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8 safe ways to use public self-help groups: no bashing or promoting.
Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

8 Safe Ways to Use Public Self-Help Groups: no bashing or promoting.

If you are considering attending a public support group or recommending a public support group to someone, the information in this article is important to know.

Every potential, and present, member of every public self-help group should know how to use the group to their benefit, for its stated recovery purpose, and not find themselves in a mess complicating their problems, magnifying them, or much worse.

Full disclosure here: I have been active in recovery and attending public support groups 2-3 times a week for over 4 decades. I have also been a therapist for almost as long and worked for years in a locked psych hospital.

I vetted this article with people in a variety of public recovery groups, with people in a wide variety of 12-step programs, and lastly, with colleagues from the mental health profession. I think you will find the perspective here realistic.

It is undeniable that public support groups and 12-Step groups help millions recover from all forms of addiction and problems with family relationships, and provide needed support for those living with chronic health problems.

Let’s look at Alcoholics Anonymous public groups as an example. There are plenty of conflicting stats out there, and plenty of people with a vested interest who want those stats to conflict, but conservatively AA has more than 2 million members worldwide with 75% of them in the United States and Canada. Clearly, it has been successful for some.

How about the second-largest 12-Step Group: Narcotics Anonymous? As of May 2018, there were more than 70,000 NA meetings in 144 countries. Again, successful for some. Gamblers Anonymous? Same. Sex and Love Addiction? Same. All of these programs are successful for some.

The message here is simple: be cautious as you attend meetings and maintain healthy boundaries.

Learn the ropes before you are up against them.

12-Step programs attract a good number of individuals with a history of behaviors destructive to themselves and to others. I am not going to list all the possible diagnoses here and their symptom clusters.

What I will do is list the danger signs and ways to protect yourself if you wish to use 12-step groups to recover and thrive.

1.) You are new to the group and are approached by a person with more recovery time who wants to see you outside of the meeting. At first, maybe it’s a coffee shop. Later, it’s alone.

1.) RECOMMENDED: Stick with small groups of recovering people in meetings and after meetings. A person who wants you to recover does not mind having a few others around. Remember: a successful predator separates prey from the herd.

2.) A person in the group asks for your personal contact information, because they want to be supportive.

2.) RECOMMENDED: A person may give you their phone contact information after a meeting as a gesture of support. If you want to call them, it is your choice. Do not give your contact information out to anyone unless you are sure of their history and know they are safe. And even then, be careful. Remember: some destructive people are extremely charming and calculating.

3.) Someone in the group seems especially needy and vulnerable; and though there are others with more time in the group to ask, they ask you for help and you hate to say no.

3.) RECOMMENDED: When you can’t say no directly, use other excuses. You have family matters. You have to work. Anything. Do not become the “helper” of someone you do not know. Remember: when you are new it is not your place to be a helper at this time. Your job is to stabilize and recover. When you have more time in the program, helping others can become part of a healthy recovery.

4.) You are on a Zoom meeting or other virtual platform, and someone uses the chat to communicate with you even though someone else is speaking. This person is isolating you for whatever reason and they are distracting you from the person speaking. They are not paying attention and they want your attention on them. ATTENTION SEEKING PULLING YOU AWAY FROM THE GROUP PROCESS IS ALWAYS A RED FLAG.

4.) RECOMMENDED: Act like you do not see their chat. Ignore it. Pay attention to the person speaking. If you have a sponsor, tell them. If there is a safety person for the meeting, contact them. Many meetings now turn off the person-to-person chat during the meeting time as a courtesy to those sharing. In any case, ignore private chats during the meeting. Be present. If you wish to chat with someone do it before or after the meeting.

5.) You encounter a person who breaks the anonymity of other members. They may even talk about the traditions of the 12-step program and still do this. They may send email lists out with group members’ full names.

5.) RECOMMENDED: This person is either making an honest mistake or showing signs of a mental health problem. People who say they know the rules and break them are sending this powerful message: the rules do not apply to them. They are going to break your anonymity when it works for them to do so. Limit or break off your contact with this person. A relationship with someone who breaks community rules usually does not end well.

6.) You encounter a person who has strong opinions about other members of the group and the quality of the recovery of others. This person gossips. At times they talk as if they are being persecuted. They might say others are jealous of them. This person has strong opinions about how things should be done.

6.) RECOMMENDED: It is important to take some inventory of others so that you know who is being successful in their recovery and who might pull you down. But this is someone who gossips and harshly judges others and wants you to tolerate it.

This person is running the group down to build themselves up. The best solution for this is to become active in the group yourself. Make coffee. Set up. Run a virtual meeting. Do something that cements your engagement in a group that works for you.

7.) You encounter a person who is focused on the history of the group you are attending and their place in it. They seem to have knowledge and authority. Someone doing this knows that newcomers can be impressed, and distracted, by the functioning of the group. Again, note the status-seeking.

7.) RECOMMENDED: This is a good time to become knowledgeable about the primary books of any self-help group. Learn the principles and the history. More importantly, avoid status-seeking individuals in public support groups. They want you to honor them above yourself and your recovery.

8.) A person in the group regularly schedules outside social events, promotes them, and does not organize them with the group’s leadership. They may even say that this is not a 12-step event, but everyone invited is from the 12-step group. They want you at these events.

8.) RECOMMENDED: This may be empire-building or it may be an innocent attempt to build community. The best outside events for a newcomer are those organized by the group itself. It is recommended that when attending outside events, you go with someone you trust.


One 12-step recovery book has this quote: “There are many with grave emotional and mental disorders but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

There is no entrance examination for someone using a public self-help group. Members are not vetted, not even in “closed” meetings. It is all self-reporting.

Understand this when you walk in the door or connect on any virtual platform.

I wrote this because I have attended 12-step meetings and seen people there with a history of exploitative behaviors. This happens every day.

I have also seen people with a history of such behaviors get better, make amends, and change their lives. It also happens.

Public self-help groups saved my life. They work miracles for some of us.

They work when you work with individuals and groups of like-minded people you trust.

Trust takes time and knowledge. Go slowly. Look around. Read the room. Stick with those who are recovering and live with integrity. Look at the evidence, not only their words.

First and foremost, and lastly, if you are to benefit from any of the 12 step programs, it is recommended that you protect yourself with healthy boundaries and surround yourself with a circle of recovering people who show by their behaviors and respect that they care about your recovery and you.

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