Recently, we’ve had a death in the family. While we were crowding in the small ICU unit, trying to hold it together, our beautiful grandmother turned to me and said, “That’s life. It is what it is.”
I couldn’t process this at first. But later on, as the first waves of grief subsided, I thought, yes, that’s life. And it is what it is.
It was a hard phrase to accept coming from someone we don’t want to let go of. But she knew it was what we needed to hear.
It was as if she was imparting one last gift to us—a gift of comfort. Something that kept us from breaking like pieces of glass on that hospital floor.
“It is what it is.”
This phrase has managed to worm its way into our every conversation since. Or maybe I’ve just started noticing it now.
Perhaps it’s often said in moments when we need a reality check the most. At least in my situation, I realized just how much we needed to cling to the belief that there are just some things in life we can’t control.
Yet “it is what it is,” is not a phrase given with empathy. In fact, when facing emotional turmoil, many of us would find it dismissive and harsh. Others would call it a useless phrase, something you say in defeat. In conversation, it’s only a filler to repeat what has already been said.
Still, when said in the right context, it’s a stark and necessary reminder that things are simply the way they are and nothing more.
Yes, sometimes it’s complete and utter bullsh*t. But sometimes, too, it’s exactly what we need to hear. Let’s dig deep into one of life’s most popular phrases—the good and the ugly—that’s constantly reminding us of the immutable nature of life.
Here’s an interesting little tidbit:
The phrase “it is what it is” was actually voted USA Today’s No. 1 cliché of 2004.
It’s been thrown around in conversation so much, that it has been getting “bad rep” for more than a decade now.
Annoying or not, where did the phrase actually come from?
The precise origin is unknown, but at least in the beginning, “it is what it is” was used to express difficulty or loss and signal that it’s time to accept and move on from it.
“It is what it is” was first seen in print on a 1949 Nebraska newspaper article describing the difficulty of pioneer life.
Writer J. E. Lawrence wrote:
“New land is harsh and vigorous and sturdy. . . . It is what it is, without apology.”
Today, the phrase has evolved in so many ways. It has become a part of the complicated human language we all seem to understand and get confused by at the same time.
4 reasons to believe that “it is what it is.”
There are arguably many dangers to believing that life “is what it is,” which we’ll discuss later. But there are also instances when accepting reality is the best thing for us. Here are 4 beautiful reasons to believe that it is what it is:
1. When “accepting reality” is the healthiest option.
There are times we all wish for something to be “more than what it is.”
We want someone to be who we expect them to be. We want a situation to go our way. Or we want to be loved and treated the way we want to.
But sometimes, you just can’t force it. You can’t force things to happen this way or that.
Sometimes, you just have to face reality. You hit a wall and there’s absolutely nothing else you can do but accept that it is what it is.
Psychologists call this “radical acceptance.”
According to author and behavioral psychologist Dr. Karyn Hall:
“Radical acceptance is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is.“
Believing that “it is what it is” can stop you from wasting energy on pushing or shaping something to happen your way.
Dr. Hall adds:
“Accepting reality is difficult when life is painful. No one wants to experience pain, disappointment, sadness, or loss. But those experiences are a part of life. When you attempt to avoid or resist those emotions, you add suffering to your pain. You may build the emotion bigger with your thoughts or create more misery by attempting to avoid the painful emotions. You can stop suffering by practicing acceptance.”
2. When you can’t change something
“It is what it is” can also apply in situations that cannot be changed.
It means, it’s not ideal, but you must make the best of it.
There are many times in my life I’ve said this phrase to myself. When a toxic relationship ended. When I got rejected from a job I wanted. I said it when I felt injustice by being stereotyped. When people had the wrong impression of me.
Saying “it is what it is” helped me move on from what I cannot change. I cannot change other people’s opinions of me. I cannot change how I stayed in a bad relationship for that long. And I could not change the way the world viewed me. But I can let it go.
Writer and psychotherapist Mary Darling Montero says:
“Getting past this requires a cognitive shift, or changing the way we perceive and react to the situation. Accomplishing this shift involves determining what we can and cannot control, then accepting and letting go of those things we can’t control in order to refocus our energy on what we can.”
Accepting that “it is what it is” is the crucial first step to moving on with your and take back a piece of control—focusing on how you react and what you can change.
3. When dealing with profound loss
Loss is a part of life. We all know it’s an inevitability. Nothing is permanent.
And yet we all still struggle in the face of loss. Grief consumes us, to the point that it takes 5 brutal stages to go through.
If you’re familiar with the 5 stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—you know that we all come to some sort of peace about our loss.
The truth is, acceptance is not always a happy and uplifting stage when you’re getting over something. But you do reach a “surrendering” of some sort.
“It is what it is,” is a phrase that completely captures this sentiment. It means, “it’s not what I wanted, but I have to accept it’s not meant for me.”
When the loss is so profound and heartbreaking, we have to grieve, and then reach the point of acceptance. I know, personally, how comforting it is to remind myself that there are things that are exactly as they are, and no bargaining will ever shape them into what we want.
4. When you’ve already done enough
There’s always a point in your life when you have to say “enough is enough.” It is what it is, and you’ve done what you possibly could.
Yes, there is nothing wrong with pouring our energy into something we love and believe in. But when do we draw the line between accepting the entirety of a situation, and pushing for it to be more? At which point can you come from “I can do more” to “it is what it is”?
I believe there’s a very blatant difference between giving up and realizing that there’s nothing more you can do.
Most people believe that resilience is all about pushing through any adversity. But according to psychologist and author Anna Rowley, that’s just one part of resilience.
Resilience also involves having the ability to “rebound” from tough situations.
