Thursday, November 1, 2007

No, it isn't.

The therapist's chair provides a unique perspective on culture. Our primary task is trying to understand the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of our clients. Over time we start to see patterns, both on an individual and societal level. We see trends, styles, popular sentiment, even lexicon change gradually, one unrelated individual at a time.

Here's a phrase I've heard a lot recently, from all types of people: it is what it is (iiwii for short). The phrase seems harmless enough, but I actually think it can be a bad sign, psychologically. It's a defense mechanism.

We hear it all the time, particularly from athletes on losing teams. As spoken by the coach of the UCLA football team who lost to a horrible Notre Dame squad. USC loses to the Oregon Ducks, same statement. USA Today even named it the 2004 Sports Cliche of the Year. There are t-shirts, blogs, tattoos, even a support group utilizing this phrase. Here's a discussion describing how iiwii has replaced "it's all good" in common parlance. The urban dictionary tries to define it, but none of the definitions quite capture what I see in my office.

The problem is, iiwii is a deceptive statement. The words and tone imply acceptance of the current state of affairs, but the underlying sentiment is frustration and helplessness. Don't get me wrong, I'm quite familiar with irony, cynicism and satire. But that's not what this is. This is a defense mechanism. Not only that, it's the Ebola virus of defense mechanisms: denial.

Let's say I have a client, a man who has been in a miserable marriage for 20 years. Every perceptive muscle I have tells me he feels angry, sad and very stuck. But I ask him how he feels and he drops the iiwii bomb: "I don't know," he says "my marriage is what it is, and that's that." Here is my translation: This situation makes me very upset, but I'm powerless to change it, so I'm trying to push away my feelings and begrudgingly accept my helplessness. I don't want to talk about it anymore. We both know he has strong feelings about it, but iiwii won't let us get there. That's what a defense mechanism is: any mechanism that protects (defends) us from unwanted thoughts, feelings, or drives.

I'm not trying to be grammar police, or take away freedom of speech. I actually don't mind the phrase when used appropriately. I'm just calling out iiwii for what it often is: denial. Normal, healthy emotional processing includes 1) injury 2) feeling the emotion 3) expressing the emotion, then finally 4) acceptance. What I'm seeing is people wanting to leapfrog steps 2 and 3 in order to avoid the pain and get to the acceptance. They hope that shortcut won't hurt as bad.

But you know what? Bypassing the emotion doesn't work. It has to be expressed sometime. Talk to someone who took antidepressants following the death of a loved one. Prozac doesn't eliminate the grief, it just postpones it. Emotions like grief and anger are natural, necessary phases we must experience in order to move on. In order to achieve real acceptance. And what happens when we don't deal with the underlying emotions? Most of mankind's health and relational problems. I'm afraid that's the harsh reality.