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Keeping Some Sanity in a World That Seems Completely Insane

Updated on October 31, 2013
kimh039 profile image

Kim is licensed in mental health and addiction counseling. Her education is in business, counseling, and health administration.

There's a Hole in My Sidewalk by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the street
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk
I fall in
I'm lost. . . I'm helpless
It isn't my fault
It takes me forever to find a way out

Chapter 2
I walk down the same street
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk
I pretend I don't see it
I fall in again
I can't believe I'm in the same place
But it isn't my fault
It still takes a long time to get out

Chapter 3
I walk down the same street
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk
I see it 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 4
I walk down the same street
There's a deep hole in the sidewalk
I walk around it

Chapter 5
I walk down another street

What is Sanity?

Is some sanity enough? Is it necessary to be totally sane? Is it possible to be completely insane? Does the sanity and insanity reside outside of me or within me? If I do something insane, does that make me insane? What does it even mean to “do something insane?”

Actually, the idea of insanity is more of a legal term today than a psychological one: it refers to whether or not a person is mentally competent to stand trial. There is no such psychiatric or mental health condition known as insanity. There are no treatment protocols for insanity.

Yet the words sanity and insanity have meaning to us. We had a sense of what they mean when we read the title. We know they are opposites. We probably value sanity as positive and insanity as negative. Synonyms for insanity are craziness and madness. What is a synonym for sanity?

In the words of Albert Einstein, insanity is defined as, “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting to get different results.” In Portia Nelson’s popular poem, “There’s a Hole in my Sidewalk,” the speaker is at first victimized by insanity, then falls into insanity again out of familiarity and habit, takes responsibility for that choice, and eventually learns to avoid repeating the actions that lead to insanity. The hole is still in the sidewalk. She is aware of that, and acts accordingly.

Sanity refers to our capacity to see ourselves, others and our world as they really are. It has to do with truth, openness and honesty. It involves a level of acceptance; acceptance of self, others and the world. It refers to the extent that our choices and actions help or hinder our efforts to meet our needs and get some of what we want. It seems to determine the quality of our lives and our relationships with others. It is not a thing that we either have or we don’t have. Sanity is the use of good sense, judgment and reasoning to increase what we value as positive and decrease what we value as negative in our lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book title, Wherever You Go, There You Are, reminds us to look within when we see conflict in our external world. If we seek one geographic change after another, after another, and insanity seems to follow, there is a good chance that the insanity resides in us and we are projecting it outward onto others and our world. Projection is a defense mechanism we often use that protects us initially, and then deceives us, by allowing us to see negative aspects of ourselves in others but not in ourselves. If we have a very strong reaction to another’s selfishness, there’s a good chance we have a very similar pattern of selfishness in ourselves. The more astute we are at recognizing our use of defense mechanisms, the more accurately we perceive ourselves, others and our world.

Defense Mechanisms

  • 1 Definition
  • 2 Main Defense Mechanisms
    • 2.1 Denial
    • 2.2 Displacement
    • 2.3 Intellectualization
    • 2.4 Projection
    • 2.5 Rationalization
    • 2.6 Reaction formation
    • 2.7 Regression
    • 2.8 Repression/Suppression
    • 2.9 Sublimation
    • 2.10 Compensation
    • 2.11 Dissociation
    • 2.12 Fantasy
    • 2.13 Identification
    • 2.14 Undoing
    • 2.15 Withdrawal
  • 3 Maladaptive Use
  • 4 Conclusion

Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions

  • 1 All or Nothing Thinking
  • 2 Overgeneralization
  • 3 Filtering Out the Positive
  • 4 Mind Reading
  • 5 Fortune Telling
  • 6 Emotional Reasoning
  • 7 Should Statements
  • 8 Labeling
  • 9 Personalization

Defense Mechanisms and Cognitive Distortions

There are other defense mechanisms, most notably denial, that keep us from seeing ourselves, others and our reality as they are. Another is minimizing, or making a problem seem less significant than it is. There are also cognitive distortions that allow us to distort reality. The cognitive distortion of magnifying makes a problem seem more significant than it actually is. It makes a mountain out of a molehill. Some other distortions are mind reading, over generalizing, over personalizing, dichotomizing, filtering and splitting.

