The Self-Empowering Approach
by Tom Horvath, PhD
Practical Recovery and SMART Recovery both use the self-empowering approach for resolving addictive problems. This approach contrasts with the powerlessness-based approach of AA and other 12-step groups, at least on the surface. Both approaches begin with the person considering change, and then deciding to change (at least to some degree). Both approaches can be effective, but one may work better for specific individuals.
The powerlessness-based approach is described in AA’s 12 steps. In the first step you admit you are “powerless over alcohol.” In the third step there is “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” This approach can be described as serenity (as used in the Serenity Prayer, and also as “letting go” or “acceptance”):
“God, grant me Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference”
In the self-empowering approach we identify and learn about the changes we need to make, and if necessary practice them until they become habitual. This approach can be described as “courage” or “taking charge.” That perspective might be stated as the Courage Intention:
“I intend to have courage to change the things I can, serenity to accept the things I cannot, and wisdom to know the difference”
SMART offers a guide, the 4-Point Programâ, for what to take charge of: 1) Building and Maintaining Motivation, 2) Coping with Urges, 3) Managing Thoughts, Feelings and Behaviors, and 4) Living a Balanced Life. At Practical Recovery we add two additional tasks: improving relationships, and living with meaning and purpose. The six tasks comprise most of what we discuss in our sessions with you. (In case you are concerned that Practical Recovery somehow plagiarized these points from SMART, I was using the first three points several years before SMART existed, and the 4th point is an obvious aspect of recovery maintenance).
After all the disagreement between these two approaches (self-empowerment vs. powerlessness), there is emerging data that the underlying mechanisms of change for each may be similar or identical. One could argue about the merits of Chinese vs. French vs. Mexican food, but underneath the taste all hopefully provide protein, carbs, fat, and micronutrients. Furthermore, most people eat more than one kind of food, and many individuals “mix and match” components from various approaches for change.
Nevertheless, if the “taste” of the self-empowering approach is the one you prefer, it’s good to know that there are mutual help groups (SMART) and treatment facilities (Practical Recovery) where you can find it.
If you or a loved one are facing problematic substance use and are interested in a self-empowering approach to recovery, our outpatient services can help. Please reach out today; you don’t have to do this alone.