“Resilience isn’t about being invulnerable: it’s about being human; about failing; about sometimes needing to disengage. For example, you’re depleted by pulling an all-nighter or emotionally bruised from a difficult encounter and you need to heal and decompress. Resilient individuals are able to rebound and re-engage quicker than the average.”
Sometimes you just need to disengage. “It is what it is” is a beautiful reminder that there are immovable things in life, and somehow, that could be a comforting thing when we’ve grown so tired.
3 instances when “it is what it is” is harmful
Now that we’ve talked about the beauty of the phrase “it is what it is,” let’s talk about the ugly side of it. Here are 3 instances when saying the phrase does more harm than good:
1. As an excuse to give up
If I had a dollar every time I’ve heard people use the phrase, “it is what it is” as an excuse to give up, I’d be rich by now.
Yes, there is value in facing an unflinching reality, but saying that “it is what it is” should never become the lazy answer to a problem.
Peter Economy, best-selling author of Managing for Dummies, explains:
“Here’s the problem with It is what it is. It abdicates responsibility, shuts down creative problem solving, and concedes defeat. A leader who uses the expression is a leader who faced a challenge, failed to overcome it, and explained away the episode as an inevitable, unavoidable force of circumstances. Replace It is what it is with “This resulted because I failed to do __________” and you get an entirely different discussion.”
I think personally, that you have to go through every avenue of possibility before you can finally say, “it’s over, it is what it is.” It shouldn’t be en excuse to do a lousy job.
2. A reason to not try
Using “it is what it is” as a lazy excuse to quit is one thing. But using it as a reason to not even try—that’s much worse.
There are many things in life that may seem impossible at first—overcoming addiction, trauma, disabilities. It’s so easy to accept that these things are the way they are.
But if you want to change your life for the better, especially during a slump, you need to learn how not to take no for an answer. Sometimes the only way to overcome impossible-looking adversity is to challenge yourself to defy it.
And there’s a whole lot of science that backs this up. Various studies show that engaging the brain in cognitive tasks that feel difficult is the best way to make an impact on our lives.
I’ve talked about the benefit of disengaging, of accepting that there are things that are simply the way they are. But you also need to be smart enough to assess if a situation can still be better. Using “it is what it is” as a reason to not even try can be the worst injustice you can do to yourself.
3. When it doesn’t have to be “what it is.”
I personally find this the worst reason to believe that it is what it is:
When you use it as a subtext to “surrender” completely to a bad situation simply because it’s accepted and has been that way for a long time.
It’s like saying, “I give up. I accept this. And I refuse to take any responsibility for it.”
I see this everywhere: in people who refuse to leave bad relationships, in citizens who accept corruption, in employees who are overworked and underpaid and are okay with it.
All because “it is what it is.”
But it doesn’t have to be.
Yes, there are realities you can’t change, circumstances you can control. But you can control your reaction to them.
You can leave a bad relationship. You’re not obliged to stay anywhere you don’t want to be. You can demand better for yourself. And you don’t have to be okay with it. just because it is what it is.
When it’s a choice between staying stagnant out of fear and comfort and choosing discomfort for growth, always choose growth.
The dangers of believing that “it is what it is.”
Don’t worry if you’ve succumbed to this mental position of surrender once or twice. You’re only human, after all—used to your comfort and unafraid to relinquish it. But don’t stay in that slump. Face reality, but keep exploring possibilities.
Here are _ dangers of believing that life is what it is:
1. It breeds inaction
“The cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” – Meister Eckhart
Believing that things are the way that they are is very dangerous because it makes you ignore what you can actually do.
While it’s true that there are things you can’t control, in many cases, you don’t actually need to just stand by and be a passive spectator of life.
To some extent, you can control the decisions you make. You can adapt and change plans. You can leave instead of staying.
When you keep saying “it is what it is,” you become the victim of life’s adversities.
2. It makes you ignore failure
How many times have you said, “it is what it is” after a big failure?
It’s okay to want to ease your pain after failure or rejection. It’s true, it is what it is, it’s done. But don’t forget that failure teaches us a valuable thing or two.
When we ignore failure, we shut ourselves down from self-assessment. We become closed to challenges. And if you do it more and more, you begin to think that failure should be avoided at all costs.
But the truth is, failure is an inevitable part of learning. And if you ignore it, you stop learning.
3. You lose your creativity
Perhaps the worst subtext of it is what it is, is “there’s nothing I can do about it.”
And what does that do?
It stops you from coming up with creative ways to fix a problem. It stops you from even trying to get your way around it.
In the long run, that’s a terrible thing.
The more you keep saying “it is what it is” to every adversity that comes your way, the more you stop being creative. And creativity is something you nurture. The less you use it, the weaker it becomes.
In the end, you’ll find yourself settling for what you have, and you stop fighting for what you want.
4. You come off as uncaring
We’ve all done it. We’ve heard our friends or loved ones share their negative experiences and we’ve offhandedly said “it is what it is” in different variations.
You might think it’s consoling. You might even think it will cheer them up.
But it doesn’t. What it does instead, is dismiss their feelings as invalid, even irrational. You might not mean it, but you deliver a message that lacks empathy.
Think about it. When you experience a painful thing, the last you want to hear is someone saying to you that things happened the way it was meant to happen. And who likes hearing that?
“It is what it is” is just a phrase, but it could mean a million different things. Sometimes it captures the inevitability that is lofe. Sometimes it stops us from exploring possibilities.
Words have power. But they only have power when you give them meaning.
Use “it is what it is” as a comforting reminder that there are things out of our control. Tell it to yourself when there’s absolutely nothing else you can do. Use it as a reminder that there’s sometimes no shame in a healthy surrender.
But never use it as an excuse not to act, or to give up, or to simply accept undesirable circumstances.
As I said before, accept reality, but never stop exploring possibilities.