puzzle pieces

A colleague of mine at another university died recently.

We collaborated on several projects over the last few years. As we worked together professionally, we also came to know each other personally. We shared several common interests and experiences. Distance kept us from bonding socially, but she, our study collaborators, and I “zoomed” at least weekly. I knew she had a chronic illness that had flared up recently, but she deftly steered all conversation away from her health. We made plans for new projects and conference presentations months into the future.

"Needing each other isn't weakness; it's the highest level of maturity."

Haizlip in UVA Engagement's THOUGHTS FROM THE LAWN blog post

There are many reasons she might not have wanted to talk to us about her illness. First and foremost, she may have simply wanted privacy. She might have needed time and space to come to terms with what was happening. She had always been strong, independent, and successful. I imagine she wanted to be defined by her accomplishments rather than her illness. And, I suspect, she did not want to burden us.

Whatever the reason, her decision to play things “close to the vest” deeply affected the rest of us. Following her untimely death, we were expectedly sad, but we also felt helpless, unsettled, and adrift. Our research team works in and around healthcare. We are accustomed to being helpers. In this case, even if it was not our role to be involved in her medical care, we had a tremendous desire to lighten her load, to provide comfort, to show her how important she was to us, and to be assured that she knew she could count on us to be there. We missed our chance.

As I reflected on my feelings in the wake of my colleague’s death, what I most wanted was to know that I mattered to her the way she did to me.

[VIDEO] Why "Mattering" Makes Such a Difference

This shouldn’t have been surprising. The research my colleagues and I do is about mattering. Mattering is a concept that describes the feeling that we make a difference in the world and are significant to others. The originators of the concept, Rosenberg and McCullough (1981), described several domains that contribute to an individual’s sense of mattering:

  • Awareness: The idea that you are recognized as a unique individual with your own distinct characteristics, talents, and aspirations.
  • Importance: The knowledge that you are the object of someone’s concern.
  • Reliance: Knowing someone depends on you or that you have qualities, skills or abilities that are valuable to others.
  • Ego-extension: The notion that others feel a sense of pride in your successes or disappointment in your failures, as though your performance reflected not only on yourself but also on them.

American culture is becoming increasingly individualistic. There are positive connotations to being able to “pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps,” being self-made, and not asking for help. Being strong and independent are considered admirable qualities. We have become a nation of individuals who don’t want to need others. We might make exceptions for our closest friends and family. But in general, there is valor in making it on your own. Our accomplishments confirm our mattering.

What we don’t consider is that in trying to make it on our own, we rob ourselves and others of opportunities to matter. If we do not allow ourselves to rely on the skills or generosity of our friends, family, and co-workers, we do not have the chance to see that we are important and that they would gladly come to our aid. 

In our research on mattering, we frequently hear poignant descriptions of reciprocity. Teachers tell us that they confer mattering from knowing that they have helped a student learn. Medical and nursing students experience mattering when they have contributed to a patient's care or lessened the workload for their team. Chaplains feel they matter when alleviating someone else’s suffering. It is easy for us to identify the moments when our actions convey to someone else that they matter, and as a result, we see that we and our actions must matter, too. Simply put, we need to be needed.

Perhaps it is human nature that we prefer to see ourselves as the benefactor rather than the person in need. After all, we have learned “tis better to give than receive.” However, our research highlights the need to reframe this perspective. A willingness to receive can also be a gift. In reaching out to someone for assistance or even just a listening ear, we demonstrate trust in and reliance on them. It bestows an opportunity for them to matter. Then, in accepting their help or perspective, we recognize how their contribution of time or effort reflects that we are important to them. Furthermore, our willingness to accept their aid gives them permission to ask for ours in the future. 

Needing each other isn’t a weakness; it is interdependence, the highest level of maturity. It is a demonstration of social connection and mutuality. It is how we grow a sense of community. A fellow mattering scholar, Zach Mercurio, says, “Assume the people around you feel unseen, undervalued, and lonely, and act accordingly.” I propose that creating a chance for those same people to contribute will make them feel seen, valued, and connected.

In her absence, my colleague continues to be a valuable mentor. She has enriched my understanding of the concept we have researched for years. In her honor, I intend to be a little less self-sufficient and a bit more willing to accept help from those who care about me. It is how I can convey how much they matter.

Haizlip is a clinical professor of nursing with a joint appointment in the UVA School of Medicine's department of pediatrics. She serves as director of the Center for Interprofessional Collaborations and is a core faculty member of the Compassionate Care Initiative.  Last year, Haizlip and Natalie May, an associate professor of research in the School of Nursing, explained their research on mattering and how mattering impacts healthcare providers in a UVA Speaks podcast. Listen to the episode “Mattering and Why it Matters” here.

Rosenberg, M., & McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents. Research in Community & Mental Health, 2, 163–182.

Mercurio, Z. (2023, Jun). https://www.linkedin.com/in/zachmercurio/