SMART Recovery and the Life Process Program: Major Differences and Welcome Similarities

Zach Rhoads By: Zach Rhoads
Reviewed By: Dr Stanton Peele

Posted on September 11th, 2020 - Last updated: May 28th, 2024
This content was written in accordance with our Editorial Guidelines.

12-step groups like AA are largely ineffective at curbing drug and alcohol addiction.

Happily, SMART Recovery (Self Management and Recovery Training) is another lay-led support group and that honors the principles of personal agency and development that we talk so much about—so it works!

Of course, the Life Process Program is another 12-step alternative and we’re often compared to SMART.

The comparison is welcome, but LPP and SMART Recovery are different in meaningful ways.

SMART is a nonprofessional CBT (it uses Albert Ellis’s REBT) support group for addictive problems, particularly alcohol (although SMART’s long-time President, Tom Horvath, has emphasized the variety of addictive disorders).

Although SMART is definitively non-12-step, and thus provides a valuable alternative to AA worldwide, it is less resolved on a number of other issues that LPP decisively addresses. It also differs from LPP in the comprehensiveness of the help it provides.

Let me review the differences between LPP and SMART:

  1. Although SMART has a specific approach, the program provides only generic support as a way of dealing with addictions. LPP, on the other hand, is a complete program, administered in a systematic sequence. There is a “process” to LPP, a series of topics and issues in the individual’s thinking and life that LPP deals with in order.
  2. SMART’s focus (like AA’s) is on their group meeting dynamic and trains its group facilitators (unlike AA) but it is not a professionally administered program. LPP differs in that professionals offer ongoing and individualized support to its clients.
  3. SMART is unclear on some basic principles, unlike LPP. That is, although SMART is non-12-step, it does not declare its opposition to the disease view of addiction. LPP, on the other hand, directly opposes the disease view that addiction is permanent, inbred, indelibly marked in a person’s brain, neurology, and soul, and, finally, that addiction is irreversible, with only the possibility that it will worsen without help, support or treatment.

LPP is a natural-development, client-directed, skills-training, environmentally-oriented program. SMART shares these characteristics, more or less. That is:

    • LPP believes every individual has the power and capacity to change through their own agency. SMART shares this perspective partly, in that both LPP and SMART recognize personal efficacy and self-direction as core elements in change. But these are more fundamentally built into LPP.
    • As a support group, SMART recognizes that people must work through their lives in the real world in order to change. LPP takes this need for independent, external development further, by examining with clients each and every area of their lives to build on and improve.
    • SMART and LPP likewise both reject that idea of “addict” or “alcoholic” as a permanent identity. An important strength of SMART is therefore that, unlike AA, it believes people should ultimately become independent and free, and not be wedded to the group for life.
    • A critical drawback to SMART is that it is an abstinence, not a harm reduction, group. While SMART may be more tolerant of use than AA, it does not provide help for reduced, controlled, or moderate use. LPP is a harm reduction program. Abstinence is certainly one alternative, but, but not the dictated, or preferred one, as it is in SMART
    • Finally, although SMART claims to be prepared to deal with non-substance-use issues, it finds it difficult to apply its abstinence fixation to food, love and sex, and the variety of alternative compulsions (e.g., exercise, shopping) with which LPP deals.

Thus, although all of us at LPP love, admire and support SMART, we also think SMART is an incomplete transition to a new, humane and effective approach to the growing addictive problems our society, and individuals, face.


  • Brooke says:

    I thought the comparison was fairly respectful. Zach you struck a neutral tone, yet despite the claim of non-competition you couldn’t resist the temptation to point out how LLP is the more evolved or better system for the reasons you share.
    Personally I agree I prefer harm-reduction over strict abstinence only models, but it is different for everyone. One is not better or worse, in my opinion. In fact, any harm-reduction I utilize is with the goal of abstinence as a natural result. If the final result can be considered the more advanced aim, is it superior? To my limited mind, I want to point out the gendered point of view, but that is again limiting. Generally men tend toward competition and women toward cooperation, men toward established power hierarchies and women shared communities, thus my reluctance to award first and second place. Lol oh no! Everyone gets a participation trophy?! No, but we are capable of tolerating and even embracing complexity, especially if we can set aside our egos.

