5 Important Differences Between Smart Recovery and 12-Step Programs

Differences Between SMART Recovery and 12-Step

Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, is a 12-step program founded in 1935 for people struggling with alcohol abuse. AA has a presence in most cities and rural communities across the United States. Narcotics Anonymous is a 12-step program founded in the 1950s. The purpose of the program is to address addiction to addictive substances. SMART Recovery is a relatively new organization, and it is not a 12-step program. Five concepts emphasize differences between SMART recovery and 12-step programs like NA or AA.

Differences Between SMART Recovery and 12-Step Programs

SMART Recovery was founded as the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Self-Help Network, or ADASHN in 1992. It became SMART Recovery in 1994. AA and NA are the most recognized and firmly established addiction recovery organizations, but the benefit of 12-step programs is questionable. The chance of staying clean for a year after starting a 12-step program is less than 25%. Some estimates are as low as 5%. Many people do not feel comfortable with the steps and dogma of NA or AA.  SMART Recovery’s protocols center on the six stages of change, and they are much more flexible than 12-step programs.


Chapters of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous can overlap or maintain strict separation. The level of separation depends on specific groups and communities. Some AA chapters are strictly for people with a history of alcohol abuse. NA chapters make most distinctions between alcohol and other substances, although the terminology is slightly different. While people in recovery are clean in NA. They are sober while in AA. The Basic Text is NA’s version of the Big Book in AA.

Narcotics Anonymous is meant to provide a welcoming and supportive environment for people recovering from substance abuse. The demographics of NA and AA chapters can be very different. Young adults are now more likely to use a substance other than alcohol. The difference in age, circumstances, and drug of choice often lead people to feel more comfortable in NA than AA, or vice-versa. SMART Recovery does not separate meetings or strategies for recovery based on the substance of choice.


NA, AA, and other 12-step programs aim for complete abstinence. Most chapters want people to be clean or sober for at least 24 hours before attending a meeting. There is no discussion of tapering or strategies to reduce substance use instead of abstaining. This approach can be a problem because people can’t access the support of a meeting during a relapse. The requirement of complete abstinence leads people to lie or close themselves off. Most do this at meetings instead of reaching out for support and help. The chip system contributes to this problem. People who relapse are given a one-day chip no matter how much clean time they previously had. Tracking clean time with chips is helpful for some people, but it can also be discouraging and humiliating. The chip system is another factor pressuring some people to be dishonest and withdraw from the group.

SMART Recovery does not use a chip system or require complete abstinence. At meetings, people can discuss drug use and harm reduction. Harm reduction refers to behaviors and resources that lower the risk of death, injury, or illness. Providing clean needles is an example of harm reduction. People can reach out for help and receive advice or support during a relapse in SMART Recovery’s permissive atmosphere. The deviation from mandatory abstinence lets people seek help while they are still using.


The initial step in NA and AA is admitting powerlessness over addiction. Individuals can feel that the very first step is forcing them to give up control of their own lives. The spiritual aspect may feel manipulative. These concepts are especially concerning during court-ordered attendance. People can feel forced to attend meetings, forced to admit helplessness, and forced to acknowledge a higher power regardless of personal beliefs. The combination can spark so much anger, resentment, and frustration that it results in giving up on treatment entirely.

SMART Recovery is not based on admitting powerlessness or a higher power. Individuals can choose to incorporate a higher power or religious beliefs, but they aren’t required to do so. SMART Recovery includes behavioral and cognitive therapeutic techniques.


One of the most significant differences between SMART recovery and 12-step programs is the conclusion. NA and AA consider recovery an ongoing process; everyone is a recovering addict or alcoholic, and there is no such thing as a recovered addict. This outlook is beneficial for some people. It can provide a sense of purpose and prevent relapse. Unfortunately, the concept of recovery as a continuous process that is never finished can also be discouraging or trigger feelings of hopelessness.

SMART Recovery does not promote recovery as a lifelong process. The sixth step of change is graduation. Participants in SMART Recovery don’t have to graduate. They can participate in active recovery as long as they wish. It is entirely a personal choice. Each person can stay in recovery indefinitely, but a conclusion is within reach too. Putting behaviors and thoughts related to addiction in the past, with no presence in the future is very empowering.

Look at All Options and Differences Between SMART Recovery and 12-Step

Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery are all legitimate networks to aid people in recovery. Individuals determine the best program to join. Some people do very well with NA and AA, while others feel like 12-step programs are distressing or restrictive. SMART Recovery is less accessible than AA or NA. SMART Recovery doesn’t have as many chapters as NA or AA. Individuals seeking treatment and support should look at all available options and attend a variety of meetings to decide which program will help them be successful.

To learn more about the differences between SMART recovery and 12-step programs, or for more information on addiction treatment, contact Awakenings toll-free today!

Resources: – Narcotics Anonymous – Alcoholics Anonymous

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