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.


cacophony said...

Well said. In your experience, have people who tend to use this phrase made any effort to explore or change things and failed? Or is this a lack of insight that capitalizes on fear and denial? Both?

The Insighter said...

Interesting question, cacophony. I believe the "iiwii" attitude is adopted after failed attempts to resolve prior issues. The underlying sentiment might be: "venting my anger didn't change the outcome before, so why feel the anger now?" What I'm saying is - venting the anger is important for your health, regardless of the outcome. Thanks for asking.

steven edward streight said...

This post is what it is. There's nothing I can do to change it. I have to just begrudgingly accept it.

LOL -- Nice job. I love debunking popular statements, like this and "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result". That's the definition of futility, not insanity.

And poor Einstein. Every hare-brained saying is frequently attributed to him!

LotStreetWiz said...

I got linked to here by your "definition of insanity" post - glad I've discovered your blog - very interesting!

With respect to i.i.w.i.i., I find your insights very, well, insightful.

In my world - project management, project delivery, call it what you will - i.i.w.i. is a way to end pointless how-did-we-get-here arguments and pity parties, and move on to solutioning (sorry for the jargon, but I think it's the right world).

I.e., I think the sunny flipside of i.i.w.i.i. is not begrudging acceptance of something we don't want to change, but rather the acceptance of our start conditions: "Yes, the [bridge] pier is buckling, which means we can't lay the deck on it, and we're going to miss your milestones - BUT WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?"

I hope I make sense!

Again, great blog.

Ian said...

I also got linked to here by your "definition of insanity" post. I also feel the same way about the phrase, "Agree to disagree"
Great blog, btw.

Rickmilw said...

I think Agree to Disagree is a little different. It can be perfectly appropriate if 2 people have thoroughly and constructively discussed a difference of opinion until it becomes apparent that neither will change the other's mind, and so there is no point in extending the debate.

Guardian of Purity said...

For the insider:
I do Apologize ahead for my forward comings, but I am sure you do Not have all the facts straight and in order. Therefore, rendering your information incomplete or null and void.

The phrase "It Is What It Is" has absolutely nothing to do with with Defensive Mechanisms of the human mind. In fact the phrase is more pertaining to more of a natural sense of avoidance then defense. As well as consideration to the correct definition pertaining to what a Defensive Mechanism is exactly may help.

Defense Mechanism
1.Physiology. the defensive reaction of an organism, as against a pathogenic microorganism.
2.Psychology. an unconscious process, as denial, that protects an individual from unacceptable or painful ideas or impulses.

Key word is denial. The person whom state "It Is What It Is" is not denying anything, they are simply accepting the situation as it stands, and makes absolutely zero reference as to whether or Not the person has any intent to change the situation. In order to figure for intent, you consider the 'Post-Context' of the phrase, and be mindful that the tone in ones voice is the most common body language to be misunderstood.

Post-Context is always important, even in the midst of a threat. If a follows the remark with a laugh they either are joking or they have reached a psychotic break. But, if a person states it straight and to point, generally with a serious or angered tone, and urges additional demands or statements pertaining to then it would be a worry. But, generally with the phrase "It Is What It Is" your Post-Context would include the added statement of "And I/we can't change that" that would show the lack of intent to change the current standings or situation. Though, if the Post-Context includes something like "what are/am you/I/me/we going to do about it?" it would show that the person would like to see it change, but just doesn't know how to change it.

So, you can't just make a general assumption that everyone is just trying to avoid the conversation, or shut you out, you really just need to know what questions to ask or what to say. But, in the end, the statement primarily pertains strictly to the acceptance of a situation in which a person either can't change, or simply doesn't know how to change. That would be the Acceptance of, Not the denial of.

And, I shall add, that as a Psychologist, it is kind of annoying you would that presumptuous to phrase like that...

gm* said...

talk about over analyzing. when I say it I'm meaning be at peace with it if you want something better you have to change it, because now I've worked hard, it's pleasing to me and I want to go to bed. what's wrong with being defensive?

Aegean BM said...

Depending on the context, iiwii can be good or bad. It means "I accept (or need to accept) the situation and start to move on.

If one is upset about the past, iiwii can be good because you can't change the past. I've experienced the benefits of it many times in work projects as described by @LoLStreetWiz above. Very helpful for stopping the blame game and moving on to constructive actions. iiwii replaced What's done is done; what do we do now?

iiwii is often used as a counter to political correctness and beating around the bush.
client: So you delivered the solution, and now you go home. What happens when something goes wrong in the middle of the night?
consultant: You'll call me to fix it.
client: And you'll charge me your usual criminal rate to fix a problem you left in the system, and I'll be forced to pay it each time because the business depends on it. You're like a blackmailer, or a drug dealer to an addict. I'm forced to pay you.

[consultant can either try to sooth the client's emotions, offer a discount, discuss alternatives, remind the client of the costs for the consultant, talk about how unlikely the night scenario would be, talk about the quality of the work, the complexity of the problem ... or ask the client to push the emotions aside and accept the reality.]

consultant: Call it what you want; it is what it is.

In the context you described, iiwii is bad because either
A. they say they accept the situation when they haven't (denial of feelings)
B. they do accept the situation, but don't believe they have an option to move on (denial of control)
In either case, they come to you to change, but make your job difficult by using the language of acceptance. Sure, I can see why you might be irked.

My question back to you is whether
1. the phrase is a symptom, i.e. don't kill the messenger, i.e. the dead canary in the mineshaft didn't cause the methane leak, i.e. the same clients would be no different without iiwii: their denial is the same but with different vocabulary.
2. the phrase causes or exacerbates the recovery work.
You claim #2. Is it possible that it's #1? You could be sick of that phrase because when you hear it, you instantly think, "Shit, that's obviously a lie. He's not going to improve until he recognizes the truth. I've got my work cut out for me." I think that's more likely the truth. The man in your example could have easily said "I'm OK" or "I accept my life" or any of a hundred similar phrases. But he didn't. I think the repetition of the phrase gave you a mental allergy. Like I said, I could be wrong. iiwii might be causing harm in some situations.

Aegean BM said...

@Guardian of Purity, you might be right about the EXACT vocabulary, but why be a dick about it?

No, that is not an example of ad hominem fallacy. I'm not saying your argument is wrong. I'm saying how you expressed it was emotionally wrong. The nail in the coffin was the appeal to authority when you announced you're a Psychologist. No one gives a damn about your credentials. I could be a high school drop out. Express yourself well, and you need not seal it with your authority. (If you're so smart, why did you capitalize Psychologist? If for emphasis, you could have all-capped it, or italized it, or bolded it--and no, I don't know bold is an adjective and shouldn't be used as a verb, because I'm a high school drop out, not a PhD.)

At the end of the day, you just didn't understand the audience. This blog is meant to be an opinion written to laymen, and not a peer reviewed paper in a psychology journal.

You and I might very well have written overlapping themes, but you went over my head, and I just didn't give a damn to explore it further. I totally respect the author even though I didn't exactly agree with the conclusion, but I loved reading and thinking about it. I got no respect for you, because as I said, you were a dick.

If I weren't so cranky at the moment, I could have succinctly said @Guardian of Purity, lighten up.