Exploring Non 12-Step Recovery Options

Sometimes recovery is more about the journey than the steps you take.

There are many support programs for addiction recovery, though Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-step programs are the most widely known. While some people have recovery success with traditional 12-step groups, some choose to attend non-12-step drug rehab or use non-12-step programs to support their recovery.

To better understand the differences between 12-step and non-12-step models for recovery, this article will explain the differences in the models and basic tenets of each program.

What are the Differences between 12-Step and Non-12-Step Programs?

The following are some of the noticeable differences between traditional 12-step recovery programs and non-12-step alternatives:

  • 12-step programs have a spiritual basis for recovery. In the 12 steps, recognizing a higher power is suggested to help members reach and maintain sobriety.
  • 12-step programs require members to admit that they are powerless over their addiction. They are seen as not having any control of their use and they are always considered alcoholics or addicts whether they maintain sobriety or not.
  • Non-12-step programs involve the pursuit of knowledge and self-reliance. They promote empowerment through education and encouragement.
  • 12-step programs maintain a consistent approach to addiction as outlined in the steps of the program, while non-12-step programs change their approach to keep up with scientific research.

What Is the Model for 12-Step Programs?

Twelve-step programs are programs that are designed to help people recover from various types of addictions. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was the first 12-step program, founded in the 1930s by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. The AA program has been adapted to help other addictions including Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and many more.

The basic 12-step model operates under the premise that people can help one another attain and sustain abstinence from the substance or behavior to which they are addicted. This is done through meetings where they share their experience, strength, and hope with each other and offer support.

There are no requirements for membership in 12-step programs, except that the individual has a desire to stop using, drinking, or practicing harmful behaviors. Meetings are free and there are no leaders, no therapists or other medical professionals, and no accountability for attendance.

Members are encouraged, but not required, to work through the twelve steps of the program with a sponsor (someone with more sobriety who has been through the steps themselves). Only first names are used, so members can remain anonymous if they choose to, and it is forbidden to talk about other members outside of the rooms.

The original 12 steps, written for AA, are as follows:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol–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. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  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.


In some cases, for fellowships other than AA, the steps have been modified to emphasize the important principles of the program but with the gender-based or religious language removed.

What are the Models of Non-12-Step Programs?

There are several non-12-step programs of recovery that are successful in helping people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some of them, and their models are as follows:

SMART Recovery

SMART recovery teaches members how to control addictive behaviors by placing the focus on underlying thoughts and emotions. The program also teaches members the skills they need to manage cravings and urges to use or drink for long-lasting recovery.

The SMART program is continually updated based on the latest in addiction science and recovery-based evidence, so members are consistently informed of new strategies that prove to be successful. The program has been recognized as an effective tool for overcoming addiction by organizations such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Academy of Family Physicians. However, it is not widely used in addiction treatment facilities.

How Does SMART Recovery Work?

SMART differs from traditional 12-step programs in that it considers itself to be self-empowering rather than suggesting that addicts are powerless over their addictions. Trained volunteers are available to help participants identify and examine specific addiction-related behaviors that need attention. Then, members are taught how to control those behaviors through self-reliance. The techniques used range from cognitive behavioral to motivational enhancement therapies.

SMART teaches participants recovery skills via a 4-point program. Participants use the SMART Recovery Handbook, which details the 4 points and contains tips and exercises to help maintain a drug- and alcohol-free life. The points in SMART’s program are not steps, so members are free to work on them in whatever order they choose, based on their individual situations.

  • Point 1 – Building and maintaining motivation.This point addresses willingness to staying abstinent from drugs or alcohol, as that is an important element of long-lasting recovery. The members list their priorities and measure the costs and benefits of using or drinking versus remaining clean and sober.
  • Point 2 – Coping with urges.This point examines triggers and cravings. Participants learn how to cope with triggers before they become full-blown cravings through various methods, including distraction techniques. This point also addresses how to overcome irrational beliefs about cravings and urges to use. 
  • Point 3 – Managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.Point three helps participants learn relapse prevention by paying attention to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that can lead to drug or alcohol use. Self-acceptance and managing negative feelings (like depression and anxiety) are also covered at this point.  
  • Point 4 – Living a balanced life. Point four is about living a life of recovery. It’s a huge life change to decide to be sober, and there are learning curves and challenges along the way. This point teaches participants how to live life sober. Goal-setting and planning for the future are part of this point, as is making an inventory of what is important in participants’ lives. 

LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery

LifeRing Secular Recovery was founded in 2001. It is a non-profit, secular organization that is an alternative to traditional 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. The program believes that every person has the innate strength to overcome his or her addiction by weakening the “addict self” and strengthening the “sober self.”

LifeRing maintains that addicted people have the knowledge and inherent right to design their own program of recovery, which can be accomplished through the power of Pro-social reinforcement, community, and by making the single step of not using or drinking.

How Does LifeRing Secular Recovery Work?

The LifeRing program operates through the belief that the “addict self” and the “sober self” (“A” and “S”, respectively) are in conflict within those individuals who struggle with addiction. For those individuals, the voices of this internal conflict can be loud, distracting, and, at times, debilitating. When a person is in active addiction, the “A” overpowers the “S” and the person continues to drink or use substances.

LifeRing believes that when two (or more) people who share this “A” and “S” conflict come together, there are two possible outcomes that can happen:

  1. In this scenario, both people reinforce the “A”, which weakens the “S.” The outcome is that both parties actively choose to reinforce the other’s addiction, creating a cycle that is hard to break.
  2. In this scenario, both people recognize that they have the power to reinforce the “S” and they feel a sense of connection with others who share the same desire for recovery. The outcome is that the “A” is weakened, while the “S” is strengthened and the parties turn towards recovery from substance abuse or addiction.

LifeRing works to strengthen the “S” during its meetings and it promotes a positive community where people focus on self-awareness and growth. Eventually, the “S” overcomes the “A” and sobriety becomes the new habit and way of life.

Women for Sobriety

Women for Sobriety (WFS) was founded by Jean Kirkpatrick in the 1970s. She found herself in the depths of alcoholism and was able to find recovery by changing her thoughts when she was depressed or lonely. WFS believes that women suffering from addiction require a different approach than men and takes the stance that for women, addiction starts as a way to cope with emotional issues.

How Does the Women for Sobriety Program Work?

The WFS program is designed to boost women’s self-value, working from a place of empowerment. This philosophy is in contrast to the focus of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is humility and reducing self-centeredness. Members of WFS are encouraged to share with and encourage one another to help all involved learn how to better manage their issues.

In the WFS program, special emphasis is placed on changing the way members think – replacing negative, self-destructive thoughts with positive, self-affirming ones. WFS uses 13 statements or affirmations that emphasize increased self-worth, emotional and spiritual growth, not focusing on the past, personal responsibility, problem-solving, and attending to physical health. They are as follows:

   1. I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.
      I now take charge of my life and my disease. I accept the responsibility.

   2. Negative thoughts destroy only myself.
      My first conscious sober act must be to remove negativity from my life.

   3. Happiness is a habit I will develop.
      Happiness is created, not waited for.

   4. Problems bother me only to the degree I permit them to.
      I now better understand my problems and do not permit problems to overwhelm me.

   5. I am what I think.
      I am a capable, competent, caring, compassionate woman.

    6. Life can be ordinary or it can be great.
       Greatness is mine by a conscious effort.

    7. Love can change the course of my world.
      Caring becomes all important.

    8. The fundamental object of life is emotional and spiritual growth.
      Daily I put my life into a proper order, knowing which are the priorities.

    9. The past is gone forever.
       No longer will I be victimized by the past. I am a new person.

   10. All love gives returns.
       I will learn to know that others love me.

   11. Enthusiasm is my daily exercise.
        I treasure all moments of my new life

   12. I am a competent woman and have much to give life.
        This is what I am and I shall know it always.

   13. I am responsible for myself and for my actions.
        I am in charge of my mind, my thoughts, and my life.

Right Recovery Program

Choosing the Right Recovery Program

Whether a person chooses a 12-step or non-12-step program of recovery, the goal is to stop using or drinking and to improve one’s quality of life, relationships, and overall outlook. All of the above programs work by having that goal in mind.

Choosing the right recovery program for a person’s specific needs and beliefs may take a bit of trial and error. What works for one person, may not work for another. That means that more than one type of recovery program may have to be tried to have long-lasting sobriety and recovery from addiction.

The good news is that there are both 12-step and non-12-step inpatient rehab programs available to help those suffering from addiction get on the path to recovery. Call Elevate today to learn how to get started.


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