Power vs. Powerlessness in Addiction Recovery

[Guest blog post by Rick Kuplinski, SMART Facilitator]

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ― Unknown*

SMART Recovery takes a strong position on power vs. powerlessness in addiction recovery. Are we doomed to a life of never-ending affliction, temptation, and struggle because we are powerless over uncurable addiction? Or do we have the power to change our behavior permanently if we choose to do so?  SMART Recovery says that we do have that power. We believe Frankl is correct. The space between stimulus and response does exist. Let’s look more closely at this quote . . .

Between stimulus . . . What is stimulus? Stimulus is whatever gets us thinking of drinking, using, or acting out. It can be an association. A person, place or thing. A time of day or year. An emotional upset. An unhelpful belief or cognitive distortion. It can be fantasizing or romanticizing the pleasurable aspects while ignoring the negative. And let’s not forget the tempting awareness of an opportunity to continue addictive behavior without fear of detection or apparent consequence.

and response . . . Response is reaction to stimulus. But reaction is not automatic; it is a set of psychomotor actions we take deliberately to pursue our addictive behavior (perhaps starting by putting on shoes to go to the liquor store or picking up a phone to text a dealer).

there is space . . . In active addiction, that space between stimulus and response may go unnoticed. Or it might pass so quickly that we assume that we are not in control to choose our response. But that space is there. And with motivation and practice in recovery, we can learn to take more notice of it. To lengthen it. To be more deliberate about what we do within it.

In that space is our power to choose our response . . . Let’s use the four points of SMART Recovery to illustrate the power we have here:

  • Building and Maintaining Motivation: We have the power to open our toolbox and use what we have learned in SMART Recovery to bolster our resolve. We can use Hierarchy of Values and Cost-Benefit-Analysis to remind ourselves why we are on this path. We can pause to reflect on the progress we have made and think about why we want it to continue. We can draw motivation from our totems and touchstones, like the journal we’ve been keeping, the note left on the refrigerator door, the song that inspires us, or maybe even the ankle bracelet that limits freedom.
  • Coping with Urges: We have the power within this space to call upon the urge-coping strategies that work for us. Play the tape forward. Distract ourselves. Call a friend. Ride the wave. Lengthen the time living in this space to exceed the average duration of an urge. (20 minutes? Less?) It is also important to note that the thoughts we have in this space may just be random thoughts—not full-blown urges at all. Whether these thoughts remain harmless or get turned into something bigger by romanticizing addictive behavior, fantasizing it, operationalizing it and rationalizing; this too is up to us.
  • Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors: SMART Recovery’s ABC tool is the “go-to” technique in this space for working through the thoughts that place us at risk for backsliding in our recovery. If you are not familiar with the ABC Tool, then I refer you to www.smartrecovery.org and the SMART Recovery Handbook (pages 39 through 41 and 50 through 53) since space does not allow for elaboration here. The ABC Tool gives us power over the way we think so we feel better, but most important so we choose actions that are in our best interests.
  • Living a Balanced Life: Setting goals, planning tasks in relation to these goals and developing absorbing and healthy interests for a rewarding life give us additional power in the space between stimulus and response. These habits remind us that recovery is not a punishment; it is a journey toward a better life in which we have the power to choose our response to everything that happens to us or around us.

In our response lies our growth and our freedom . . .  “If you feel you can triumph over your unwanted behavior, then it’s likely you will. If one of SMART’s tools, strategies, or exercises doesn’t work for you, try a different one until you find what makes you successful. Recovery is possible. Urges fade away. Abstinence gets easier. Your addictive behavior becomes a thing of the past. You find meaning and enjoyment in your new life.”—page 8, SMART Recovery Handbook

  • Although this quote is often attributed to Viktor Frankl (1905 –1997), the Austrian neurologistpsychiatrist, and philosopher, the Viktor Frankl Institute refutes this claim. You can read their statement HERE.


SMART Recovery is a science- and evidence-based program that provides educational and peer support to those who want to abstain and gain independence from all addictive behaviors, whether or not they involve alcohol or drugs. The program emphasizes building motivation and self-empowerment skills, employing strategies to control urges, managing thoughts at the root of addictive behaviors and living a healthy, balanced life. Go to the “Meetings” tab at www.smartrecovery.org to find an in-person or online meeting to attend.

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