When we are using defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions, we are not viewing our reality accurately. When we don’t see our reality as it is, we act in a way that is not effective. For example, if we believe we do not have enough of something or fear we will lose what we have, we might engage in hoarding behavior. The hoarding behavior can be seen as being out of control to an objective observer, but not as problematic to the hoarder. If it is not viewed as problematic, the hoarding behavior will continue.

Defense mechanisms often protect us from strong emotional reactions, and cognitive distortions often produce more intense emotions than would be appropriate for a situation. A lack of emotion can keep us from acting appropriately when it is in our best interest to act; it could keep us from jumping out of the way to avoid being hit by oncoming traffic. Intense emotions can prevent us from accepting ourselves and our realities. They can hinder our ability to view our reality accurately, receive accurate information about our reality, and can lead to a distorted view of reality.

If we are overcome with intense guilt or shame when we make a mistake, and don’t know ways to cope with guilt and shame, we might feel a need to put on a façade of perfectionism, or we might avoid any social interaction at all in an attempt to avoid criticism or exposure. If, on the other hand, we accept ourselves as imperfect and recognize that we can learn from mistakes, we are more likely to admit a mistake when we make one, learn from it and avoid the mistake in the future. Our sense of self worth is not threatened, and our response is more effective.

External Stressors

Often, our external environments do contribute to feelings of insanity. We might feel insane when we are actually having a very sane reaction to insane circumstances. This is typical in cases of extreme physical and sexual trauma, violence, natural disasters and combat, as well as in situations involving verbal, emotional and psychological abuse. These experiences have profound affects that can persist a lifetime, and can influence our present day responses to our environment. If our response to past stressors interferes too much with our response to current stress, our response will not be effective and can be problematic.

A combat veteran or a hurricane survivor who immediately dives for cover at the sound of the sudden, loud noise created by a falling book in a college classroom is not acting effectively in the present circumstances. On the other hand, if that loud, sudden noise is the sound of sniper fire in the classroom, the survivor is much better equipped to survive than the rest of us might be if we are not reacting at all.

Some current research is showing a strong correlation between intense emotional reactivity and environments that are rejecting, discounting and invalidating. A person, who grows up in an invalidating and rejecting family or institutional environment, often develops extreme sensitivities to rejection and abandonment, intense emotional reactions, and unstable moods. This emotional intensity and instability naturally produces behaviors that are chaotic, bizarre, irrational and often dangerous.

One aspect of our external environment that has intensified in recent years is the intensely heated, often hostile, and emotionally charged political debates that are getting a great deal of media attention and are being accepted by many as acceptable and appropriate forms of communication. Most of us are affected in subtle ways by these debates whether we are aware of the effects or not. Many people experience these broadcasts as triggers of earlier abuses or as re-traumatizing.

Coping Choices

Using our definition of sanity as “the use of good sense, judgment and reasoning to increase what we value as positive and decrease what we value as negative in our lives,” we can identify some ways to cope with these broadcasts or other stressors that we experience as unwelcome, offensive or intrusive. Some of these ways of coping will be cognitive, involving the way we think, and some will be behavioral, involving the way we respond. They will all help us feel and act in a more sane way.

  1. Evaluate how positive or negative the stressor is for you and whether you would like more or less of it in your life at this time.
  2. Examine yourself for use of defense mechanisms or cognitive distortions in regard to the stressor.
  3. If you evaluate the stressor as negative and would like less of it, take steps toward reducing the stressor, i.e.; turn off the television, watch less television, throw away the television, watch different television shows, stay out of the room where the television is, ask for someone’s help or cooperation, if needed.
  4. If you evaluate the stressor as negative and would like less of it, but find it difficult to take effective action toward reducing or eliminating the stressor, identify what you believe is hindering you from making the change that you have decided is in your best interest. Go back to step 1 using what you identified in step 4 as the primary stressor.
  5. If you evaluate the stressor as negative, but would like more of it in your life because you believe it is an important principle worth promoting and debating, and you have examined yourself for defenses and distortions, decide what actions you will take to increase your involvement in the issue; write an editorial or a letter to your representatives, learn more about the subject matter, participate in a tea party or other peaceful demonstration, become more active in politics, etc.
  6. If you evaluate the stressor as positive, consider increasing your level of involvement in the activity. Consider other priorities as well, and whether or not you have the time or resources to devote to the activity. If desired, take action to make time and resources available.