    But I am happy for the progress we’ve generally made, or are moving toward, not stereotyping according to gender and being open to human diversity. Informed diversity.

    Speaking of which. One thing you forgot to share, that crossed my mind and apparently Tara’s, is LLP may provide more personalized strategies, which I agree are super important and helpful, but they are not simply automatically available through LLP. They are at the top of a tiered pricing scale. The prices are not astronomical, to your credit, but SMART I believe is donation-based. I was going to say, “like AA” but I am not interested in comparisons. I understand if others who feel burned somehow get relief from veuniversallynting, but personally I don’t have a problem with AA one way or the other, and I don’t compare it to any other program. If it were me, I would have taken this opportunity to simply present SMART to readers for information’s sake. Psych 101. You will endear your followers to you the more independent you are as demonstrated by sharing information and encouraging their freedom to explore other options. And respect to both for lacking cult-ish qualities honestly. Even well-intentioned organizations, secular, religious, recovery, yoga whatever, are faced with a very insidious and powerful temptation to cultivate a devoted following via methods we are educated to recognize as toxic. But again, none of that is present here, in either program, that I could see.
    Kudos to you both!

  • Tara says:

    very interesting read. I have been sober over 7 years and very grateful for this in many ways and to some of the AA tools I have in my toolbox. The big reason I stopped aa was I had more than a drinking problem. In AA they tend to say well your an alcoholic so your brain is this and that. Well no, I didnt molest myself or make my brother beat me up daily. Nobody forced me to marry a condisending husband. I chose to bury my issues so I could cope and get threw. I quit because it was time to be real with myself and the hurts. Yes, I drank a lot but I dont consider myself an alcoholic. Im a lost, ADHD train wreck with 3 kids at home. And I stayed at home and then had a child that is very ADHD and I lost my way. Like life, there is really no true manuals to get us threw life. Life and people are always changing and evolving. I needed to get this calmed down. AA, thought that alcohol was the only reason or that im doomed by having parents who were drunks that tgat was my cause of all wrong. No, me not getting my personality in check was my issue and alcohol calmed it down. So I never say alcohol is poison, or that ill never drink agian. I personally chose to not drink because I don’t deal with whats really the issue. Its hard to carry the weight of the world and with all the differant things that happen in life which one is the best fit. I hope I can find the right way and have it not cost an arm and a leg to do so. There’s no guarantee in life so its hard for me to put money into a program that doesn’t offer that. If that makes sense at all. What I know for sure is today im sober and I managed to work threw saddness of losing my 64 and 67 year old parents, anxiety, depression, my controlling husband who thinks nothing of me and a 13 year old who is lost in this world also so we together are trying DBT program so hopefully he can not look to bad choices to cope the way my husband and I did. We need to learn tools and techniques to get threw this crazy world. And if our mind has found peace and feeling grounded then maybe we can toast to that one day. Today, im sober.

  • Henry Steinberger says:

    Interesting comparison. It could have been done in a simpler point by point but it was mostly accurate. I only ask why this was needed as some people want a group and meetings and support, so for your folks who have chosen abstinence, SR is a perfect addition. As a psychologist I’m impressed with your professionals but note that SR has many professionals behind the training, consulting with the organization to keep the program professionally guided (and there is a program with 4 points and we use the Stages of Change Model too). So I’m basically saying that this was not the most friendly way to address SR and I hope that we can both respect each other’s programs. I tell my clients about your program when Harm Reduction is appropriate or desired. Clearly we are not the same.

    • Zach Rhoads says:

      Ah, you’re a fair man.

      One typical false comparison between the two groups, as you’ve illuminated here, is that we’re in competition. We are certainly not.

      And in case that all sounds too earnest, you might enjoy the podcast we’ve produced about the same topic (perhaps put more delicately)

      You’re saving lives Henry; keep up the great work.

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