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SMART Recovery vs AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

January 31, 2024

Table of Contents

Once rehab is over and it’s time to continue life and maintain sobriety, it’s crucial to know that support is out there to help you to stay on track. There is no reason to feel that you are alone on this journey.

Addiction is still not fully understood and different organizations have their theories of what addiction is and what causes it. There are many different types of addiction treatment programs. After all, everyone is different and may find they fit best in different types of recovery programs.

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Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step addiction treatment program which means it is underpinned by spiritual principles. While recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous do have success in helping people to stay substance or alcohol-free, its religious aspect may turn some people off.

The religious aspect of an AA program gave rise to more secular substance abuse treatment programs such as Women In Sobriety and SMART Recovery.

A group of people stand with their arms around each other to represent smart recovery vs. aa.

What Is A Twelve Step Program?

A twelve-step program is a support group to help its members achieve sobriety from drugs, alcohol abuse, or addictive behaviors. This approach to addiction treatment started in the 1930s when Bill W, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous had a religious epiphany during treatment for an alcohol use disorder.

What Are The Twelve Steps?

When a person attends AA they work with others on the program to ‘work through the steps.’ The steps are a series of lessons in life that help a person to become a better version of themselves. By improving one’s integrity and moral code, a person raises their self-esteem and is better able to manage the desire to drink or take drugs through AA’s group meetings.

The twelve steps are:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol abuse, that our lives had become unmanageable
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We’re entirely ready to have God remove all of these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong admitted it promptly.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.

What Is SMART Recovery?

SMART stands for Self-Management and Recovery Training and refers to a secular alternative to AA. This program aims to support people who struggle with addictions and co-occurring disorders.

While there are other secular alternatives to AA, SMART recovery is the most well-known. It is incorporated into many organizations in the US such as:

  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Used to help military veterans with substance use disorders and PTSD
  • Prisons
  • College campus

SMART recovery does not recognize addiction as a brain disease. Instead, the SMART recovery process views addiction as a maladaptive behavior or bad habit that can be changed. SMART recovery vs. 12 steps has many stark differences, however both have been proven to be effective for addiction recovery treatment and lasting sobriety.

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How SMART Recovery Works

SMART recovery is a four-point program that doesn’t have chronological steps. With this program, members work with volunteer facilitators to work through the various exercises that are based on cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a way of getting a person to open up about themselves and get them talking. A person is more likely to change a behavior if they verbalize it beforehand.

This type of interviewing encourages the person to freely express their thoughts and feelings so that they eventually resolve any inner conflicts and arrive at conclusions themselves.

There are four main vital skills with motivational interviewing:

  • Affirmations
  • Open-ended questions
  • Summary Statements
  • Reflective Listening

SMART Recovery vs. AA

Where AA sees the addicted person as powerless and needs to surrender to God, the SMART recovery program aims to empower the individual and become self-reliant to be abstinent.

The spiritual aspect found in AA’s recovery program is completely absent in SMART recovery program. There is no mention of a higher power, spirit, or god, with SMART. This is completely science-based and relies on evidence-based methods of overcoming addiction.

The Very Well Mind online mental health resource conducted SMART recovery reviews, finding that SMART recovery’s advantage is that it is founded in evidence-based and psychological principles.

Sobriety Chips

With AA recovery, members receive a chip for every sober milestone they reach. Each chip measures approximately 3.5cm. This tradition is said to have started in Indianapolis in 1942.

The idea of the sobriety coin is that it helps to strengthen a person’s resolve to stay abstinent. When a person looks at the chip, it reminds them of how far they have come in their sobriety. When AA presents a member with their first coin, they usually tell the person that, “this coin represents AA’s commitment to you, not us.”

In contrast, SMART doesn’t use a chip system, nor does it expect complete abstinence. A criticism of the chip system is that if a person relapses, they have to start at the beginning of the chip system again, even if they’ve been sober for years. This may lead to some people avoiding meetings after a relapse.

SMART is said to have a more permissive atmosphere so that people feel they are able to discuss their problems while they are relapsing. AA on the other hand requires complete abstinence and encourages a person to reach out in meetings before they relapse.

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A significant and major difference between SMART and AA is the conclusion of recovery. With AA you can never be considered ‘recovered.’ As you must ‘take each day at a time’ there is no denouement, no end to the struggle. It’s as if you will be in a cycle of addiction and recovery until the day you die. This can be somewhat disheartening, which can weaken a person’s resolve.

AA has graduation as one of the steps of change. In contrast, SMART recovery doesn’t. SMART doesn’t regard recovery as a long-term process, instead it allows a person to put their addiction and their associated thoughts and behaviors behind them in the past.

Allowing a person to put their addiction behind them, gain tools for coping with urges, and pursue a new life is empowering for the individual.

Powerlessness vs Empowerment

Many people don’t find that AA’s idea that the addicted person is powerless is unhelpful. This is where SMART becomes more attractive for many as it encourages people with addictions to empower themselves with choice.

Higher Power

For many, the idea of surrendering oneself to a ‘higher power’ fails to resonate with them. This is what can be so problematic for many people who first come to AA. Over time, many people develop an understanding of the idea of surrendering to a higher power.

For people who have no religious leanings, the idea of a higher power can seem a little far-fetched. They often ask, what is a higher power? What does it look like? How does it work? Those who believe in the higher power report that they sense that extra forces

Some people who attend AA but who are agnostic interpret the higher power to be other members of the fellowship.

This can make sense as AA is about connectedness between members. AA meetings focus on being there for each other and creating a non-judgmental environment where people are free to express themselves.

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Final Thoughts

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to become free from addiction or receive addiction treatment.

Some people find they prefer AA, and some prefer SMART recovery meetings. And others prefer to work with a combination of both. It’s important for a person to find what works for them. AA is focused on spirituality and self-empowerment, while SMART Recovery has lots of practical science-based activities that can help a person enormously. 

If you need help with any aspect of recovery today, call the friendly Renaissance Recovery team at 866.330.9449 and we’ll help you get back on track.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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