Some Different Ways to Think About It

  1. Opposites are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible to like and dislike some things about Bush and Obama, republicans and democrats, and any other opposites. I can like one without hating the other.
  2. It is not necessary to take sides.
  3. I have a right to be where I am; as do others have a right to be where they are.
  4. Opinions are like a?#holes; everyone has them.
  5. Things aren’t always as they seem; just because the world seems insane doesn’t mean it is.
  6. Change is constant, nothing is permanent, and this too will pass.
  7. Remember to see the forest and the trees.
  8. Good and evil exist in everything; nothing is entirely good or completely evil.
  9. It’s ok to allow God and Satan to be exceptions to #8, if you really must.
  10. It is possible to listen to and validate a person, without agreeing with them.
  11. Some people do argue to win, but it is not necessary.
  12. Some people argue to persuade or change others. The choice to change still belongs to me.
  13. Some people argue because they enjoy it. Do I?
  14. Some people argue to prove that you are stupid or wrong; it doesn’t mean you are.
  15. Some people argue well about things that are unimportant.
  16. Some people argue terribly about things that are important.
  17. I have no control over other people.
  18. If I don’t like that much arguing in my life, I can take steps to change how much arguing I allow in my life.
  19. When a person disagrees with me, that doesn’t make them stupid or incompetent.
  20. When I disagree with a person, that doesn’t make me stupid or incompetent.
  21. It is possible for two people with different opinions and a desire for truth to have a meaningful dialogue.
  22. It is possible to disagree without arguing.
  23. It is possible to show respect while disagreeing.
  24. People change, needs change and the world changes.
  25. Life is sometimes uncomfortable and isn’t always fair.
  26. Only God knows everything.
  27. I can’t predict the future.
  28. I am not God.
  29. Sometimes it is better to increase our tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty than to get rid of them.
  30. Sometimes is better than always and never.
  31. I’ve run out of ideas. If you have any, please leave them in the comments. Thanks.


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    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      lol. hadn't thought of it as a comforting idea until now. thanks for reading and commenting realhousewife....and for a late night smile.

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 

      7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Really interesting hub! I thought I was insane for sure but after reading this - maybe I was projecting;) lol.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks sherrylou57. It's amazing what can be done one day at a time:)

    • sherrylou57 profile image


      7 years ago from Riverside

      I take one day at a time, I pray with my husband and read the bible and then we start our day! Nice hub and keep up the good work.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Neil, thank you for the awesome insights. Focus on self is indeed a good place to start and spend time. It is often feared and misunderstood, but most rewarding. Thanks, Neil.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      LOL, Clark:) It might take a whole hub to explain that idea. That sounds legal, like whether or not a person was of sound mind when he signed a document. I'm trying to think of an example of what you described. Maybe, if I say it's summer time and then talk about getting frostbite on my way over to visit, I might not have a soundly constructed idea. Is that what you mean Clark? At any rate, thanks for stopping in to read and comment. If you get a minute and would care to elaborate, I would love the food for thought. Thanks.

    • Neil Sperling profile image

      Neil Sperling 

      7 years ago from Port Dover Ontario Canada

      Great Hub - Looking at oneself and learning how to love all aspects of yourself is what I believe "the place to start and spend most your time"

      Each Day I learn more about me...... and it is the toughest job I have ever tackled, yet the most rewarding and productive.

      Thanks for great hub!

    • clark farley profile image

      clark farley 

      7 years ago

      one of my favorite definitions of sanity is 'soundness of mind', which I take in the context that when (something) is 'soundly constructed' all of it's component parts of contributing to the overall strength of the thing. And, most of all, when outside forces are applied to this structure, none of it's parts start rattling!

      (or something like

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks so much, Daniel5. I'm glad you enjoyed.

    • Daniel5 profile image


      7 years ago

      Great hub!

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      we have little or no control over others or events, but we do have control over the way we respond. When we change our response, sometimes others and the world respond differently too. Thanks for some good insights, nycgrl... and for taking the time to express them:)

    • nycgrl profile image


      7 years ago from New York

      terrific! i think we all feel insane sometimes in this world because it does feel like its crazy...but the steps you outlined do remind us all that you can change things and that everything changes anyway even without you. Voted up!

