Group Therapy and 12 Step Meetings

Jeffrey Levy, LMFT 12 Step Programs, Group Therapy, Recovery for the Partner, Recovery from Sexual Addiction

Group Therapy and 12 Step Meetings are two kinds of group meetings that can play an important role in any recovery process where addiction issues are involved – whether it be someone actively in addiction, or their partner who also is suffering.  Our practice focuses on sexual addiction treatment, but the principles below apply to any type of addictive behavior.

Both types of meetings share some common ground as far as benefits are concerned.  One of the hall marks of struggling with sexual addiction – either directly or as a partner of someone in addiction – are a sense of isolation, and feelings of shame – both of which actually feed the addiction cycle.  Group meetings can help break the sense of isolation and reduce feelings of shame, as one finds acceptance, support and compassion from others in the group, even as the negative consequences of the addiction are acknowledged.  For the addict, acknowledging the negative consequences without shaming judgments that devalue the self, helps overcome denial and increases motivation to change.  This enables much more effective action in changing problem behaviors and patterns. Often there are others in the group who are in more advanced recovery, which stimulates hope that there is a healthy way out of sexual addiction.  The meetings also become a resource to learn practical solutions about what has helped others to move away from destructive sexual behaviors, and towards a heathier and more satisfying life style that includes healthy sexuality. For the partner, meetings provide essential support and guidance in terms of coping and self-care; how to recover a sense of well-being, while expressing the pain and upset; and how to open up again and rebuild relationship if that is wanted.

There are also important differences between group therapy and 12 step meetings.  Group Therapy involves a licensed clinician who leads the group.  The meetings are usually limited to about 6 clients and meet weekly with the same consistent participants over time, which allows trust to develop and opening up to deepen.  The groups are typically interactive and participants can talk openly about themselves as well as provide feedback to others in the group in a responsive way.  People learn directly about how to contain impulsivity, think clearly, and be open, emotionally available, and assertive – all important ingredients in the recovery process.

Twelve step meetings also encourage and support recovery from addiction, but are structured differently than group therapy.  There are currently two different 12 step meetings in the Triangle area that are available to sex addicts – Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA); and one 12 step meeting S-Anon for partners of sex addicts.  S-Anon is the sister organization for SA, similar to how Al-Anon relates to AA.  (The sister organization for SAA is not available in our location at the time of this writing.) There are some differences between SAA and SA.  In our experience more people attend SAA, but both can be invaluable. Please visit their respective websites for more information. A usual recommendation is to attend at least 5 or 6 meetings – preferably at different times and locations to get a sense of which particular group of people fits best for you – before making a final decision on whether to participate in 12 step or not.  While we do not require people to attend 12 step meetings as part of our treatment approach, we do encourage clients to consider attending and if willing, to give it a try.

Characteristics of 12 step meetings include:  They are free!  There are multiple meetings on different days and at different times, particularly where SAA is concerned, that can be found in Cary, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  The groups are peer led and are not led by licensed clinicians.  Usually people in more advanced recovery take a leadership role, and the meetings follow a traditional structure.  While attendees in most meetings have an opportunity to tell their stories, there is no “cross talk” – that is people are not giving feedback directly in the meetings, which encourages a sense of emotional safety.  Nonetheless, it is typical to hear in our practice, that people benefit hearing about and relating to others experiences – both the pain of sexual addiction and  the uplifting quality of recovery.  After the meetings and outside of the meetings there is of course an opportunity to engage others directly, including the possibility of choosing a “sponsor” to work the actual steps and provide guidance.  While more could be said about 12 step, the best option is to actually attend a meeting and see what it’s like.

Here are a few of the concerns that people have raised about attending 12 step meetings:

  •  They’re too religious.  Every meeting and every group is different, but generally speaking we have clients who are atheists and agnostics, as well as those engaged in a religious community, all of whom speak well of 12 step and make it fit for them. For some the “higher power” is simply the group itself for example, where people learn to break through isolation and interdepend with others to build a healthy life style rather than “numb out” or “self-medicate” through addiction.
  • I am uncomfortable in group settings and/or have social anxiety. 12 step meetings are very welcoming and supportive of newcomers and there is no requirement to speak in front of the group.   One could simply observe initially, although many first time attendees end up sharing in the small check in groups because it’s such a relief to be able tell their painful story and receive support.

For many clients a 12 step group is a good complement and adjunct to psychotherapy.  Many clients choose to participate in both approaches.  Please contact us for more information about our services in Cary, Raleigh and Chapel Hill regarding recovery from sexual addiction.