We have all heard the insanity quote before.

We’ve probably quoted it ourselves as we observe the behavior of others.

We rarely quote it about our own personal behaviors because, well, that would be insane!  Why would I do something like that?

The Urban Dictionary defines “Insanity” as “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

And yet, that is our nature, isn’t it?  It’s certainly a part of the ‘disease’ of addictive behaviors…”just one more time!” and it is at the core of the relentless pursuit of perfection: the belief that getting it right is only one tweak away.

When it comes to human behavior it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking “more of the same” will bring about better results.  The logic goes something like this:

  1. At least once before, when you acted inappropriately, I responded with a word or behavior that caused you to stop acting inappropriately.
  2. Logically, I deduce that this word or behavior must have contributed in an important way to your decision to change your behavior.
  3. Hence, I conclude that applying the same word or behavior to your inappropriate behavior should have precisely the same effect every time.
  4. Yet, I observe that the greater frequency wth which I apply this remedy, the less likely you are to comply with my word or demand.
  5. Conclusion: I must apply the remedy with greater intensity (e.g., yelling, screaming, sky writing, billboard advertising) to help you pay better attention  whenever I apply the corrective response to your inappropriate behavior.

I’ve observed this occasionally when people try to communicate with each other but do not share a common language between them.   A tell-tale sign of an American tourist in a foreign country is his belief that understanding will occur when he speaks English more loudly, slowly or dramatically.

So many times this “more of the same’ mentality is subconscious.  We don’t even realize it when we are doing it.  When we do catch ourselves, we sometimes blow past the warning signs and continue to operate on the belief that I must speak more clearly or more loudly one more time…then they will understand!


The reality is that this ‘insanity’ quote applies to most of us most of the time.  Positively, it adds predictability to life and consistency to the many dances of behavior in which we all engage.  A quality of problem solvers is the ability to work something until success is achieved based upon a belief that the goal is within the realm of possibility…in spite of a plethora of failures.

However, there are times when we cross that fine line between regular, predictable behaviors that build trust in human systems and relationships into the realm of the dysfunctional, toxic, enduring,  patterns that provide their own bizarre sense of security.  Here are some examples that come to mind:

  1. Abusive relationships where the abused, secure in their miserable state, are afraid of change because of the insecurity and unpredictability that freedom portends.  The tactics of the abuser never change, rather, they become increasingly intense (i.e., more of the same) with every expression of dissatisfaction by the abused.
  2. CEO’s who see their company hurdling to market insignificance but are afraid to innovate and re-think their business model to catch the next wave of customer-based needs, interests and desires.  To coin a phrase of Tom Peters,
    there are those who learn to ‘thrive on the chaos’ of the modern marketplace and those who will be buried by it.
  3. Many churches see the next generation slipping through their own fingers but they are afraid to do what it takes to instill a thriving faith.  Fear rules as they are afraid of losing their salvation by tinkering with established, comfortable patterns that lost their relevance on the previous generation years ago are now proving their tone deafness to the cries of the next one.
  4. School systems that see the evolving needs of their neighborhoods yet refuse to shift their organizational structures to anticipate needs that will facilitate student progression.
  5. Government bureaucratic systems that change only when incentivized by lucrative compensations or threatened with severe consequences.  All bureaucratic inertia strives towards self-preservation and system maintenance, avoiding change at all costs  and eschewing innovation by dis-incentivizing the mechanisms for doing so.


Someone, at some point, must step forward to ask the elegantly simple questions such as Dr. Phil’s “How’s that workin’ for ya’?”  For the therapist we look for the family dance where everyone knows their part and plays it out predictably every time the family–or a member of the family–moves into it’s crushingly devastating cycles of painful interactions.  Close alliances with truth telling confidants can prove helpful for discerning the patterns and offering interventions to break up systems, initiating new, hopefully, healthier cycles.


If insanity is defined as “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result” then we all must plead partial insanity because of the benefits we derive from it.  At the same time, the desire for security can lead us to more of the same behaviors that hold within them the potential for dysfunction that can be troubling to marriages, families and other organizational systems.

Awareness is the key.  If we are critical of others who exhibit the signs of our definition of insanity, yet are not aware of our own tendency–and even, need–to do the same, we may find ourselves actually “in a state of mind which prevents normal perception, behavior, or social interaction” due to an illness of the mind.  Actually, Jesus said it best:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:4-5)

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