What Can’t You Say in AA Meetings?

For someone with alcohol use disorder, attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings is often a big part of the recovery process. The focus of most AA meetings is on allowing members and newcomers to share with one another in fellowship.

Research points to the value of AA meetings in providing:1

  • Reassurance that you are not alone in your struggles
  • The opportunity to recognize the “voice” of addiction by hearing it from others
  • The opportunity to learn new coping skills and to learn from others what works for them
  • The opportunity to have a safe place to go where you won’t be judged.

AA Meetings: Rules for Sharing

If you are new to AA or are unfamiliar with AA meeting etiquette, you may be reluctant to speak up. It is helpful to learn what is appropriate to speak about and what is not appropriate to talk about when sharing your story.2 The one main rule upheld at all AA meetings is the requirement to maintain anonymity for yourself and others. For this reason, generally, only first names are used during introductions of members and guests.3

When speaking to individuals or the group, you should not share personal information about yourself or anyone else.3 If you happen to see someone you know, perhaps from work or within your community, you should not acknowledge your prior connection with them.3 You may have an opportunity to speak one-on-one with this person later in the meeting, and if so, you should allow them to indicate how they wish to relate to you in this setting. If you see someone who is a public figure (i.e., politician, local celebrity, business leader) while attending an AA meeting, the same rule applies. Public figures are afforded the same anonymity as all other AA members.3

Respecting confidentiality is also a requirement at AA meetings. This means that delicate personal disclosures discussed during AA meetings are expected to stay within the bounds of the meeting room.2 “What is said here stays here” is the general idea when it comes to the intimate details of a personal story.

Additional rules may vary from one AA group to another, as each group independently creates its own guidelines.2 In general, you are expected to be polite and respectful of others so that everyone knows they can speak openly without having concerns about being judged or having secrets disclosed to outsiders.3 Adapting to the prescribed norms of AA behavior generally leads to greater affiliation and engagement and greater success at abstinence.1

When it is your turn to speak, you should keep your comments brief (typically, your message should last no longer than 3-5 minutes), and you should be mindful about remaining on topic when a meeting agenda has been specifically designated.2

You might be able to have an off-topic discussion following a meeting during a one-on-one conversation with a member. Or, if your concern is very personal, you may want to speak to a sponsor or a counselor about it rather than sharing details—that may be uncomfortable for some members to hear—with the entire group.2

Keep in mind a few additional meeting guidelines when you are listening to others speak:

  • Cross talk, or sharing that may be intrusive or disruptive, such as giving feedback to the speaker while they are still speaking, is discouraged. Instead, wait until the speaker has finished, then raise your hand and pose your question or comment.
  • Do not hold sideline conversations with others while a speaker is sharing.
  • Turn off and put away your cell phone during the meeting. (It is impolite to text or check phone messages during meetings. 2,4

Topics to Avoid in AA Meetings

Here are some examples of things you should avoid speaking about during an AA meeting:

Unrelated Topics

Topics that fall outside of the scope and purpose of an AA meeting are best left for other settings, especially when the meeting has a specified discussion topic identified. Not all meetings are “open meetings,” where the sharing of personal stories takes up much of the meeting time.2

Some AA groups have meetings that are dedicated to discussing the 12 Steps, AA Traditions, The Big Book, and other AA themes.2 Or an issue-related topic may have been assigned, such as exploring the meaning of acceptance or how forgiveness is necessary during recovery. In such cases, there will be a more limited amount of time for open sharing, and off-topic discussions could prevent some important information or topic-related issues from being brought up. 2,4

For instance, you may have a valid concern about a difficulty you recently experienced, and you’d like to get some feedback and advice about it. Before you speak up, however, consider whether your question or comment involves an alcohol-use-related issue and whether it is on-topic for this meeting. If not, you should be considerate of others and wait for a more appropriate opportunity to discuss the matter. 2,4

Controversial Topics

Topics that many people may have strong personal opinions about, such as religion, should be avoided in AA meetings.2General discussions about spiritual topics, such as in the belief in a Higher Power, are acceptable and are included in AA references.2,5 However, tenets of specific religious doctrines should not be brought up.2 People’s personal beliefs should always be respected, and you should avoid making others feel the need to debate or defend their religious beliefs.

