Am I Insane? The 5 Chapters of Personal Change

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Well, not really.

This high-mileage quote has been misattributed to several famous people (including Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin), and is completely misused. If you query any good dictionary for the word “insanity,” you will not find this saying as a definition. While doing the same thing over and over expecting different results may be problematic, it’s not insane.

Many of us repeat behaviors out of habit with no true introspection into why we continue to do them. We realize the bad outcomes, but changing the behavior doesn’t immediately come to mind. Instead, we continue ineffective behaviors with a hope that the outcome will eventually change.

Breaking habits and changing our behavior is difficult. If it were simply a matter of expressing a desire to change and then doing it, there would be no need for therapists, and the self-help industry would be nonexistent. Change is a process dependent on many factors. Challenging core beliefs and perceiving the need to change are the primary precursors to change; without this, change will not occur.

Behavioral change is also affected by:

  • Motivational influences (both intrinsic and extrinsic)
  • Ability to see the connection between personal choices and situational outcomes
  • Realistic expectations of the change process (it’s not always easy, immediate, or linear)
  • Sense of self and belief in one’s own ability to change
  • Ability to withstand setbacks

Successful change requires abandoning an undesired behavior and replacing it with a behavior more consistent with the desired outcome. This process often involves examining a long-standing belief, accepting that it is faulty, and then amending or abandoning that belief. This is not a simple process, which is why this type of change takes time. Although we may have the desire to change, we have to consider that an external change requires internal work, which doesn’t always happen quickly.

Abandoning the comfort of a habit (comfort, because habits require very little thinking and effort) also creates a challenge. We often prefer to fall back on familiar behaviors when feeling overwhelmed because it is much easier to do what we’ve always done in the past. This will cause setbacks. However, each time we overcome a setback and reinstate our effort toward change, we reinforce the desired new behavior, and will eventually come to adopt it as the new standard.

We all have individual reasons of why we repeat certain behaviors, which have nothing to do with insanity. But once we’ve chosen to make a permanent change, we have to accept that setbacks are part of the process. The learning curve for behavioral change is not linear. Instead, there are peaks and valleys, which represent progression and setbacks. So, if you’re finding it hard to break old patterns, it’s truly not because you are insane.

A typical pattern of change is illustrated profoundly in the poem below. As you read it, reflect upon your past efforts toward change.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters
by Portia Nelson

Chapter I
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost . . . I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in . . . it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V
I walk down another street.

Personal Reflections:
  • Have you faced challenges with making changes in your life?
  • What does your autobiography look like?


Published by A. Irvin

Dr. Angela Irvin is a clinical psychologist and mental health educator. Her clinical specialties include forensics, trauma, and personality-related issues. She is also an expert on cultural facets of mental health relating to race, gender, and class. As a mental health educator and writer, she emphasizes research-based information that promotes holistic wellness.