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"It Is What It Is": A Mantra for Modern Coping?

A Personal Perspective: Mental well-being in the 21st-century world.

The nature of human thought and language has evolved in us the ability to develop common, or old sayings, or adages that wrap up complex thoughts and ideas into nice neat little packages to facilitate understanding. We often discuss these on this blog in the context of common beliefs, schemas, and other intuitively processed reactions.

One of my favourite examples is when two such adages contradict one another, as in the case of "birds of a feather flock together" and "opposites attract." Of course, the former has research backing (i.e., we’re typically more attracted to people similar to us), whereas the latter does not (i.e., the complementarity hypothesis). When presented with adages, we must consider their credibility; and one, in particular, has entered my radar of consideration lately–"it is what it is."

Much like everyone else, I’ve had and have stresses in my life. In recent months, I recall speaking on the phone with my father about some bad news we received. After a pause in the conversation, I sighed and said: "It is what it is." He wasn’t really sure how to take the comment in context. I feared that it came across cold–of course, I care, I told him, but there was nothing I or anyone else could do about the situation. Moreover, dwelling on it certainly wasn’t helping–nor was it helping my or my father’s disposition.

In recent years, I’ve tried to curtail unnecessary worry as much as I can and try to only worry about impending issues rather than focus too much on the "what ifs." Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending haphazard living–I strongly encourage being organised and taking precautions in ways that minimise the likelihood of bad things happening–but if they happen, they happen. It is what it is. I’ll deal with it when I have to.

So, I told my perspective to Dad, and there was another pause. Then he told me, with genuine sincerity, that I might well be right and that he wished he could approach life stressors like that. His response surprised me, and perhaps, it was his response that gave me the impetus to discuss these ideas here because I think they’re valuable for facilitating positive mental health. Truth be told, I wish I could always do what I’m recommending, but sometimes we react differently to things–it could be the nature of the problem, how much sleep we’ve had, hunger, and any other mountain of variables that may impact said reaction. With that, I’ve been doing okay applying "it is what it is."

The concept is not new–obviously, being an old saying. Coincidentally, using this concept as a mantra for coping, it integrates well with another adage–"wake up and smell the roses": appreciate the good things in life. We become habituated towards repeated things, so the more we focus on our stresses and problems, the more likely that’s where our thinking will be prioritised.

Experiencing a full life–the good and the bad–takes conscious effort. Sure, we need to think about the bad things from time to time–this is where "wake up and smell the coffee" chimes in as a similar, though conceptually distinct, saying. However, some of the bad stuff–the things we have no control over–just takes up mental real estate. For example, when I was younger, I remember getting a souvenir "worry rock." You put it in your pocket, and when you’re worried, you take it out and rub it. The process itself wasn’t particularly useful, but the saying on the back of the packaging stuck with me: "If you're worried about something, ask yourself if there's something you can do about it. If there's nothing you can do about it, don’t worry."

When we think of the aforementioned mental effort and cognitive burden placed on us in our day-to-day lives, we often feel at our limits. Burnout is real. Stress is real. "Adulting" is hard enough as it is, without the added pressures of problems in our lives that we have no control over. If you have issues, problems, or stresses that can be addressed, be as proactive as possible. Take control of your life as much as you can. But, also realise that not everything is in your control. There are some things you can do nothing about. In these cases, it is what it is. In these cases, accept that and refocus on the good things in life, the things that make you happy.

The latter recommendations are quite consistent with research perspectives on mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). I’ve researched these in the past, and though these therapeutic strategies are useful in certain contexts, they are not in all. One of my interpretations for this was that when people use something like ACT, they might be looking for a fast-acting treatment or even a "cure" (e.g., enhancing the quality of life in light of a chronic illness). So when faced with the prospect of simply accepting their illness, pain, or whatever malady it might be (i.e., in advance of switching attention to a value-based goal), there’s the potential for confusion or even pushback on the part of the participant (e.g., "I came here for treatment and your solution is just to accept it?").

In the context of our current discussion, this acceptance isn’t thrown at the individual out of nowhere (like trialing a new therapy, in some cases). It must be arrived at by the person, upon considering, from a logical standpoint, what can or can’t be done to remedy the situation. If nothing can be done, it is what it is. Worry about it only if something can be done about it. Sure, easier said than done. I get it. As I said, I’m still working on it myself, but cognitive reframing takes time. It is what it is.

Now, switch your attention to something more worthy of your focus.

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