What is Self-Empowering Recovery?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

A self-empowering approach to addiction recovery involves gaining, over time, full independence from both addiction and recovery.

Over time, the individual’s recovery plan becomes the same as the individual’s purposeful and meaningful life. Individuals who do not accomplish full independence can nevertheless continue to move in that direction.

The timeframe for recovery activities to be displaced by meaningful life activities varies from person to person. One individual might attend mutual help groups such as SMART Recovery or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for several years, while another might stop these groups within months in favor of a combination of a book club, a bowling league, a church group, and more time with family.

Although there are many similarities between a self-empowering approach and the powerlessness approach of AA (the 12-step approach), these approaches are fundamentally different on the question of the individual’s capacity to recover. This difference is easily seen by examining AA’s first three steps.

Examining AA’s Recovery Steps
The first step appears to be applicable to most people who decide to change: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable. There are many ways to state this realization. For instance, “I’m blowing it, so it’s time to change; I need to get control of my drinking; This is going to kill me if I don’t do something.”

For some individuals recovery occurs inadvertently, as when a new relationship or some other significant event catalyzes change (recovery), which seems to happen on its own, rather than by decision. Such individuals do not seek treatment and do not engage in recovery activities. This type of recovery may be common. It would be valuable for us to learn more about it. However, we are focused here on individuals who decide to change.

The second and third recovery steps of AA state: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity; Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. These steps lie at the heart of the difference between a powerless and self-empowering approach.

In self-empowering recovery the goal is to gain power, ability and capacity, in order to make better recovery and life decisions.-Tom Horvath

In self-empowering recovery the goal is to gain power, ability and capacity, in order to make better recovery and life decisions. From the powerlessness perspective I do not have and may never have such power, ability and capacity. Therefore, decisions about recovery (and maybe about other aspects of life) should be made for me by others, especially my AA sponsor, my AA group, and my higher power (God as I understand him). Although in the self-empowering approach past poor decisions are recognized, the goal is to make better decisions, perhaps at first with help, but ultimately on my own.

How does one achieve self-empowering recovery? SMART Recovery’s 4-Point Program is one guide:

  1. Building and Maintaining Motivation
  2. Coping with Urges
  3. Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors
  4. Living a Balanced Life

A similar set of ideas could be presented as a set of questions:

  1. What is my motivation to change, and is it my motivation? Although “hitting bottom” is often suggested as the moment of change, the moment of change typically occurs when a new “low” has occurred, simultaneously with the realization that there is still much more to lose. Perhaps I drink so much my wife is furious and I also realize for the first time that I might actually lose her. Perhaps I lose her and realize for the first time that, given my drinking, the kind of woman I want is out of reach.

    If I’ve learned anything in nearly three decades of providing addiction treatment it is that most individuals engage in wishful thinking and underestimate the magnitude of the recovery process.-Tom HorvathAm I changing for someone else? It’s fine if someone else is involved (e.g., judge orders treatment), but ultimately if I am only pleasing someone else I probably won’t have the motivation to sustain what is often a more difficult and longer change process than I expected. (If I’ve learned anything in nearly three decades of providing addiction treatment it is that most individuals engage in wishful thinking and underestimate the magnitude of the recovery process).
  2. How confident do I feel coping with cravings (urges)? Do I understand that they are time-limited (they all go away if I don’t act on them), won’t harm me (even though they are uncomfortable and distracting), and won’t actually make me use? Once I understand these three fundamental ideas (perhaps with some supervised exposure to “triggers” or drug cues), then I’m in charge, not the cravings. If I accept cravings and don’t act on them, typically after 90 days they are dramatically reduced. In one to two years they may be gone or nearly gone, even for cigarette smokers. In building confidence to cope with craving, I may also need to build my ability to cope with my related problems (e.g., did I drink because I was anxious or depressed?).

  3. [Willpower] is the capacity to act on one’s long-term goals despite short-term distractions. Willpower is the opposite of addiction.-Tom Horvath

  4. Am I increasing my capacity for willpower? Although willpower as a concept fell out of favor during most of the 20th century, in recent decades it has regained prominence. There is now a significant scientific literature on willpower, which is the capacity to act on one’s long-term goals despite short-term distractions. Willpower is the opposite of addiction (acting on impulses or cravings which provide short-term satisfaction but impair long-term satisfaction). With practice (just like exercising to increase strength) I can increase willpower over time and ultimately become fully in self-control. In early recovery I may need to manage situations in order to manage myself (e.g., by avoiding high-risk situations). In later recovery, well-developed willpower ultimately eliminates or greatly reduces the significance of high-risk situations.
  5. Am I building a life of meaning and purpose? If so, I am building up reasons why I definitely would NOT want to return to addiction, because I would miss out on what has become so meaningful to me. Ultimately meaningful activity is my reason for living, and addiction becomes unthinkable. In a meaningful life I act from my values, pursuing goals important to me.

To summarize, in a well-functioning self-empowering approach to recovery I know my motivations to change. I’m confident I’m acting for myself not someone else. I feel increasingly confident I can cope with cravings/urges. I observe them to be a diminishing experience in my life. I observe my capacity for acting on my long-term interests to be increasing. I am building a meaningful and purposeful life, acting on my goals and values. If I have not experienced it already, I know that both addiction and “recovery” are becoming part of my past.

Because in early self-empowering recovery education, treatment or mutual help might be beneficial, where might I find it? There are now many self-help books on this subject. The SMART Recovery Recommended Reading List is one place to start. Treatment may be found by Internet searches for “alternative to AA” or “non-12-step treatment.” Mutual help groups include SMART Recovery and other emerging mutual help groups.

Will a self-empowering recovery approach work for everyone? Of course not. No approach works for everyone. Do we know how to identify who fits well with this approach? Not yet. For now, if you are seeking recovery, sample several approaches, and then create the personalized approach to recovery that makes most sense for you.

Also Read: The Dual Citizenship Phenomenon by Tom Horvath

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