The Therapeutic Value of the Group
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.