Is SMART Recovery a Moderation Organization?

By Tom Horvath Ph.D., Lorie Hammerstrom, and Brett Saarela, LCSW


SMART Recovery supports (1) abstinence from any substance or activity addiction and (2) going beyond abstinence to lead a meaningful and satisfying life. Our 4-Point ProgramSM addresses addiction itself (Points 1 and 2) and quality of life (Points 3 and 4). Points 3 and 4 are the primary focus of discussion in many meetings. To remind you, Point 1 focuses on motivation to abstain; Point 2 on coping with craving; Point 3 on problem solving (when practical problems can be resolved) and emotional self-management (when practical problems may not be “solvable”); and Point 4 on building a life of enduring satisfactions (a meaningful and purposeful life).

SMART Recovery encourages attendance by individuals in any stage of recovery. Those maintaining long-term abstinence will likely be most interested in discussions of Points 3 and 4. Those in early recovery will likely pay more attention to Points 1 and 2. SMART Recovery recognizes that individuals may be in different stages of change, at any one time, across what is likely to be a range of addictive behaviors. For example, one participant may be ready to stop drinking but not ready to stop smoking. Another participant may be ready to quit cocaine but not ready to quit marijuana. Both participants may be drinking excessive caffeine and overeating, and be unaware that these are also addictive behaviors.

Even individuals who have not made the decision to abstain from any substance or activity are welcome in our meetings, and allowed to state (during the check-in or perhaps at other times in the meeting) their current activities and plans. Their statements have led some to the inaccurate conclusion that SMART Recovery is a “moderation organization.” Despite participant statements about “cutting back” or “moderating,” the working time of the meeting is devoted to how to achieve abstinence and quality of life.

Undoubtedly, many individuals attending non-SMART Recovery support groups are not abstaining but do not say so. The reality of any support group is that it cannot control its participants outside of meetings, only the meeting discussion itself. The meeting facilitator maintains a balance in the meeting between allowing participants to speak honestly, while keeping the discussion focused on how to achieve and maintain abstinence. Participants who have not decided upon or achieved abstinence will benefit from observing how others are doing so, without being shamed about their own stance.

We believe that our practice of welcoming all will result in more people achieving abstinence (or moderation or at least harm reduction) than if we have entrance requirements. Because we do not use the terms “alcoholic” or “addict” we are in no position to prescribe abstinence to anyone. We are an organization that supports individuals who have chosen to abstain (whatever their reasons, however serious or minor their problems are) or are considering abstinence (but they might ultimately choose another course of action). Empowering individuals to make choices is at the heart of the SMART Recovery philosophy.

In particular, SMART Recovery meetings encourage the discussion of slips and relapses. These discussions are often among the most profound discussions we have, as the participant re-connects with the deeper reasons for choosing to abstain. We do not keep track of length of abstinence (although participants are free to do so), partly because having a longer length of abstinence can discourage someone from discussing a relapse.

For individuals who are immersed in other models of recovery and styles of meetings, SMART Recovery may require some effort to understand. We do not expect to appeal to everyone. However, our record of success and growth indicates that a sizable portion of people with addictive behaviors find our approach meaningful and helpful. If you’re considering abstaining from an addictive behavior, please join us for a SMART Recovery meeting, and see if you find our approach meaningful and helpful to you on your recovery journey.

Editor’s Note: This article brings up several points I find meaningful: (a) 12-step is just a theory about reality, rather than being reality itself. (b) SMART Recovery is not A.A, and uses a different theory and approach. (c) In SMART Recovery’s approach, we “let” people think for themselves, and we are not overly scandalized by free speech. (d) SMART Recovery is not written in stone: we cleave to science, which entails flexibility and change, and we can tolerate ambiguities and unknowns. (e) Our methods are those people can use for more effective self-management, and “effective” depends upon the individual’s goals and values. (f) We are organized to support people who have chosen to abstain or who are considering doing so.

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