Twelve-step fellowships have been the standard in alcohol and addiction treatment since their spread after the publication of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.

The twelve-step fellowship approach to recovery is often summed up as trusting in a Higher Power greater than oneself, cleaning house, and helping others. While this program has worked for many since its inception, it certainly is not the only way one can find recovery.

In recent years, alternative approaches to the twelve-step fellowship approach to recovery have begun to emerge.

SMART Recovery seeks to help any individual who is suffering from a drug, alcohol, or any other destructive problem. SMART Recovery is a self-help program that focuses on evidence-based recovery techniques.

True Recovery does not endorse one specific program. Instead, we leave this up to the client and their clinician.

Here, we take a look at SMART Recovery and how it compares to the traditional twelve-step fellowship recovery groups.

Spiritual Principles versus Evidence-based treatment

Alcoholics Anonymous and related twelve-step fellowships are based on spiritual principles outlined in the twelve steps, twelve traditions, and practices commonly used through the years.

These include practices such as turning one’s will over to a higher power (as chosen by the individual), taking a moral inventory and making amends to those harmed, and continually helping newcomers.

These methods were decided on by early members of the fellowship and carried on for generations after with little change.

SMART Recovery takes a much more evidence-based approach to treatment, using scientific techniques developed over the years. These techniques are principally rooted in a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) known as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT).

REBT stresses that most of our emotions are created from our own thinking, and thus can be controlled by our own selves. SMART Recovery thus focuses on changing the individual’s perspective using REBT techniques.

Powerlessness versus Empowerment

Alcoholics Anonymous and related fellowships place an emphasis on powerlessness- that the individual is powerless over drugs and alcohol.

The powerlessness concept comprises the most important part of the First Step, and thus the program as a whole. Twelve-step fellowships believe that acknowledging this powerlessness is the key to giving up trying to successfully use substances.

SMART Recovery, on the other hand, chooses to disregard the powerlessness concept in favor of empowering the individual.

This approach favors empowering the individual to make a choice for a more positive lifestyle, free from the addictive substances that were destroying it. Furthermore, SMART Recovery disregards the common labels used in twelve-step fellowships, such as addict or alcoholic.

Higher Power

Alcoholics Anonymous and related fellowships place emphasis on the concept of a Higher Power, also termed as a “power greater than yourself”. While many choose this higher power to be a God of their understanding, it is left up to the individual to choose their own conception of a higher power to avoid controversy.

For example, some chose the fellowship itself as a power greater than themselves. The basis of this principle is that the individual cannot solve their drinking problem alone, that it requires a force greater than them.

SMART Recovery is devoid entirely of any God or higher power notion. Instead, SMART Recovery focuses on using a scientific foundation in which the individual can become self-reliant. In other words, the individual can be empowered to make the correct decision in relation to drugs and alcohol.

This approach tends to favor those who disagree with the spiritual undertones of the twelve-step fellowships.


Meetings are a fundamental component of Alcoholics Anonymous and related twelve-step fellowships. Newcomers are often advised to do ninety meetings in the first ninety days, and to continuously attend meetings thereafter.

It is also advised to join a homegroup, which is a meeting the individual commits to go to weekly. Meetings provide an opportunity to learn the fellowship, and then to help newcomers from then on.

SMART Recovery also has regular meetings available for members to attend. The chief difference from the twelve-step fellowships, however, is that SMART Recovery believes it is up to the individual whether they want to keep going to meetings once they have reached their personal goal.

They may either move on from SMART Recovery, or stick around and help newcomers out.

So, which is better?!

This is the wrong question to ask. The correct question is, “which fellowship works best for me?” The fact is, people have achieved lifelong sobriety and happiness from both recovery programs, and neither program is better than the other.

Neither program needs to be mutually exclusive, either. For example, I personally achieved sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous – but have chosen to incorporate some of the techniques of SMART Recovery into my program.

Final Note

This article is intended for those considering a new way of life, free of the pain of drug and alcohol addiction. For more information on recovery and anyone seeking help with addiction and substance abuse problems, please call True Recovery at (844) 744-8783 or visit us online.

SMART Recovery Handbook
Alcoholics Anonymous (Big Book)