The Definition of Insanity

I hear it every week, sometimes twice a day: “Doing the same thing over and again and expecting different results” is the definition of insanity,  Not at all.

The legal concept of insanity refers to a defendant’s ability to distinguish between good and evil when a crime is committed. The extensive definition begins as follows:

A mental disease of such a severe kind as to render a person unable to separate imagination from reality, manage their affairs owing to psychosis, or be susceptible to uncontrolled impulsive behavior is insanity.

To assist discern between guilt and innocence, the idea of insanity is considered in court. Professionals in the mental health field inform it, although the phrase nowadays is essentially legal rather than psychological. The DSM does not include diagnostic criteria for “insanity. There is no “nervous breakdown” either, but that is the subject of another piece.

Where the word “insanity” came from

Where did this adage originate? It’s credited to Mark Twain (probably not), Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein (probably not), and Rita Mae Brown (probably so), among others. Rita Mae Brown used it in her mystery thriller Sudden Death. Whoever said it initially is unknown, although at least one blogger called it “the worst thing a clever person has ever uttered.” Regardless of its origin, the snappy phrase has gained popularity over the last several years (examples I, II, and III).

The deepest recesses of insanity

I don’t often criticize charming sayings with one exception, but I believe this one has a sinister undertone. I’ve begun to hear folks utilize it as a defense mechanism known as avoidance. Rather than confronting their worries, they cling to this adage to shield themselves from potential failure, suffering, or rejection. Examples include:

  • “You know the definition of insanity; I asked out two ladies and was shot down both times.”
  • “I gained weight while jogging for a week. According to some, insanity is defined as…”
  • “I’ve been sobbing over his passing for a month now. I embody what it is to be insane.”

Jogging has nothing to do with what makes someone insane. It’s crucial to continue mourning, running, and asking people out since these activities are fairly rational and require repetition. When I hear these comments, I have the choice to either join the protected bubble of the widely used catchphrase or confront it. In response to the cases above, I’ll challenge.

Why do we misinterpret what constitutes insanity?

These two words, in my opinion, perfectly capture the ambiguity in this assertion:

  • Perseveration: the abnormal, constant repeating of a phrase, gesture, or action.
  • Perseverance is maintaining a path of activity despite challenges, setbacks, or discouragement.

People who perseverate may have dementia, traumatic brain damage, anxiety, or OCD. They keep saying or doing the same things or making the same attempts to address issues, yet they never seem successful. They may not be insane, but their brain function has malfunctioned, keeping them in an unproductive routine. Some drugs or CBT techniques could be beneficial.

Another psychodynamic concept is repetition compulsion, when individuals unintentionally repeat previous confrontations to gain control. We sometimes resurrect previous issues to get a better result to complete unfinished business. An example of this would be a man who, as a youngster, craved emotional connection with his emotionally distant mother and, as an adult, sought out emotionally distant women. Or a lady who always feels obligated to invite her chosen group of uninterested pals to mingle. Or someone who always feels excluded from groups of more affluent, more intelligent, prettier, etc., individuals. They’re all attempting to put previous rejection sentiments behind them. But even if they are booming right now, the hurt from the past remains.

Let’s distinguish between perseverance and perseveration. The wisest course of action is often a persistent quest against fear or toward a goal. It is challenging yet noble to consistently engage in constructive activity while expecting (one day) a favorable outcome. It’s the effort put forth by cleaning your teeth after every meal, eating oatmeal every morning, and keeping a regular notebook. It involves regular exercise, weekly treatment, and time set apart for spirituality. Rudy is making repeated attempts to enter Notre Dame. or Mother Theresa, who worked nonstop to help the needy. Or someone who is methodically trying to overcome their shyness, develop better habits, or interact with their partner more effectively. It is a  12-stepper taking things “one day at a time.” Consistency and devotion are traits of perseverance that are advantageous to health and not insane. And they continue to do the same thing every day in the hopes of improving.

So how do you distinguish between them? Perseverance includes obsessive, powerless, automatic, and unsatisfied feelings. Although there is a desire to quit, it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative. Perseverance resembles working toward a worthwhile objective; whether the goal is attained or not, there is value in the endeavor.

Perseverance is a powerful and essential attribute. A troublesome problem that requires therapeutic care is perseveration. Don’t let an old proverb muddle this difference.


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