“It Is What It Is” — How Good a Tool of Coping?

Wall hanging reads It Is What It Is

“It is what it is.”

I like this statement, when it’s used the right way.

It suggests something that’s undeniably true. Things are what they are. Facts are stubborn things. People and objects are of a certain nature, and we have to understand and accept what those natures are, in order to cope and thrive in life.

The essence of mental health is rationality, and the resulting emotional state is serenity.

If you define serenity the right way, then the phrase, “It is what it is,” fits right in.

The right way of defining serenity is a state of mind where you accept what things are, you focus on mastering what’s under your control, and relevant to your life, while not wasting time or energy on the things you cannot control.

Serenity sometimes gets a bad name. This happens when people focus on only one part of it — i.e., letting go of what you cannot control. Such a policy, by itself, suggests a passive, non-assertive and even cognitively lazy approach to life. Kind of staring mindlessly into nothingness as a way of approaching existence. As a consistent policy, this would lead to death, or certainly hapless dependence on others for just about everything. That’s hardly admirable, life-serving, and it’s certainly not serenity.

Serene people are effective. They are in charge of their own lives, confident in their minds, know how to use their minds and act competently, and understand the nature of what their minds require. Whatever serenity involves, it cannot be passivity. But it does involve a refusal to waste even one second on things you cannot change, or perhaps do not need to change.

For serenity to make any sense, it has to be grasped and practiced as a whole. This means simultaneously accepting what you cannot control while furiously, excitedly and confidently attacking and mastering the areas where you can legitimately do so. The world is your oyster: Career, other productive efforts, exciting and meaningful hobbies, the kinds of relationships you want with the kind of people you want … serene people seek to gain and/or keep these things, and they love the doing of it. They are not a passive lot.

My years of being a therapist have taught me not only that people often lack serenity, but that their lack of serenity usually focuses on one area: The mistaken belief that you can control other people.

We have to understand and remember that people are of a certain nature. We are cognitive beings who make choices, first via thinking and then via action. For better or worse, we all make choices all the time, and have to do so, by our very natures. Human beings do not run on automatic, via instincts or biology alone, as do animals, plants and other living things. We have to choose … constantly.

Serenity requires understanding and accepting this fact. Other people will make their own choices, for better or worse. Even when they refuse to make choices, they will experience (or suffer) the consequences of their actions via negligence or default. Even when people act impulsively (without thinking first), their choices are still the product of ideas they have, if nothing else, subconsciously and previously accepted or internalized.

People get depressed or anxious when they start to lose their serenity. Part of what causes them to lose their serenity is a failure to accept that people cannot be controlled. “People,” of course, include family members, parents, children, spouses, ex-spouses, and loved ones who all have minds of their own.

Instead of focusing on how awful it is that you cannot control another, or how terrible it is that this other person has done such-and-such and you don’t like it, the focus of a serene life means simply mastering and controlling all that is your legitimate terrain. This is more than enough focus for any person to handle. You can fume and rage — worry, or get depressed — about the fact that others are not acting or thinking in a way you believe they should. Your attitudes might even be provably right. But at the end of the session of worrying, fuming or raging, what has changed? Absolutely nothing. Except you now have less energy to focus on what you can control. This is what a serene person grasps far better than the person lacking such a quality.

What does a serene and rational person do when confronted with the actions of others of which he disapproves? If it’s violence or fraud, call the authorities (assuming trusted ones exist). Beyond that: Simply get around them. Accept what you cannot control — that others will do what they do — and get on with your own life. You do not have to bail out, approve of or otherwise condone another’s actions — not ever, and not unless you choose to do so.  You always retain that control.

I know some people who dislike the phrase, “It is what it is.” They say it reminds them of a defeatist, helpless attitude. I suppose the phrase could be used that way. If so, it springs from a wrong idea of serenity based, ultimately, on mistaken notions about what to expect of others, particularly other people.

But I love the phrase. It makes me think of rationality and the resulting emotional state arising from a life rationally lived.

I don’t view it as passive resignation. I view it as fundamental wisdom. I see it as a way of clearing and weeding out the unnecessary and impossible expectations, and setting the stage for a purposeful, productive, meaningful and rewarding existence.



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