Exploring the Controversial Downsides of 12 Step Programs and Group Therapy

Exploring the Controversial Downsides of 12 Step Programs and Group Therapy

Alcoholics Anonymous and all of the sister groups that this organization includes are a staple in the treatment of addiction.

They have helped a lot of people, but they are also often presented as the only or the main viable alternative, emphasizing the benefits that it has.

However, is it right for everyone? Are there any disadvantages to this model?

Are you familiar with AA?  If not, here is a free report that gives you the basic information about this program and how it works. Very Informative. Click here to read the report.

There are a lot of misconceptions regarding 12 step programs. Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, one of the oldest and best known, gets a lot of attention, sometimes critical comments, and occasional negative press.

Let’s take a look at some of the common misconceptions regarding 12 step programs and AA.

  • Religious-ness

The most common misconception is that step meetings are religious.

It’s written and understood in any 12 step program that you don’t have to believe in anything.  It’s not a program based on religion.

There are people of all faiths attending meetings. Some are atheists or non-believers, and some are very religious.

However, it’s not the religion they have in common; it’s the disease of alcoholism and seeking relief from the problem.

Here is the language that causes the problem. (Note that the word God has been substituted by Higher Power)

Step 1.  Admitting powerlessness over the addiction.

Step 2.  Believing that a higher power (in whatever form) can help.

AA clearly states that “A.A. suggests that to achieve and maintain sobriety, alcoholics need to accept and depend upon another Power recognized as greater than themselves.

This question is addressed on the AA website in the following PDF download of frequently asked questions:


Is A.A. a religious society?

A.A. is not a religious society since it requires no definite religious belief as a condition of membership.

Although it has been endorsed and approved by many religious leaders, it is not allied with any organization or sect.

Included in its membership are Catholics, Protestants, Jews, members of other major religious bodies, agnostics, and atheists.

The A.A. program of recovery from alcoholism is undeniably based on acceptance of certain spiritual values. The individual member is free to interpret those values as he or she thinks best, or not to think about them at all.

Most members, before turning to A.A., had already admitted that they could not control their drinking. Alcohol had become a power greater than themselves, and it had been accepted on those terms.

A.A. suggests that to achieve and maintain sobriety, alcoholics need to accept and depend upon another Power recognized as greater than themselves.

Some alcoholics choose to consider the A.A. group itself as the power greater than themselves; for many others, this Power is God — as they, individually, understand Him;  still, others rely upon entirely different concepts of a Higher Power.

Some alcoholics, when they first turn to A.A., have definite reservations about accepting any concept of a Power greater than themselves.

Experience shows that, if they will keep an open mind on the subject and keep coming to A.A. meetings, they are not likely to have too difficult a time in working out an acceptable solution to this distinctly personal problem.

AA is not explicitly associated with any religious denomination. Some churches sponsor 12 step groups and meetings are held in their buildings, but the meetings are about alcoholism and recovery and not about their church or religion.

AA requires people to believe and connect with some form of higher power and promote a spiritual type of thinking. Spiritual thinking might sound religious to many people, but it is not religious at all.

Those who identify as atheists or who have been burned out on religion might struggle in this atmosphere, especially if their local group is very explicitly religious.

  • 12 step meetings brainwash you.

Brainwashing is a misconception.  These 12 step programs meet to offer support to one another in our joint efforts to control our addictions.

There are no lectures or teachings. The groups consist of fellow addicts meeting to discuss and support each other. Nobody lectures. What they do is share their experiences and offer their support to other members.

  • Vulnerability, you may be exploited

AA is, as the name indicates, is an anonymous organization. Anonymity is very important because it allows people to share their personal stories and be candid about their weaknesses and their achievements without fearing repercussion.

Overeager Sponsors might get a little aggressive and pushy and even engage in predatory behavior. Their eagerness is to help troubled addicts and not to take advantage of other AA members. 12 step meetings are just a bunch of old people.

The reality is that there is no age demographic for alcoholics, they come in all shapes, sizes, sexes, and age groups.  Meetings are composed of a group of people seeking fellowship with no discrimination based on age, sex, or race. Period!

  • The Presence of “bad apples.”

AA meetings are open and admit anyone seeking help from addiction.

There may be people who reluctantly attend meetings because of external circumstances like a court order or family pressure something similar.

They might be unmotivated and exert a bad influence over other members, however, 12 step groups have a way of kindly and gently removing bad apples from the barrel if they can’t be helped or won’t participate.

