Originally published on April 2, 2021
“It Is What It Is”: A Useful Strategy or a Passive One?
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “it is what it is” before. In a nutshell, it indicates that the person speaking it has resolved to give up control of the situation in front of him or her or acknowledged that he or she can no longer change it.
For example, when our friend Greg loses a bet and says, “it is what it is,” he’s acknowledging that the bet has played out, that he lost it, and that there’s nothing left for him to do besides try to move on.
That doesn’t mean Greg will no longer feel any emotion over it — he may still very well be disappointed — just that he realizes he can no longer change the outcome of it and will no longer try to, either.
Of course, there are all kinds of situations to which we could apply this phrase — gambling is just one of them. We could also mutter such words after performing poorly on an exam, losing our keys, or booking the wrong dates for a non-refundable vacation.
Yet, no matter when or why we speak the words “it is what it is,” what we’re doing is acknowledging that whatever has happened, no matter how negative, is something we’re no longer going to beat ourselves up over.
What I think is most interesting about this phrase is that many people see it as something of a cowardly admission. They hear it and think, “That’s just apathy. Never give up or surrender. Always stay vigilant. There’s always something you can do.” Though I love the “can do” attitude, it definitely doesn’t apply in all situations.
For example, after losing his bet, what exactly is Greg supposed to do? Go complain to his bookie? Take the money back from him? Build a time machine, warp back, and change his pick? Of course not. Some situations in life simply require owning up to what you’ve done and taking it like a man or a woman.
For a second, however, let’s pretend we do decide to relentlessly pursue the “can do” approach. That is, let’s say we ask someone we’ve had our eye on for some time out for a date, and he or she says no. If we refuse to admit that being turned down may warrant the “it is what it is” outlook, we might be in for some seriously unwanted emotions, not to mention some rather creepy behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, if this sort of thing happens to you in real life and you not only have a good deal of courage but also really feel like you deserve a second chance, then, by all means, give it one more shot — emphasis on the one there.
Come up with the best idea you can, tell the person you realize he or she said no the first time, say you’ll understand if he or she says no again, and put your best foot forward. But, if you then get turned down once more, that’s probably it — unless you want this person calling the police.
Continuing on and refusing to buy into the belief that “it is what it is” will only do two things for you in such a situation. First, it will keep making you super frustrated and anxious, forcing you to think in a fashion similar to the following: “Why doesn’t this person like me? Why am I such a loser?! I’m going to figure this thing out and turn it around! It is NOT what it is.” And, second, it’s eventually going to make you look like a complete creep.
Yes, I think we can all appreciate persistence, but only in the right places. Refusing to give up on your quest to finish a marathon? Super admirable. Refusing to accept the fact that one person doesn’t want to go out with you and constantly calling them as a result? Stalker territory.
Jokes or hypotheticals aside, the takeaways from any one of these sorts of situations are almost always the same. The most important of those is that when you refuse to properly diagnose a situation as one that you can no longer control or influence, but continue to try to do so anyway, you’re going to make yourself more frustrated, anxious, and angry.
These emotions can often lead to a vicious cycle as well. First, we get frustrated, then we get angry, then we beat ourselves up for failing or not being good enough, then we get frustrated that we’re not good enough, and, well, I think you get the picture. The bottom line? These patterns of thinking and acting are not good for our mental health. Very not good.
The second important takeaway is that a situation we can still change and one that we cannot (but from which we can learn) are NOT the same things. The semantics behind that last sentence are actually what most people are arguing about when they debate the validity of “it is what it is” as an approach in the first place.
Or, to put it another way: usually, both people in this argument are correct; they’re just talking past one another. Yes, “it is what it is” is a bad strategy when there’s still action to be taken or influence to assert. However, once that action or influence is no longer possible, “it is what it is” becomes a solid and appropriate outlook.
For example, let’s say we recently failed an exam. After getting our test back from our professor, we bugged him relentlessly to retake it or earn extra credit. Unfortunately for us, our professor declined all of our requests and, finally, asked us to stop pestering him unless we wanted an even worse grade. Thus, after exhausting all possible or reasonable avenues, we have to accept that our failing grade “is what it is” and move on.
However, there are nuances to how we “move on,” and they affect how we’ll approach similar situations in the future. For example, we can either put the situation entirely in our rearview mirrors and never think of it again, or we can figure out where we went wrong, learn from it, and resolve to apply our learnings the next time we sit down to study or take a test. Refusing to admit that “it is what it is” when we need to prevents us from drawing and applying such insights, as it keeps us wrapped up in our negative, less resourceful emotions.
That leads me to the final point I want to make in this post, and the sentiment behind its title: “it is what it is” is NOT a passive strategy. Yes, I know it often feels like we’re admitting defeat when we pronounce it, but I’d argue that’s actually far from the case. Especially for folks like us who deal with anxiety and depression. Why’s that?
Because of the alternatives. Think about it this way. The only other choice we have in uncontrollable situations besides admitting that “it is what it is” is to instead stubbornly persist. Thus, when we refuse to properly diagnose a situation as one in which it truly is what it is, we’re effectively putting ourselves in a no-win scenario and pushing up against an immovable object.
Ever tried moving a brick wall with your bare hands? Me neither. Both of us know that isn’t possible without some heavy-duty construction equipment. But that’s what we’re effectively trying to do when we refuse to admit that a situation that truly is out of our control actually is. That’s not a fun place to be, physically or mentally.
Why? Because when you constantly try to change a situation that can’t be changed, you get pain, frustration, anxiety, anger, sadness, and grief — the whole nine yards.
Thus, why I say that the phrase “it is what it is” ISN’T a passive mental health strategy is because when we leverage it in the right situations, we’re actively saving ourselves that frustration, anxiety, and grief. We’re giving the situation over to some power outside of ourselves and saying, “I don’t have time for this anguish anymore, and that’s okay. You figure it out, if there is, in fact, anything to figure out here.”
That frees our minds up to focus on concepts we actually want to focus on — things like achieving new goals, connecting with people, or being present in the moment in front of us — not on the potential anxiety and depression we face as we refuse to accept our current realities.
Of course, it’s important to balance our emotion-laden ambitions and the rational capacities of our minds. If we always concluded that “it is what it is” long before we turned over every last stone, we’d miss out on a whole lot of great things in our lives. But, since many people tend to look at the phrase “it is what it is” with disdain, I’d imagine that’s not the core issue to focus on here.
In fact, most of us struggle a lot more with admitting that things are what they are and moving on than we do trying to change the outcome of an uncontrollable scenario. But we’re all adults here, so I’ll leave you to figure out what uncontrollable looks like to you and when to make that determination. After all, every situation is different.
In closing, I hope you gained a little bit of insight on this seemingly passive strategy through this post and will be better equipped to put it to use the next time you find yourself in a difficult and potentially unchangeable situation.
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**Photo by Jeremy Lapak on Unsplash