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Alcoholics Anonymous was created 83 years ago by two men: Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. The program helps those dealing with alcoholism. Since then, not much has changed.

In the years after AA’s discovery, a dissatisfaction with the program and it’s questionable success rate has caused a number of alternatives to pop up. And while none of these programs have been able to stand up against the 12 step program, some of them have been surprisingly successful.

One of these programs is SMART Recovery.

If you’ve given AA a shot and you’re not sure if it’s for you, consider giving SMART Recovery a try. If you’re not sure what SMART Recovery is, read on. This guide is to help you better understand the differences in SMART Recovery vs AA.

What is the SMART Recovery Program?

SMART Recovery stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. It was created in 1992 under a different name, the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Self Help Network. But it quickly shifted gears and began working under SMART recovery in 1994.

SMART Recovery gives people support when they are seeking abstinence from addictive behaviors. Their approach is secular and scientifically based, which is especially helpful for people who don’t connect with the spiritual “higher power” aspect of the 12-step program.

That said, if the person wants to include a spiritual aspect into their recovery, they are absolutely welcome to do so. The center of this method is a nonconfrontational, motivational, behavioral, and cognitive method of treatment based on tested, therapeutic principles.

SMART Recovery vs AA

There are a lot of ways that SMART Recovery varies from AA. We’ll list them here.

Six Stages of Change vs 12 Steps

When a person joins AA, they learn about the 12 steps. These steps used as a guide to help the person progress through sobriety.

When a person enters SMART Recovery, they learn the six stages of change. People tend to be in one or more of the different parts of change, so SMART Recovery believes that they need a different approach.

Here are the six stages of change:

1. Precontemplation

In this stage, the person dealing with addiction might not be fully aware that their addictive behaviors are a problem.

2. Contemplation

Here, a person will evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of addiction through a cost/benefit analysis system.

3. Determination/Preparation

In this stage, a person will decide to pursue change. This is where a participant can use the SMART Recovery Change Plan Worksheet to prepare themselves for the changes ahead.

4. Action

Once the participant decides to take action, they seek out a different way to handle the behavior that causes them problems. These actions can be self-help, seeking out a support group, or finding professional guidance. The goal is finding what works for that person to reach and maintain abstinence.

5. Maintenance

After a certain time, be it several weeks or several months, the change that has come from practicing the other stages has started to show positive gains. The participant then makes steps to continue seeing those gains.

6. Graduation

Once this sustainable change has occurred, a participant can graduate SMART Recovery and leave the program.

Graduation vs Never Graduating

If you have any familiarity with the 12 step program, you can clearly see that there are a lot of differences here. But one of the starkest contrasts between SMART Recovery vs AA is the fact that you can graduate from the SMART program.

SMART Recovery lets you consider the thought of leaving the addictive behavior behind. You can be “recovered” and not constantly “in recovery.”

In AA, you are an addict forever. But SMART Recovery gives the participant a chance to free themselves completely from the negative implications of the addictive behavior.

SMART Recovery considers addiction a disease that can be overcome through scientific approaches rather than seeing it as a chronic disease.

4-Point Program vs 12 Steps

SMART Recovery offers a 4-Point program to assist a participant in recovery. This program deals with a lot of the same things that the 12 steps do, but it’s based on scientific principles.

  1. Building motivation and maintaining it
  2. Coping with urges
  3. Managing thoughts and feelings through problem-solving
  4. Learning how to live a balanced life

Again, if you have experience with the 12 step program, you’ll notice one thing lacking. There is no need here for the participant to make a list and make amends for the things they’ve done to hurt other people.

It’s not that the SMART program discourages these things, it just doesn’t consider it crucial to recovery.

Active vs Abstinent

The only thing a participant needs to do to qualify for the 12 step program is expressing a desire to stop drinking. However, if you have used drugs or alcohol in the last 24 hours, you are discouraged from taking an active role in a meeting.

SMART Recovery is abstinence-based, but they approach this differently. A participant doesn’t need to be abstinent to take part in the meetings as long as they don’t disrupt. Even if you don’t see the value in abstaining and you’re not ready to admit that your addictive behavior is causing a problem, you are encouraged to come to a meeting.

Locus of Control vs Higher Power

In SMART Recovery, a person is taught self-empowerment and reliance as being the key to success. Participants are encouraged to discover and plan out their recovery path. This shifts the locus of control to an internal position.

The goal of this shift is to help participants know that they shape their own destiny. SMART Recovery believes that healing works when an individual is empowered. If they don’t have the will to heal themselves, they won’t succeed.

The 12 step program insists that you can’t do it alone. In fact, they believe a person has to surrender their will to a higher power. Though the higher power can be anything, there is a heavy Christianity there. This can be something that drives a lot of people away from recovery.

No Cross-Talk vs Lots of Cross Talk

In most 12 step meetings, crosstalk is discouraged. You can comment on what was shared at the end, but you can’t talk about what someone else has said.

In SMART Recovery, crosstalk is heavily promoted. It’s an essential part of the process. In many SMART Recovery meetings, the head of the meetings can be therapists and counselors.

In fact, there aren’t sponsors to guide a new person through the process of working the program in SMART Recovery. There is support in meetings and participants can ask for help, but every person is on their own.

Recovery is Recovery

Now that we’ve gone over some of the core differences of SMART Recovery vs AA, we want to wrap up by saying that recovery is recovery. No matter what method you choose to seek recovery, you’re doing it right. Every addiction is different, every person dealing with addiction is unique, and there are no right answers here.

If you’re struggling with addiction, just know you’re not alone. There are resources out there to help you. For more information on recovery, visit our blog today.