The Therapeutic Value of the Group

Alone

By Steve K.

The Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) group is a fundamental ‘mechanism of change’ in terms of recovery from alcoholism. The group provides its members with a supportive social network that promotes sobriety.

Participation in the group offers several therapeutic benefits which facilitate and support change for the individual. These therapeutic gains are as follows:

Hope

The group provides the inspiration of hope that there is a solution to a seemingly hopeless condition of mind, body and soul. AA groups generate optimism and confidence that change is possible. The group is a vehicle for positive psychology.

When I arrived at my first AA meeting I was full of despair and shame and felt completely trapped in my addiction to alcohol. The group gave me some hope that long term sobriety was possible through the example of others.

Identification

A fundamental therapeutic benefit obtained from the groups is identification with others who have experienced similar difficulties. This helps group members increase their self-awareness and lessens feelings of isolation, shame and guilt, which promotes self-acceptance.

Identification and sharing (self-disclosure) with others, along with inventory work, has greatly increased my self-awareness and self-acceptance over the years, which in turn allows for greater honesty, authenticity and humility.

Information and Wisdom

The AA group shares information and wisdom in relation to recovery from addiction and living life alcohol free and in emotional balance.

The group offers strategies for dealing with cravings and handling life’s problems and promotes wise philosophy such as: acceptance of things outside of one’s control, the importance of self-examination and self-responsibility, the concept of keeping focus in the present day; and detachment from other people’s behaviour. These are wise concepts that can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy. AA’s serenity prayer is Stoic philosophy in a nutshell.

Altruism

A key ethical principle of AA groups is the practice of altruism, as expressed in Step Twelve and Tradition Five – ‘carrying a message of recovery to the still suffering alcoholic’. This practice helps group members develop this important virtue and encourages its application in other areas of life.

Participating in the group and absorbing the principle of helping others ‘without expectation of reward’, and the attitude of contributing to the group purpose or greater good (principle of service), inspired me to volunteer in my local community for good causes that benefit others outside of the AA group.

This service work, both inside and outside of the group, promotes one’s self-esteem and provides meaning and purpose in recovery. As someone who came into AA with very damaged self-esteem and had little sense of meaning in his life, feeling able to help others and developing a sense of purpose was very important to my recovery process.

The group, through its communication of the Steps and Traditions, also promotes the practice of other moral virtues such as, honesty, humility, willingness, courage, compassion and integrity.

Social Skills

Being a member of an AA group encourages the development of social skills. Groups provide the opportunity to be with, listen to, and talk with others; to test out and develop interpersonal skills such as self-disclosure, and by offering emotional support to others. Groups also provide the opportunity to observe healthy pro social behaviour in others, eg, service to and respect for other group members.

When I first started attending AA meetings, after years of relying upon alcohol and other drugs in order to socially connect with people, I had quite poor social skills. I was anxious in social situations and had no self-confidence. I didn’t really know how to approach people or start simple conversations and would stand around waiting for people to approach me, feeling very awkward. If someone didn’t start talking to me at the end of the meeting I would leave abruptly, feeling rejected and inadequate.

Over the years of attending AA meetings, I have had the opportunity to practice my social skills with others; learning how to approach people, say hello, and offer my hand in friendship.

I’ve learnt to ask how people are feeling and to listen to their responses, offering appropriate emotional support when needed. I have learnt to communicate my own feelings honestly, and to reach out for support from other group members. I’ve also learnt to engage in friendly banter and develop sober friendships.

These social communication skills may be taken for granted by some, but I had been abusing alcohol and drugs since my early teens, had very poor self- esteem, and had not developed these skills naturally during my active addiction years.

Becoming a member of an AA group also promotes a feeling of belonging, which is important for self-esteem and emotional health as humans are social beings and need social attachments. These groups and their social nature are a great antidote to the social isolation often created by alcoholism and other addictions.

Catharsis

The sharing of experience, strength and hope in AA meetings can provide an opportunity for catharsis. The group offers a space to vent and explore feelings while being listened to by others. This group format is particularly important for individuals who have a history of social isolation and are used to shutting off emotions through alcohol and other drug misuse.

In general, group members are listened to with respect, understanding and compassion while sharing in meetings, and this process facilitates improvements in self-awareness and self-acceptance; particularly when combined with supportive feedback from others at the end of the meeting.

During the earlier stages of my own recovery, I found being able to share my feelings honestly and openly within the AA group, both during the meetings and afterwards with group members, essential in my efforts to remain sober.

As someone who suffers with co-occurring disorders which impact upon my emotional well-being, I needed to communicate my distress to others as a form of release and as a coping strategy; a way of reaching out for support from other group members. Sharing my suffering within the AA group, and the support I received, enabled me not to take that first drink or another drug to cope instead.

I now find it very satisfying to be able to emotionally support other group members, particularly those in early recovery or those suffering from co-occurring illnesses.