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      It's good to see you too epi-man:) I took a non electronic vacation (no lap top, no cell phone, etc.) for a couple weeks and haven't published anything since. just sat on the beach all day doing nothing but working on my sun tan and absorbing vitamin D. my sanity is renewed. Thanks so much for your kind comments. I expect I'll get around to some of your delightful epigrams soon:)

    • epigramman profile image


      7 years ago

      ..well I always manage to maintain my sanity when I arrive at your hubspace and then leave 'enlightened' and satisfied that I have learnt something - and I really think your hubs should be installed into all of the virtual classrooms in this cyber universe.

      So nice to hook up with you again my friend - I sincerely hope all is well for you - and please keep thinking those good thoughts .....

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks so much, Eiddwen:)

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Very very interesting and thank you for sharing. I now look forwartd to reading more of your hubs.

      Take care


    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Happyboomernurse. Change is constant. It's still a real loss when our world changes, even if it changes for the better. I toadily agree that humor can be a great way to cope:) I'm watching news right now about tornado survivors, and thinking how insane their world might feel right now, and hoping they can find the sanity that's within them.

    • Happyboomernurse profile image

      Gail Sobotkin 

      7 years ago from South Carolina

      Great hub about a topic I frequently ponder, especially lately when so many things in the world and our own society seem so different from what I used to percieve as "normal" or "sane."

      Love the toad graphic! Humor is a great way of coping with the insanity that's going on around us.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks James. I have to work at it, really hard sometimes, but for the most part I think I maintain my sanity quite nicely:) I'm pretty dedicated to it. The historical perspectives I gain from your hubs, help a lot James. I hope all is well with you.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      7 years ago from Chicago

      I have long thought that sanity is when your perception of reality matches objective reality as close as possible. I imagine this happens or doesn't in degrees. So where do we draw the line?

      By this measure, I am completely sane. :D

      Thank you for a profound article. You are a deep thinker. And quite sane.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Nell. Yes, I would be more concerned about someone who came back from combat claiming to be unchanged by the experience, than someone who feels crazy because of it! Although, different people are affected in different ways. It's good to see you, Nell. Happy Easter.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi, amazing hub, and well researched, I especially like the part when you said, 'we might feel insane when we are having a sane reaction to something insane,' or something like that, that really makes sense, I am sure that most of us have experienced that at some stage or another, I know I have, thanks for a really interesting hub, cheers nell

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks Story. I like it too because it's not "permanent." It gives hope that things can change. I do like the opinions are like weather idea. I'll have to remember that one. Thanks for stopping in the check out my hub and comment....and I hope you're now well fed:)

    • Storytellersrus profile image


      7 years ago from Stepping past clutter

      "Sanity is the use of good sense, judgment and reasoning to increase what we value as positive and decrease what we value as negative in our lives."

      I like that a lot. I have had moments of insanity. I like this definition because it becomes my problem, as the story by Portia Nelson images so well.

      I am going to have to come back and read this in more depth. To be honest, I have been working on my star hub all morning into afternoon and I am starving!!! BUT, thumbs up and awesome work!

      Here is an addition:

      Opinions are like the weather; stick around and they might change!

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      I like #8 because it puts a stop to idealizing and demonizing and all good/all bad splits. I work with someone right now who uses "totally" a lot; things are either totally good or totally bad with her. Needless to say, she's very reactive and moody.

      The Big Book talks about a capacity for honesty too, which in my mind is the same as seeing reality accurately without distortions, or sanity.

      Thanks, Vern:)

    • vrbmft profile image

      Vernon Bradley 

      7 years ago from Yucaipa, California

      Wow! What an insane hub, well, no actually what a sane hub, well maybe sane and insane or maybe even ins ane. I enjoyed reading it all and you have at lot of all packed in here. I like Wherever You Go There You Are. Each chapter is only a few pages, so if you are a slow reader, the book leaves you feeling pretty good! I like that each chapter ends very concretely. I'm not a particularly concrete thinker, but many of my clients are.

      I was struck by

      "8 Good and evil exist in everything; nothing is entirely good or completely evil.

