, the feeling of not mattering has been linked to higher rates of self-criticism, social anxiety, loneliness, academic stress, truancy, depression, aggression, difficulty regulating emotions and impulses and even carrying a gun. A sense of not mattering is associated with low hope, and it’s pervasive in kids who bully and exhibit other violent behaviors.

Russell says that the concept of mattering has been around since the early 1980s, but the anti-mattering side of the coin is newer and has brought more attention to the subject. “It was coincidental to what we experienced during COVID-19,” she says.

In early 2020, during the first, extremely stressful days of the pandemic, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto named Gordon Flett published a commentary that, among other things, stated that people need people all the time but especially in times of crisis and uncertainty. They can be a great source of comfort to others by letting them know they care and they are valued.

Then in late 2021, researchers at York University created a new Anti Mattering Scale (AMS) tool to measure and assess feelings of insignificance in youth and adults. It provides clinicians a way to assess the tendency of certain people to experience a profound sense of not mattering to others in ways that represent a source of health risk, social disconnection and personal vulnerability.

The scale reflects four main components of mattering – the sense that other people depend on us, the perception that other people regard us as important, the realization that other people are actively paying attention to us, and the feeling that other people would miss us if we were no longer around.

Those who succumb to anti-mattering attitudes can get them from many sources, including facing constant rejection from potential romantic partners, employers or even rude people who don’t reply to their texts. However, the most likely source can be traced to early childhood experiences of neglect by distracted and unresponsive parents. The hard shell around your need to matter begins to form when you’re young.

Russell says that people tend to do what their parents did unless they make a conscious effort not to. The New York Times article mentioned above offers tips on how to bring that conscious effort into play, stating that wherever you are on the mattering spectrum, it is malleable.

Although we can’t change how we were raised or whether we’ve experienced discrimination, exclusion and unfair treatment, these steps can change how we perceive our value.

  • Identify your strengths. Think about a time when you felt useful or pinpoint areas where you’re already adding value and figure out how you can kick it up a notch. True strengths are things that we’re good at, that we choose to do and that make us feel good while we’re doing them.
  • Assess your work life. Feeling a sense of significance at work has been tied to lower absenteeism, more readiness to share ideas, more engaged employees and better employee-manager relationships.
  • Adjust your relationships. Tell people why and how much you appreciate them. Try something specific like, “It meant a lot to me that you took out the trash before I got home because you realized I’d be tired from work.”
  • Volunteer your time. Fighting for a cause is one path to mattering.
  • Express grievances and practice self-compassion. Often, circumstances beyond our control have made us believe we don’t matter.

To sum up, feeling that you matter is clearly a contributor to positive mental health, while anti-mattering can you feel that you lack value to others and contribute to a sense of marginalization.

Dr. Peggy Russell has a B.S. in Psychology from University of Florida, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Boston College and Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Florida State University.

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