Another controversial topic to be avoided is politics.6 Discussion of politics is discouraged by AA, as noted in the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions publication.2,6 People often have very strong feelings about politics, and, as with religion, they may feel a need to defend their beliefs. AA meetings are dedicated to fostering inclusion and fellowship, and topics that encourage separation or estrangement should not be addressed during AA gatherings 2,5 Engaging in contentious discussions with AA friends would be counterproductive to the group’s intentions and would diminish AA’s value for everyone.2 Remember that your attendance at an AA meeting has a very specific focus—to address your alcohol use and to find support and assistance in dealing with that.1,5

You have many other opportunities to express yourself, debate ideas, and share your passion for other topics and issues. However, in the AA setting, your sobriety goals are more likely to be accomplished if you keep your focus on learning and practicing new social skills and coping mechanisms rather than on discussing personal beliefs, no matter how strongly you feel about them.1,5

Substance Use Behaviors

People who attend AA are likely to be there because they have used alcohol in unhealthy ways, which have created problems in their lives.2,7 While it is appropriate to share your struggles about your alcohol use and to illustrate to some extent the actions and behaviors that caused you trouble, it is not appropriate to elaborate on the details of your experiences to the point where it triggers others.8,9 Examples of “trigger talk” to be avoided include graphic details about a particular drinking episode, visual or sensual details about cravings, or a vivid description of a favorite drinking environment or setting.8,9 Such descriptions and mental associations may stimulate the brain’s reward-seeking response, arousing urges and wanting sensations in both speaker and listener.8,9

There is a fine line between being honest and open about your missteps and your problematic alcohol usage and telling your story with such specificity that it paints too vivid a picture in the minds of those who are attempting to think less often and less intently about their own alcohol consumption.8 Common sense should help you find the proper balance between telling a compelling and authentic story and being so descriptive that it causes unhealthy arousal in the minds of your audience. If finding that balance seems difficult for you to achieve, you can always ask a sponsor to help you practice how to relate your story in an appropriately descriptive way. 10

Distressing or Traumatic Incidents

Sometimes unintentional negative consequences result when a person misuses alcohol.7 If you have experienced a distressing or traumatic event related to your alcohol use, you may want to share it with others who are likely to understand. However, before you share a highly emotional or traumatic story, think about how it may affect those who are listening. The retelling of a traumatic event can be therapeutic for the person sharing the story. It is one way of cleansing the residual emotions that often linger after such trauma.9 But for listeners, the retelling often draws them into the same uncomfortable emotional state that you are attempting to distance yourself from.9 Be mindful of this as you consider sharing a distressful or traumatic event.

Your listeners may have experienced something similar, or they may become distressed themselves simply because they empathize strongly with your emotions. While you do want to take care of your own emotional needs, you surely will not want to transfer your distress to another person. Instead, consider talking to a counselor, your sponsor, or another professional who can help you process your trauma in a more appropriate setting.9,10

Grievances or Resentments

Most people, regardless of their history with alcohol use, will at some point have a grievance or resentment toward another person that greatly annoys or distresses them. Unfortunately, for persons with alcohol use disorders, such annoyances or frustrations can often act as triggers.7 For this reason, you may consider such grievances appropriate material for discussion at an AA meeting. You could be right—it all depends on how the topic is handled. In general, if you focus on the response a grievance or resentment triggers in you, and you explore with your peers how to better respond to the trigger, you will be on the right track.2,5 Also, remembering to use “I” messages when you speak will help you stay focused on the goal of expressing your feelings and looking for ways to avoid being triggered.

You should not allow yourself to take this opportunity to simply have a gripe session so that you can complain about a perceived injustice and vent angry emotions. Such personal, heated emotional outpourings are best shared with a counselor, your sponsor, or a trusted and willing friend.10 Remember your AA goals and choose to focus on what you can do to avoid being triggered—and possibly triggering others—instead of inappropriately sharing a grievance.5

Want more information? You can reach a treatment specialist at 800-839-1686Who Answers? to discuss rehab options.

 

Resources

  1. Yale J Biol Med. 2015 Sep; Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery88(3): 325–332. Published online 2015 Sep
  2. org. (2018) Where it All Begins: How a Group Functions
  3. org. Understanding Anonymity.
  4. org. Cross talk in AA. Nov. 2018.
  5. Greenfield BL, Tonigan JS. The general alcoholics anonymous tools of recovery: the adoption of 12-step practices and beliefs. Psychol Addict Behav. 2013 Sep;27(3):553-61. doi: 10.1037/a0029268. Epub 2012 Aug 6. PMID: 22867293; PMCID: PMC3707937.
  6. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1989). Twelve steps and twelve traditions.
  7. Sinha R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130. https://doi.org/10.1196/annals.1441.030
  8. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services; 2016 Nov. CHAPTER 2, THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF SUBSTANCE USE, MISUSE, AND ADDICTION.
  9. Lanier, Bethany, Carney, Jamie. Practicing Counselors, Vicarious Trauma, and Subthreshold PTSD: Implications for Counselor Educators. The Professional Counselor.
  10. org; Questions and Answers on Sponsorship. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

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