Principles and Practice

Note: Some of the above therapeutic benefits of group work have been adapted from the book by Robert Hill and Jennifer Harris, Principles and Practice of Group Work in Addictions.

Steve has been a member of AA for 25 years and lives in Cheshire, England. He would describe himself as a humanist/agnostic. He has a background in advice and counseling work, mainly in the areas of mental health and social welfare law.

Steve enjoys swimming,  going to the gym and walking in the Cheshire countryside.

He has his own recovery website and you can connect to it here: 12-Step Philosophy.


5 Responses

  1. Scott A. says:

    Todd, thanks for sharing that… it sounds like a good plan.

    At the risk of echoing… for me there is always a “challenge of the balance…” “Easy does it…” “live and let live…”
    My alcoholism is “a dis-ease of isolation.” I appreciate this article highlighting many valuable components of what is on offer in aa (or recovery groups). Our little online aa freethinker skype meeting, read this article as fodder for our sharing. But for the meeting “spoon feeding” me this article, I probably wouldn’t have gotten around to reading it myself.

    I once heard a visitor to a meeting declare:
    “Everyone at this meeting wants the very best for me…
    “you may (or may not) like me,
    “but you still want to help me not to drink today”

    MUCH of the energy of the fellowship is well intentioned and seeking to foster an attractive and healthy social spirit… BUT… as the saying goes:
    “we don’t get here by being well.”
    and that not only goes for my own crippled social skills but for some of the others in attendance there. There may be “god botherers” who think they are doing a service by preaching about their holy redeemer and how “you need it too.”

    “honor your limitations”:
    Fellowshipping in general and talking with “friends in recovery” specifically are both valuably important “tools” for my well being … though it is not every day that I am fit to dive into the deep end of the social pool. While I have some extroverted nature, being “overly socialized” can trigger a need for “down time” in me.

    Back in my drinking daze, when at a bar, I used to like to play pool … because it gave this socially awkward guy something to “do,” and “talk about.” In AA I discovered that service work can fill the same role as a pool table. When my social energies are “down,” I am more likely to arrive just as the meeting is beginning and depart as it closes… and when I have more “willingness” to be social I am more likely to arrive earlier or at least linger longer afterwards.
    One “big breakthrough” that came for me in my early days of recovery was when a (long sober) guy I knew from a weekly meeting I had been attending happened to be at a daily early morning meeting I often attended. After the meeting we were making small talk and he said “so… are you going across the street?” “what’s across the street?”, I asked. Turned out a handful of sober folks would gather outside a coffee shop over there for “the meeting after the meeting.”… and there, a few weeks sober, I got to hang out with a random gathering of sober minded folks, a couple of whom were many decades sober and very bright and kind minded.
    Meetings may not be for everyone, but sometimes I compare meetings to restaurants… even the same one will be a somewhat different experience on a different night… and just because I may have had a bad experience at one that doesn’t mean I need to give up on going to any of them.

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Steve, for an excellent article which in my experience effectively captures the essence of why AA works. Early in my recovery, I translated the G-O-D word to Group Of Drunks, which was a higher power to me by myself to assist me a day at a time to stay sober.

  3. Todd says:

    I may start going to meetings again because of what this article said about using them to develop social skills. Being an absolute solitary drinker for so many years resulted in my losing the ability to communicate with people. I think I’ll look at the meetings as a kind of laboratory to learn how to connect with others through experimentation. Yet, the experiments are going to be hellaciously awkward for quite a while. Scary too.

  4. Laurie says:

    Thanks Steve, a well-ploughed furrow. ‘Central to the philosophy of the 12 Step tradition is the notion that the welfare of the individual is inseparable from the human community to which that individual belongs… this principle finds strong support in the ethical thought of Aristotle – it is only in community that we realise our flourishing.’ (from John Houston’s paper Friendship and Mutual Growth in Virtue in ‘Sobering Wisdom: philosophical explorations of 12 Step spirituality; University of Virginia Press:2014). cf Big Book appendices 3 and 5: ‘AA calls on two of the greatest reservoirs of power known to man (sic), religion (sic!) and that instinct for association with one’s fellows, the herd instinct’, and ‘Man cannot help himself except by helping others.’ And Bill W, ‘Most individuals cannot recover unless there is a group.’ (As Bill Sees It, page 9). Also of course Jung’s insight that Rowland H. recovered by ‘a personal and honest contact with friends.’ (in the Wilson/Jung correspondence, Best of the Grapevine). That’s certainly how I got and stay sober.

  5. Linda Kurtz says:

    I also have a book that discusses the therapeutic factors in the group.

    Recovery Groups: A Guide to Creating, Leading, and Working with Groups for Addictions and Mental Health Conditions by Linda Farris Kurtz, 2014 Oxford University Press.

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