      9 It’s ok to allow God and Satan to be exceptions to #8, if you really must."

      In Robert Johnson's book "Transformation" he talks about the version of Faust where the devil is redeemed because he falls in love with an angel. Pretty interesting!

      I never much liked the terms sane and insane till I started my recovery work! Not totally sure why I like the words now except perhaps they are used a lot in the Big Book. And I have found myself using "insane" and "insanity" more frequently in session and clients really have a problem with the word, but I think that is good!! I don't mean to be torturous or sadistic, but it seems to stir something inside of us that we need to look at! Obviously. We are well defended against the insanity in our lives.

      GREAT HUB! One I can read and reread.


    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Are you getting political Winsome? A little left, a little right. Maybe that makes sense to someone who is just a little left of center! Ha. kidding. you might be on to something. I think you are in agreement with Albert. I like the clock analogy though. Thanks for your fun comment, Winsome:)

    • Winsome profile image


      7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      qibsweykkt rgiyfr oeicixubf, That's what happens when you are just one character to the left and touch typing. ha ha

      I meant to say wonderfully thought provoking. Perhaps insanity is like that--just off a character or two.

      I have to disagree with Albert on his definition--even a person looking at a broken watch over and over again expecting to find the right time is going to find it at least two times a day. =:)

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      I agree, mentalist. Sometimes we can imagine we've been slighted when we really haven't, and then obsess about it! There are some negative health side effects of that too. Thanks for your comments mentalist acer:)

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 

      7 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      Some main aspects of insanity,to me,is the obsession with,often,illogical lines of reason.One common aspect of this is the reasoning and over-reaction of other people's critical behavior when there is none or very little,thanks Kim.;)

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      @HattieMattieMae - Thank you very much:)

      @Bob - I didn't know that was an Einstein quote! Thanks for letting me know. I'll have to come back later and give him due credit.

      @writeronline - thanks for the humor and the jewish buddhist insight:)

      Thanks, all for stopping to read and comment.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hi Kim, thanks for this enlightening piece.

      As one who has battled enduring ‘behavioural challenges’ throughout my life, it seemed OK to accept your invitation to add to your list of ideas....

      I’ve found that, shallow and simple as it may sound (but in fact is anything but easy to do), trying to maintain a balance by seeing the funny side is a worthwhile discipline.

      In that vein, I offer (from The Sayings of The Jewish Buddhist):

      - Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

      - Accept misfortune as a blessing. Do not wish for perfect health, or a life without problems. What would you talk about?

      - Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and achieving inner calm will be the least of your problems.

      - There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

      - Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as a wooded glen. And sit up straight. You’ll never meet the Buddha with such rounded shoulders.

      - Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness.

      - Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers.

      Each flower blossoms ten thousand times.

      Each blossom has ten thousand petals.

      You might want to see a specialist.

      Cheers :-)

    • diogenes profile image


      7 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Qite a hub, Kim. I like Einstein's definition of insanity, which you mention, about doing the same thing (mistakes) over and over again and expecting different results. It has been so true in my life. It took being older to get any sense Bob

    • HattieMattieMae profile image


      7 years ago from Limburg, Netherlands

      Awesome hub! Keep the Goodwork up! :)

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Thanks alekhouse:) I liked that book. I really like the idea of looking within and doing a self examen first. I hope you enjoy the book, and I am always glad when you stop to read and comment.

    • alekhouse profile image

      Nancy Hinchliff 

      7 years ago from Essex Junction, Vermont

      This is really plugs right into my way of thinking. I ordered the book: "Wherever you Go, There you Are. Thanks.

    • kimh039 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Harris 

      7 years ago

      Yes, "if it's familiar it must be right" is the thinking, and "if it feels awkward it must be wrong." Sad but true. I like the ending, though, and I like the ideas that it's ok to have a hole in your sidewalk, but that doesn't mean you have to jump into it. Thanks for reading and commenting Tony.

    • Tony DeLorger profile image

      Tony DeLorger 

      7 years ago from Adelaide, South Australia

      Great Hub Kim! What amazes me is that many people choose to keep jumping in that hole their whole lives. There is security in habitual living, even if it causes pain.

      I guess humanity is Crazy!


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