January 26, 2022

What we really mean when we say, “It is what it is.”

I’ve been noticing an uptick in irritability lately.

I’m not sure what the cause of my newfound petulance is, but there are several possibilities. Being a woman in my 40s, hormonal changes could be a part of the issue.

COVID-19 fatigue has also taken a toll on me, with school closures resuming, social plans being canceled, and fellow consumers shopping maskless, appearing unfazed by the rampant spread of Omicron’s germs and others’ invisible vulnerabilities. 

Because I am planning a trip to visit my mother in a few days, my commitment to staying healthy is at the forefront of my mind.

I spoke to my mother, who is currently hospitalized, on the phone yesterday. She was diagnosed with lung cancer this summer after experiencing ongoing pain and a persistent cough. Never a smoker, we were both shocked to learn of her diagnosis. After two surgeries to remove the cancer, she was hospitalized earlier this week, on her 76th birthday, as the result of a surgical complication.

We’ve been talking daily as I, an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) and psychotherapist, am keenly aware of her need for moral support. We were winding down our conversation after I had just shared some of my own recent struggles and frustrations, per her request, both to take her mind off of her current situation and to ventilate some of my own distress. She had heard it in my voice, one of her superpowers, so there was no denying it anyway. 

“Well,” she said, “it is what it is,” at the end of our 30-minute exchange. Hearing this felt like she was suddenly shrugging off everything we had just shared, which had otherwise felt meaningful and empathic. And it struck a nerve with me.

Trite, cliched statements have never been my thing. I think my issue with them is that they oversimplify and water down the human experience. They feel inauthentic and like a cop-out to saying something genuine that may not feel as satisfying as a snappy retort but, at least, would be an attempt at some sort of original and honest response. 

Due to my irritability and impulsivity, I pushed back on my mom when she said it. I regretted it a moment later, but the words had already left my mouth. 

“Why are you saying that? What does that even mean?” I asked. 

I heard her voice crack as she tried to respond. Dammit, I thought. Why the hell did I do that? She was in tears. But what came forward was the truth beneath the cliché. 

“I am just really feeling powerless…” she said, attempting to hold back waves of grief and sorrow. “I am someone who is used to having control of my own life and now I have no control and I am just so sad and frustrated.” She sobbed for several minutes.

I pulled out my best therapeutic “mother-ese” and encouraged her to cry. I empathized with the pain of feeling powerless. “Let it out, mom, it’s good to cry and get it out. I know how hard this is on you. I hate that you’re having to go through this.” Since I had clearly touched into something painful, I did my best to soothe her. 

After our exchange, I was left to decode the true meaning of “it is what it is.” Because she is my mother and I know her very well, I took some liberties with my interpretation. What I was able to sense was that, for her, these words meant, “I am working on accepting what is out of my control.” Or, “This is a hard time and I feel powerless, but I am hanging in there and doing my best to not lose my sh*t.”

When I considered these interpretations, they softened me to her suffering. I wish she’d have just said that. 

But my mother is a self-identified “fighter.” She wants to feel that she is strong and admitting that things are challenging tunes her awareness into her pain and the damn of avoided emotions rushes in. 

“I don’t want to cry; it makes me feel weak,” she says. 

From a psychological perspective, she’s using a coping strategy called compartmentalization, which allows her to take the hard stuff and tuck it away into a hiding space in her psyche. This way, she feels, she can retain her strength. And if that’s what she needs right now, when she’s alone in a hospital room fighting for her life, who am I to stop her? 

My mother is not a paragon of self-awareness; she’s not a psychotherapist or a meditator; she hasn’t dedicated her life to mindfulness, psychology, and studying consciousness; she’s not me. She has walked her own life’s path.

And now she’s a boomer, doing her best to accept her powerlessness in a painful situation and trying not to lose her sh*t. 


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