The Differences Between SMART Recovery and AA

Alcoholics Anonymous is a well-known support group for those struggling with alcoholism and addiction. It’s the original twelve step program, from which hundreds of other programs have stemmed. On the other hand, SMART is relatively small and many people aren’t even aware it exists. SMART offers a different perspective on recovery that has proven to be helpful for many people across the world.

Most treatment centers are based on the twelve steps, but there are a few that incorporate other programs. For example, Crownview Recovery, a dual-diagnosis treatment center offers both twelve-step recovery and alternatives like SMART. Although programs like this exist, the truth is that most addiction treatment centers are twelve-step based.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1935 as a branch off the Oxford Group. There is a basic text often referred to as the Big Book, and the program is based on its twelve steps. Alcoholics Anonymous is built upon the belief that there is no human power that can relieve our alcoholism, and we must turn toward a higher power to recover. People attend meetings, work through the program with a sponsor, and then help other people through the program.

What is SMART Recovery?

SMART Recovery was founded in 1992 and became known as SMART in 1994. SMART stands for Self Management and Recovery Training. SMART is billed as a more scientific approach to recovery from addiction, and evolves as our understanding evolves. It’s based on six stages of change, and people move through these phases when they are ready. The 4-Point Program is a collection of four areas we need to address in order to recover, and meetings are led by a facilitator rather than a non-authoritative peer.

Difference between SMART and AASMART Recovery vs. AA

There are many differences between Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery. Some people find that AA works best for them, while others find SMART Recovery to be best. It’s not that one or the other is inherently better. Rather, there are different people with different experiences who may benefit from different programs.

Higher Power

Perhaps the most obvious difference is that AA emphasizes the importance of a higher power. The program is built off the idea that we must turn our will and our lives over to the care of a god. SMART, on the other hand, does not really speak to a higher power. People who believe in a god or are religious are absolutely welcome and can use their spirituality in their recovery, but the program is more based on evidence-backed practices, therapeutic models, and modern scientific understanding of addiction and recovery.

Changes in the Program

Alcoholics Anonymous prides itself on not making changes to its book. Since its original printing in 1939, the first 164 pages of the book have remained almost completely unchanged. In contrast, SMART Recovery adapts to the change in understanding surrounding addiction. These two views differ greatly, and contribute to each program having a different feeling in their teachings and program.


In SMART Recovery, it’s encouraged for individuals to find their own paths through recovery. SMART allows for room for individuals to really find the program and life that works for them. Contrary to popular belief, SMART is an abstinence-based program. Individuals are encouraged to work toward abstinence, but in the beginning phases of the program people may not be completely abstinent. Twelve-step programs offer a “one size fits all” approach and advocate for complete abstinence from all substances. Although twelve-step encourages people to find what works for them, it generally is true that people have to work the twelve steps, have a sponsor, believe in a higher power, and engage with the program in a certain way.

Cross Talk

One of the big differences you’ll notice right away if you go to both SMART Recovery and twelve-step groups is that there are different rules on cross-talk. In AA meetings, individuals are encouraged to speak about themselves and not really address something that was said by somebody else in the meeting. SMART Recovery meetings may have period in which individuals can address each other, offer advice, or ask for their help or thoughts with something.

The Nature of Addiction

Alcoholics Anonymous teaches that we are always alcoholics or addicts, and we have to maintain vigilance against our disease. The SMART program teaches that addiction stops once the individual reaches recovery. Although the precursors and risk factors for addiction may remain, we are not addicted as long as we are not using.

Other Recovery Programs

It’s worth mentioning that there are many other ways people recover from addiction. There are other support groups like Refuge Recovery (a Buddhist program) and Celebrate Recovery (a Christian program). There are also a lot of people who get sober on their own, with the help of friends and family, at an addiction treatment center, or with the help of a therapist. If one method of recovery doesn’t work for you, reach out and try something new!

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