Alcoholics Anonymous: Why AA is Harmful to Some

Written by: Kim Vytell
Last Updated: May 28, 2023

Alcoholics Anonymous has been a recovery staple for decades now. It is a standard part of the Twelve Step Program, which was founded on religious ideals. The Twelve Step Program has since been modified to be more spiritual, but Alcoholics Anonymous [1] remains the same. It is basically a group therapy coalition that accepts absolutely anyone. Some people love Alcoholics Anonymous, and other people hate it. In this blog, we’ll explore the ups and downs of Alcoholics Anonymous and explain why AA is harmful when you’re not the right candidate for it. 

History of Alcoholics Anonymous

In 1935, in a small town in Ohio, two men named Bill Wilson and Bob Smith founded the Alcoholics Anonymous program. The twelve traditions or, as we know them, twelve steps, were created by Bill Wilson to help alcoholics recover with a routine.

The idea of Alcoholics Anonymous is that addicts remain hidden from the public as they cope with their issues, helping each other and staying out of harm’s way altogether. The anonymous aspect of this group is to prevent future substance abuse by avoiding triggers. Through the AA Grapevine, addicts are able to recover with the support of people who understand them.

While AA is a lifeline for some, Avenues Recovery discovers why AA is harmful for others

Why Many Adore the Twelve Steps

There are many reasons that people love attending Alcoholics Anonymous.

1. Going to an AA Meeting is Therapeutic.  

“My brother often tells me about the AA meetings he went to throughout his journey in a treatment facility. He mentioned that lots of his friends really liked to attend AA meetings because they are therapeutic. They allow people to open their minds up to others in a less vulnerable way. Rather than being with just a therapist, recovering alcoholics are surrounded by each other.”

At an AA meeting, each person gets to talk about how they feel. They get to talk about the effects of alcohol on their lives. They get to talk about how it feels to be a recovering alcoholic. This can be really helpful for their mental health. It makes people feel less alone.

If you’re the kind of person who likes getting affirmation from others and expressing your feelings, you’ll likely love AA meetings. As a recovering alcoholic, it can be comforting to have people who understand what you’re going through.

One of the main rules of Alcoholics Anonymous is that judgment is not allowed. AA meetings are open to whoever needs help. Whether you’re a college student or a grandparent. You could talk about driving under the influence. You could talk about causing pain to loved ones. It doesn’t matter. You’re not going to be judged. You’re going to feel amazing for being supported.

2. The Team Mentality Helps to Prevent Substance Abuse

The team mentality of the twelve steps greatly motivates  many people. As time goes on, people attend AA meetings more frequently and grow close with the other recovering alcoholics in their group. When you’re a heavy drinker, it’s unfortunately common that you can disappoint your loved ones. When you grow a whole new family of people who go through the same things, it becomes even harder to want to drink and disappoint all these people who want to see you succeed.

Alcoholics Anonymous becomes a reason to work harder to stay sober. The idea that you’re growing with other people makes it harder to fall back into substance abuse. You’ll be able to learn their coping skills and adopt them for yourself. In a sense, AA meetings are like behavioral therapy because you get into a routine of opening up to people.

Alcoholics Anonymous Isn’t a One-Time Thing

The beauty of the Twelve Steps is that there isn’t a limit to how many times you can choose to follow them. If you experience a relapse in substance abuse, you can come back. If you choose another program in your treatment facility and don’t like it, you can always come back to the traditional method. No matter what you do, you are helping yourself find a better lifestyle and that is what’s important.

Recovering from being a heavy drinker is hard. The effects of alcohol on a person’s life are far-reaching. Thousands of people have stopped drinking with Alcoholics Anonymous. Many people have stopped drinking with behavioral therapy. Lots of people have a desire to stop drinking and just don’t know how to do it.

The Problem with AA

In contrast to his friend, my brother was not a fan of the AA meeting routine. He found it downright depressing to listen to how much each recovering alcoholic had struggled. He commented on how it triggered him to hear stories of such sad times. Hearing depressing things are motivational for some people and can be too intense for others.

One of the common criticisms of AA is that AA meetings have the intent of carrying the message that people can go through the struggle together. Bill Wilson wanted to encourage behavior changes in the comfort of other people going through the same thing. While this can be awesome and inspiring, it can also simply remind people of the pain they have gone through.

The way people go about their desire to stop drinking might not be to hear horror stories about others. This could cause feelings of anxiety and depression and eventually lead to substance abuse. In fact, it is reported that 40% of people drop out of AA meetings after the first meeting because it’s just too depressing. 

It Can Make the Treatment Center Feel Like a Cult

Another thing that lots of people, including my brother, have expressed, is that the treatment center can start to feel like a cult [2] when it comes to the twelve traditions. There are specific steps to follow and everyone is under lots of expectations. One such expectation is that recovering alcoholics remain anonymous to the outside world. There is an expectation that people uphold the twelve steps.

It can start to feel like the only people you’re supposed to connect with are people who have been through the same thing as you. And this can put  pressure on a recovering addict to get sober for the wrong reasons. Many of those who once enjoyed AA meetings now place themselves in the ‘I hate AA’ (Alcoholics Anonymous) camp.

The Twelve Traditions are Faith-Based 

Bill Wilson founded the twelve traditions using his knowledge of religion. Akron, Ohio, where the AA meeting philosophy was founded is a very Catholic area. The Twelve Steps were written in the context of giving oneself away to a higher power. This can be comforting while going to a treatment facility, but not for people who aren’t religious.

If you’re not big on religious faith, it can be detrimental to your mental health to be around so much religious talk. It will make you feel uncomfortable. This isn’t all there is to Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is a huge aspect of the program.

Treatment for Everyone, AA Supporter or Not

In addition to, or as an alternative to AA, Avenues Recovery is here to support you in your journey towards recovery. Whether you want to carry the message of the twelve traditions or go a different route, we wish you the best of luck. We know how hard getting sober can be, and we’re proud of you, without judgment on whichever programs you choose to follow.

As leaders in addiction rehabilitation, Avenues Recovery has detox and treatment programs situated around the USA – we’re here to make recovery reachable. Contact us to speak with a trained member of staff and embrace sobriety to its fullest.




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Kim Vytell, LCADC, LSW, Director of Clinical Development, earned both her BS and MS in social work from Rutgers University and is an EMDR-trained therapist. She recognizes the impact that addiction and trauma have on individuals, and the importance of addressing both in order to live healthy and happy lives. She is dedicated to helping individuals and families who have been affected by the disease of addiction, believing everyone is capable of recovery. Kim is passionate about helping others move beyond their pasts and discover their true selves.

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