Recovery and Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Addiction treatment help in New Hampshire

“What lies behind us and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I spent the better part of 15 years not getting sober but “trying.” Being a troubled child raised in a broken home, I also entered therapy as a child before the attempts at sobriety. There were many therapists and many sponsors. Both at the beginning of my first stent of recovery that lasted over a decade this most recent chapter of just now over a year some consistencies were present both times. It is also true that in the dozens of unsuccessful attempts patterns can be seen as well. They say success leaves clues, I would add, so does failure. It appears that successfully using either recovery or therapy for addiction comes down to the effort of the client or sponsee assuming the clinician, modality and or the step work process are equally on par.

But what about the purpose of each? Are they the same? Do they look to garner the same result? Lets first look at some definitions. According to Merriam Webster, these are the applicable definitions of both:

Definition of Therapy
A) A remedial treatment of a mental or bodily disorder.
B) An agency (as treatment) designed or serving to bring about rehabilitation or social adjustment.

Definition of Recovery
The process of combating a disorder (such as alcoholism) or a real or perceived problem.


Diagnosis: Only a professional gives a diagnosis in the therapeutic process.

Process: After diagnosis, the professional selects a modality with which to address the condition. There are many. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (also known as CBT) is one of the most popular. As explained in Psychology Today, “Cognitive behavioral therapy emphasizes the role our thoughts play in how we feel. Even if stressful external situations don’t change, changing how we think about them can prevent a negative emotional response such as depression. The therapist’s role is to help patients be more rational in their assessment of such situations and not make unwarranted worst-case-scenario assumptions about them.”

Result: Through a series of conversations and suggested assignments, the client learns of cognitive distortions that are used against himself. These are commonly referred to as defense mechanisms like rationalization, denial, minimalization, and black and white thinking. This is an overgeneralization, of course, being that there are so many types of therapies. Often time childhood is looked at to see the source of some of the false thinking that leads to such harmful patterns. By increasing self-awareness, the client gets a chance to deploy new methods given by the therapist to draw better more accurate conclusions and change their behavior. In therapy, understanding comes before action.


Diagnosis: The person in recovery must diagnose themselves after being given the proper explanation of the illness. This is where a sponsor steps in and the definition as per recovery is shared. The threefold disease being physical, mental and spiritual is the rule.

Process: Through a series of actions, after detoxed, the problem is addressed. These actions are spiritual in nature, focusing not just on the mind, but the spiritual aspect as well. There are a taken from many traditions but primarily Christianity, although there is no religious requirement. This process includes prayer, meditation, confession, inventory, amends, and helping others as external practices. Internal practices include such concepts as surrender, acceptance, faith, and hope that are practiced as a way to change consciousness.

Result: Through a series of actions taken, the sponsee begins to exhibit a different system of thoughts that leads to changed actions. It’s commonly referred to as a “psychic change.” In recovery, action comes before understanding, or more accurate, experiencing.

CONCLUSION: As can be easily seen when both processes are subjectively put side by side, they are very different but share significant similarities. Both require a willing participant to be honest and actively engaged. Both need trust in the helper and the process on the participant’s side. What stands out as the most significant difference is that the key of the therapeutic process leans on the mind and the key on the recovery process leans on a Higher Power.

Does this make one better than the other? No, just different, and likely for different purposes. Many addicts and alcoholics suffer trauma and abuse, some self-imposed, some not. Therapy is the most effective process for digging down to the root of this and starting the healing process. Some won’t even be able to take advantage of the step process until this work begins, others will bypass this and find it necessary later for continuous happy sobriety. Each is different, some may not need therapy at all.

I once heard, the difference between therapy and recovery is that in therapy we sit and talk under the belief that when our thinking changes our actions will change. In recovery its the opposite, someone tells us to do something we may not want to, but we do it. As a result of the new actions, our experience changes, and our understanding follows. I have benefited from both in very different ways. There can never be too much healing.

If you or a loved one are in need of substance abuse therapy and/or recovery, contact us at GateHouse. We are available to you 24/7 at (855) 448-3588.

GateHouse Treatment Editorial Staff
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