If you or somebody you love has struggled with addiction, they have likely come into contact with popular recovery programs. Twelve step programs are by far the most popular around the world, and many don’t realize there are alternatives. We don’t want to pit SMART Recovery vs. AA, as one may not necessarily be better than the other. However, we can look at the differences between SMART Recovery and AA in order to understand which program may be more beneficial for each individual.
We’re writing about this today because it’s a question our recovery coaches receive quite often. People want to know about twelve-step and if there are other programs out there to offer support. The truth is that there are many other alternatives to AA, and we’re just covering the tip of the iceberg here.
What is SMART Recovery?
First, let’s cover the basics of SMART. SMART Recovery is a program that began in 1994, aimed to offer a new support group for people struggling with addiction. Standing for Self-Management and Recovery Training, SMART is a secular program that focuses on the science of addiction. Inspirations come from Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
There is a 4-Point Program of building motivation, coping with urges, problem solving, and lifestyle balance. Like twelve-step, the SMART program offers support groups in the form of meetings. Meetings are donation-based, and led by a peer leader who has trained in the SMART program.
The Basics of Twelve-Step
The twelve-step model of addiction comes from Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA. Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous is built off a program of twelve steps. The program uses a book known coloquially as the “Big Book,” which contains an outline of the program along with stories of those who have recovered.
Born from Alcoholics Anonymous, there are now hundreds of twelve-step groups to address specific addictions, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, and many more. Meetings are donation-based, and can be found all over the world. Like SMART, there are also various online resources, communities, and meetings.
Smart Recovery vs. AA
These two recovery programs are different in many ways, but also similar in others. They both have a structure, hold meetings, and have the goal of helping individuals struggling with addiction. However, there are a few key ways these two recovery programs differ.
1. Stages and Steps
First, these two programs are structured a bit differently. In twelve-step programs like AA, individuals work their way through the steps. The steps provide the actual method of getting and staying sober, addressing the issues that brought the person to drink, and how to move forward in sobriety. The twelve steps of AA are:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In SMART Recovery, the Six Stages of Change are a way to recognize where a person is in their personal recovery. These stages offer a way to understand where the person is, and what may be most beneficial to them to help encourage growth. The Six Stages of Change are:
2. The Higher Power
Next, there’s the issue of the higher power. The twelve-step program, as evident by looking at the steps, is heavily reliant upon building a relationship with a personal higher power. Although the word “god” is used frequently in the basic text, members are encouraged to use a higher power of their own understanding, not dependent upon any religious or spiritual belief in particular.
On the other hand, the presence of a higher power is absent from the SMART Recovery program. Individuals may have religious or spiritual beliefs that support their recovery deeply, but it is not an integral part of the program. Instead of relying on an external power, SMART teaches that we must have more self-control and find some self-empowerment.
This difference can go either way. Many people thrive with the technique of Alcoholics Anonymous. Others struggle to really be true to themselves in recovery with this model. Many atheists find this part of twelve-step programs to be difficult, and may find solace in SMART meetings.
3. Meeting Style and Structure
Although both programs hold regular meetings across the world, there are a few differences in the actual meetings. SMART meetings are generally led by a trained leader. These are often people in recovery, and may be therapists, counselors, or otherwise trained individuals. Twelve-step meetings are led simply by a peer, and are not required to undergo any training.
Furthermore, twelve-step meetings generalyl discourage what is known as cross-talk. That is, people are not permitted to address other individuals and their shares in the meeting. In SMART, cross-talk is support in an organized fashion. For example, if somebody is struggling to find ways to have fun without drinking, another member may wait their turn and offer some feedback.
4. The Disease Model
At their core, both of these recovery programs utilize the disease model of addiction. However, they have differing views. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the understanding is that if somebody was an alcoholic or addict ever, they are always an alcoholic or addict. They may be a sober or clean one, but they still identify as an addict.
SMART, on the other hand, teaches that we can outgrow our addiction. In this program, we don’t benefit from identifying as an addict our whole lives. Instead, we use our understanding of ourselves to see how we are now, and work to grow out of the addict identity. This doesn’t mean we can use drugs or drink again, but it does mean we don’t have to continue identifying as an alcoholic our whole lives.
5. Sponsorship and Mentors
Another large difference between SMART Recovery and twelve-step programs is the nature of sponsorship. In AA, sponsorship is a key part of the program. A sponsor takes you through the steps, can act as a sounding board, and can offer support when you’re struggling. This is generally accepted as necessary to work the program effectively.
SMART Recovery does not have a sponsorship or mentorship program set in its guidelines. Individuals may connect with others in the meeting, and find time outside the meeting to build support networks. However, there’s no emphasis on finding a single mentor or sponsor to take you through the program.
6. Specificied vs. General Addiction
In Alcoholics Anonymous, members focus on their relationship to alcohol. When drugs are brought up, it may be frowned upon as what is called an “outside issue.” However, there are some twelve step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, etc. where you can address these other addictive behaviors.
In SMART Recovery, there’s only one type of meeting. All addicts are welcome regardless of their substance or behavior of choice. In a SMART meeting, you may find alcoholics, heroin addicts, gambling addicts, and more all sitting together. This is because SMART views them as the same mental and psychological processes, and thus able to be treated the same.
7. Abstinence as a Requirement
Finally, we come to the importance of abstinence. Although abstinence is not a requirement directly in either program, you will find it is treated very differently. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings generally request that sharing and participation be limited to those who are abstinent from mind-altering substances. Those who have had a drink or drug recently may still attend, but are asked to remain silent.
SMART Recovery treats addiction a bit differently, utilizing a little bit of a harm reduction model of addiction. Although abstinence is the goal, SMART believes that it may be a process that takes time. Those who have quit one drug but are still using another are welcome, and may participate.
Overall, neither program is clearly better or worse. The research on relapse rates and recovery is shaky at best, and usually nonexistent. However, these two methods of recovery vary greatly, and some individuals may find one more helpful while others find the support they need in the other.