  • AA is not a substitution for other forms of treatment

AA may be the treatment of choice for those who cannot afford to go to therapy or counseling, but this doesn’t mean that it substitutes medical or psychological help.

AA group meetings are managed by people with similar experiences creating a support network for each other, but they do not focus as much on treatment as they do for support.

AA does not offer therapy or medical treatment and cannot offer specific individual counseling either. It’s group therapy.

  • AA might not always be effective

AA, or any 12 step program will not be effective. It’s the dynamic of the group and sharing their experiences that provide the success.

Any 12 step program is only as good or effective as the quality and participation of the group participants and the willingness of the addict to join in and gain from experience.

Most 12 step or AA meetings are run similarly but still depend on the knowledge and skills of the people leading the group or meeting.

Some groups might be significantly better or more effective than others due to the experience and skills of the people involved.

  • 12 step meetings will make you want to drink.

The opposite is true.  People attend meetings to control their desire for drink and are not influenced or driven to drink.

You would be surprised at how little discussion there is about drinking or drugs.  The conversations lead mostly to lifestyle and behavior.

The discussions at a 12 step recovery group usually focus on personal and spiritual growth.

  • 12 step meetings are for the weak.

You will likely never meet a stronger group of people than alcoholics or addicts that are fighting and struggling with an addiction. These are not weak people!

12 step meetings are for people wanting to strengthen their lives and gain power over the addiction and cravings. Working with a group of like-minded individuals makes the job easier and more successful.

Is a group stronger than an individual? Yes, a group of people coming together for a common goal is much stronger together than they are working alone.

  • 12 step meetings are boring.

Sure, some meetings might be boring. Meetings vary from place to place, and the dynamics of each meeting can be different, depending on the members in attendance.

An Incredible sense of support and fellowship are present, and you can find a lot of friends at any meeting that will make it enjoyable and useful to you.

The focus of AA is solely on the drinking behavior and recovery and control of the addiction. It is usually the central problem people come to resolve.

If you are there for any other reason or if you are not ‘into’ the meeting and participating, it could be very boring for you. That is not the fault of the meeting; it’s because you are not allowing yourself to become part of the process.

  • Promotion of identity as an “addict.”

One important aspect of the AA philosophy is that the members are addicts for life and are always going to be addicts.

This has some advantages. It promotes responsibility and reduces the denial of the problem; however, it can also have some downsides.

It might become a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes some view their addiction as an intrinsic part of who they are, encouraging them to give in to the addiction.

It can also create a negative view of the self that might limit the person’s search for new opportunities, relationships, or personal growth.

Overall, AA is an effective support group that has helped many. However, it must be noted that a 12 step or group meeting is not the whole treatment, but rather, an extension of a larger recovery program.

Those who attend the group might benefit from seeking other forms of treatment and support to counteract the negative aspects of AA.

  • Alternatives to AA.

For those interested in a different support group, what are some of the alternatives to AA?

There are many alternative programs, such as SMART Recovery, Moderation Management, Rational Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and Secular Organizations for Sobriety.

These programs are all free and nonreligious group therapy or 12 step programs similar to AA.

Getting Help

Alcoholism or Addiction, in any form, is a danger to the addict and also to his friends and family.  Immediate action is needed for the safety and security of active substance abusers.

Survival, for an alcoholic or addict, depends on immediately finding help and getting involved in a quality treatment and recovery program.

If you, a friend, or a loved one has addiction problems, you can get in touch with the Hotline at our Recovery Center and discuss the problem and possible solutions.

The staff at Chateau Recovery is always available to help you with your questions regarding addiction recovery and treatment.  Call anytime.

Chateau Recovery Center
375 Rainbow Lane

Midway, UT 84049, USA
Phone: +1 435-654-1082

Please call our toll-free helpline which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and is staffed by experienced and caring professionals who can answer your questions and help you navigate through the process of evaluating and securing a treatment program.


Why Twelve Step Programs Work

What happens in a 12-step meeting? Is it necessary to attend these meetings? Dr. Milton Magness provides answers to these questions and more.


The Importance of the 12 Steps in Addiction Recovery

Going to 12 Step meetings to deal with addiction issues is a good start towards recovery. Getting a sponsor and doing the 12 steps is where the real healing happens.


If you or someone you love has questions concerning the rehabilitation process, call our free helpline Phone: +1 888-971-2986 for more information. Calls are always confidential, private, and secure.

Our Free Report about 12 step programs highlighting AA

Again, here is a free report that gives you the basic information about the AA  program and how it works. Very Informative. Click here to read the report.