Self-help groups: further description including their history, various types, characteristics, how they function, and frequently asked questions about self-help groups

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History of self-help groups. In order to understand the nature of self help groups it is useful to know a bit about their history. The first and the most successful self‑help group is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), founded in 1935 by two recovering alcoholics, a stock broker (Bill W.) and a doctor (Dr. Bob ). In accordance with AA tradition of anonymity I have not disclosed their surnames. The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of AA serve respectively as guidance for personal recovery and for smooth functioning of groups. Today, AA is the world's largest self‑help group with meetings in many countries, including Singapore, and over a million members and still growing.

Various Types of self-help groups. Because of its spectacular success, AA has become a model for many other self-help groups dealing with a wide variety of problems. One of the first such “12 Step” self-help groups was Alanon which was established in 1939 for the family and loved ones of alcoholics. Like AA, Alanon has grown tremendously over the decades and has meetings all over the world including Singapore. There are many other 12 Step groups including Codependents Anonymous (CA), Over‑eaters Anonymous (OA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), and Alateen for children affected by an alcoholic family member. A more recent 12 Step group is “Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) which helps people who have an addiction to love and/or sex including cyber pornography which is among the fastest growing addictions in the world today. Like other addictions cyber porn addiction can destroy lives and families. The telephone numbers for these self-help groups is usually listed in telephone books of every large city including Singapore.


Of course there are many self-help groups that have been set up to help people with problems that function in a way similar to 12 Step groups but without using the 12 steps. There are also support groups which may involve professionals to some extent as well as non-professionals. I will try to describe these other types of groups in a future post.

Characteristics of self-help groups. In a previous post “Self-help groups and starting a coda group”, I outlined the main characteristics of self-help groups including 12 Step ones and will just itemize them here:

  • Reliance is on the collective, experiential knowledge and wisdom possessed by group members and not on outside professionals. No professional leads or directs the group as to how it should function. If it is a 12 Step group, the 12 Steps and the 12 Traditions of AA serve as a source of guidance for personal recovery and for how to run group.
  • Membership is free and voluntary. No fees are collected, no profit is sought, but members do voluntarily make small donations to cover rent etc. so that the group is self-supporting. The absence of professional fees and the “no profit” feature of self-help groups make them available to all who can physically attend.
  • Members share a common problem (Common concern) e.g. codependency, love addiction, adult ADHD, substance abuse, arthritis, or cancer to name but a few. The common problem is extremely important because it binds the group members together as nothing else can. This homogeneity of problem enhances empathy and identification between members which in turn tends to reduce shame. The result is that members of a self-help group feel comfortable sharing deeply personal feelings. Oneness of purpose is essential for a self-help group to survive.
  • Groups are self-governing, and democratic without any “leader”. This fosters self empowerment and leads to an increase in the member’s feelings of competency and ability to solve their own personal problems.
  • What is a self-help group meeting like? The format for running a self-help group varies greatly from completely free or unstructured to highly structured involving the use of a written format e.g. 12 Step groups use the 12 Steps and Traditions of AA. More specifically there are various kinds of meetings. The most frequent kind of meeting is a discussion meeting where some topic is introduced by the chair person for that night e.g. acceptance. At “Speaker Meetings” an individual group member is invited to share their story. In a “How was your week” meeting members share how their week went by. In all of these types of meetings members are encouraged to focus on their common concern and how they are learning useful strategies.

    FAQ about self-help groups. In working with clients in my practice who are considering going to a self-help group, the most common questions I get asked are:

    • Do I have to identify as an alcoholic or addict of some kind, etc.? Answer is no. If you would like to remain silent, just say “I would like to just listen tonight”. Your wish will be respected.
    • Do I have to subscribe to some religious belief? Answer is no if it is a 12 step group because one of the traditions is that such groups are spiritual not religious. And you are perfectly free to define your spiritual power any way you want. Lots of people use the group itself as their higher power.
    • What will I do if I see someone from my workplace or a family acquaintance at the meeting? Answer. It is up to you but remember they are there for the same reason you are. Also everything you see and hear at a meeting is confidential.

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