12-Step vs. SMART Recovery vs. Rational Recovery

Home 9 Addiction Treatment 9 12-Step vs. SMART Recovery vs. Rational Recovery
By Ron P.

A comprehensive look at 12-Step disease-model recovery versus Rational Recovery versus SMART Recovery for drug addiction or alcoholism.


When it comes to the program of recovery one employs in their quest to overcome drug addiction, alcoholism, etc., often times there are some very strong opinions out there. The one thing, however, that is pretty much universally agreed upon is, that there is no cure for addiction.

Whether in a treatment setting, sober living home, or on your own, there are a variety of programs and philosophies when seeking to get sober. Among them, the three most common are likely:

    • 12-Step
    • Rational Recovery
    • SMART Recovery

In simple terms, the 12-Step approach is built upon admitting powerlessness and seeking a higher power., whereas SMART & Rational Recovery utilize cognitive & behavioral tools, motivation, self-reliance, coping mechanisms, etc.

– 12-Step Recovery (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous)

The 12-Step (disease-model) approach to addiction recovery is far and away the most commonly used worldwide. In fact, it is said that the #2 most sold book worldwide, 2nd only to the King James Bible, is the Alcoholics Anonymous Basic Text, commonly referred to as the “Big Book.” And all of the other 12-Step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc, utilize the exact same steps but with minor changes to the wording. For instance, in NA they use the word “clean” instead of “sober.”


  • The 12-step model is deeply rooted in spirituality and emphasizes surrendering to a higher power.
  • It views addiction/alcoholism as a lifelong disease.
  • Though people initially come to stop drinking or using drugs, those who fully commit to the program often experience a complete life change. Of the many manifestations they experience through this life change, among them is the freedom from drug & alcohol addiction.


  • Participants follow a set of 12 steps, including self-reflection, making amends, and helping others.
  • Abstinence is the ultimate goal.
  • Meetings are central to the process, providing support and accountability.


  • Some find the spiritual aspect challenging.
  • The lifelong commitment can be daunting, hence the “one day at a time” motto.
  • The process involves changing the way you live and act, which entails rigorous honesty, humility, willingness to trust others, etc., and some people cannot entirely abandon their old selves to this new way of living..

– Rational Recovery

Founded in 1986, Rational Recovery is based on what it terms the “addictive voice.” The program developed a technique called “Addictive Voice Recognition Technique” (AVRT), which recognizes the mental thoughts driving one’s addiction as the addictive voice.


  • Rational Recovery does not label participants as “addicts” or consider addiction a disease.
  • It focuses on self-reliance and personal responsibility.
  • Unlike 12-Step philosophy, Rational Recovery does not adhere to the concept of surrender.


  • The “Addictive Voice” (AV) is identified as the internal dialogue that urges substance use.
  • Participants learn to recognize and reject the AV.
  • It is a more linear and logical approach than the 12-Steps.


  • Critics argue that it oversimplifies addiction by ignoring biological and psychological factors.
  • Some find the approach too rational and lacking emotional support.
  • For someone in a very advanced state of addiction, the obsession often times overpowers rational thought.


– SMART Recovery (Self-Management and Recovery Training)

As stated on the SMART Recovery website, “SMART Recovery is an evidenced-informed recovery method grounded in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), that supports people with substance dependencies or problem behaviors to: build and maintain motivation, cope with urges and cravings, manage thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and live a balanced life.”


  • SMART Recovery combines cognitive-behavioral techniques with mutual self-help.
  • It is secular and non-religious.


  • Abstinence is encouraged, but participants can choose their goals (e.g., moderation).
  • The Four-Point Program:
    1. Building and Maintaining Motivation
    2. Coping with Urges
    3. Managing Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors
    4. Living a Balanced Life
  • Evidence-based practices are integrated.


  • Some may miss the spiritual component.
  • The program’s flexibility appeals to many.

Comparison Summary

  • 12-Step Recovery:
    • Spiritual focus.
    • Lifelong commitment.
    • Abstinence-oriented.
    • Supportive meetings.
  • Rational Recovery:
    • No disease label.
    • Self-reliance.
    • Rejecting the AV.
    • Rational approach.
  • SMART Recovery:
    • Evidence-based.
    • Secular.


As you can see, each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. If you are embarking on a path to sobriety and are not sure which path is best for you, do some research and try going to each of their meetings, and not just one meeting, try several different meetings. One thing we don’t recommend is asking a 12-Stepper for their opinion on SMART, and vice versa. People are generally loyal to their program of choice, and consequently tend to be biased, and rightfully so!

If there are any questions regarding this article or anything on this website, or if you would like more information on our sober living homes and halfway houses, please contact New Lyfe Solutions 7 days a week at (844) 463-9593. In the meantime we invite you to learn more about us and the various recovery services we offer and work with.
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