The definition of insanity is NOT doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for years, but I lost the link to the article I originally read that inspired me, and I also forgot the word, “perseveration”. Note that I’m not actually interested in what the true definition of insanity may be and don’t cover it here; for that you can read the linked article.

The bogus definition of insanity I’m referring to is this one:

The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

The first time I heard that cringeworthy “definition” of insanity was in the Life Skills class of the rehab I attended back in 2009. It struck me as false then, but everybody else (there were between thirty and forty of us) accepted it credulously. It was used in the context of a statement that claimed you can’t stop using drugs by yourself. The gist was that we have all tried, and failed many times, and since the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results, trying to quit drugs on your own is impossible and you would be insane to think yourself able to do so. Of course this is absolute bullshit.

I knew it was bullshit, but dared not say so because I also knew that nobody would believe me. At least in the context of addiction it appeared true because we had all tried to quit, and all failed. But that would obviously be the case, since we were in a rehab (FFS), meaning the argument depended on a moot point, albeit one that would be lost on the class and the counsellor running it. Also, disagreeing with the lessons that we were taught would at best lead me to be labelled as uncooperative and “in denial”, and at worst, it would set me on the path to be kicked out of the rehab. But that doesn’t change the fact that the statement is obviously untrue. Think about it… If it was insane to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results, then nobody would ever:

  1. Learn to read and write
  2. Lose weight
  3. Improve at running, or cycling, or swimming, or playing a musical instrument, or their work, or anything else that takes practice

Of course there are many other examples, but the point is, if that definition were true, none of us would progress intellectually past two years old, and I’d be sitting here drooling on my desk rather than writing this.

However, there is also a pathological kind of repetitious behaviour, called perseveration. It annoys me that I forgot that word, because I believe that the using of methamphetamine and the resultant tweaking, is in fact an excellent example of perseveration. I’d go so far as to say that what I have described in the past as tweaking, is perseveration. The writer of the article I linked to in the first line describes it as being “stuck in a non-productive pattern due to a glitch in brain function” and that is exactly what meth does. In the case of meth, it is a direct psychological side-effect of the drug, which results in a pattern of behaviour that leads nowhere (while users think they have energy). But that’s not what I want to write about today…

Most of the time, when we repeat the same thing, it’s called perseverance, which Google helpfully tells me is defined as “steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success”. In other words, to keep at it, to try and even when you fail, don’t give up. That contradicts the bogus insanity definition completely, because in reality, you will never get the same result after doing the same thing. You will learn, improve, and succeed where you used to fail. And that old adage, practice makes perfect, is a good one. Most of the time, it is necessary to repeat the same thing over and over again. And we learn from our mistakes. So this nonsensical definition of insanity isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong.

The linked article also mentions that people use the fake definition of insanity in avoidance, which is a defence mechanism. It’s a way of coping with difficulties by not coping; an excuse to do nothing and to deny personal responsibility for one’s actions. The reason that I have an issue with it is, when taught in recovery, it gives addicts an excuse not only not to try, but when combined with the 12 steps of woo, it absolves them of both the responsibility of making poor choices (and using drugs) and also of the necessity to try to change the behaviour. (It’s not your fault. It’s a disease and you can’t manage it. You need to practice powerlessness and ask your higher power to save you… Bullshit!)


About Jerome

I am a senior C# developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am also a recovering addict, who spent nearly eight years using methamphetamine. I write on my recovery blog about my lessons learned and sometimes give advice to others who have made similar mistakes, often from my viewpoint as an atheist, and I also write some C# programming articles on my programming blog.
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2 Responses to The definition of insanity is NOT doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

  1. I partially disagree with you. I think this ‘definition’ can be abused in the way you describe but is also useful for motivating people to attempt something different. When I say attempt something different- a different strategy with the same end goal. I don’t use this when discussing addiction really. Often, I’ll use it to illustrate the insanity of thinking you can continue to do crime and ‘just not get caught’ this time. I think this ‘definition’ is only useful when describing negative behaviours. Of course practicing an instrument and exercising are things we repeat until we get right, but I would argue that learning involves idenfying what you are doing wrong, making a slight adjustment and trying again. By that definition you aren’t ever doing the exact same thing because if you did, you wouldn’t be learning. Failed attempts teach us something and that is what I teach my classes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jerome says:

      I think I didn’t properly clarify the difference between repeated behaviour that’s helpful versus behaviour that’s harmful. Trying the same thing over and over when it doesn’t do any good, such as trying to continue committing crimes and getting away with it, or trying to continue using drugs without consequences, or managing the consequences, would be harmful. It would also be stupid, but not insane. Actual insanity is when somebody does something and they are not legally responsible because they are not mentally competent and do not know the difference between right and wrong.

      But in the context that I heard the definition, that you can’t stop using drugs on your own, it didn’t make sense. The reason I say this is that although I managed nine months clean the first time, after rehab and cleaning up with help, I did relapse and go back into addiction for nearly three years. Then I did manage to stop using by myself. So I believe that blindly accepting that it would be insane not to try is not just foolish… it’s a copout.

      Liked by 1 person

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