Why is Alcoholics Anonymous so cliquey?

Inevitably, someone who is considering the steps necessary to achieve a life of sobriety will encounter groups based on a model promulgated by Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite their anonymity, AA is undoubtedly the most famous group meeting organization in the United States. Cultural icons such as Roger Ebert and Owen Wilson have both been members at one time.

Yet many individuals who attend AA meetings for the first time can feel uncomfortable with the proceedings that they encounter. This partly is down to the “cliquey” feel that many AA groups seem to have regardless of their location. To understand why Alcoholics Anonymous is like this, it is important to consider what AA does and how it does it.

Firstly, Alcoholics Anonymous gives many people a “cliquey” impression because there is a certain about of oneupmanship present in any organization where seniority is respected and even celebrated. Anyone who has read about the culture of the military knows this to be true.

To wit, there will always be someone with more life experience than other members at any given AA meeting. This person may have been addicted to substances for longer than other members; they may have been in recovery longer than other members; they may have lost more in life than other members; they may simply be older and more experienced than other members.

However you look at it, members like these tend to be given an aura of superiority in AA culture. The same is true in many organizations: Often, more respect is given to “true blue” members than to new recruits. For this reason, adjusting to the in-jokes and subtle cultural cues expressed by long-term members can feel overwhelming and extremely off-putting to individuals seeking to discover more about AA.

Secondly, AA is unique in recovery circles because of its deep connections to Christianity. Even if not overtly Christian in its message, a typical AA meeting will call on its members to get in touch with their “higher power” to achieve a sober lifestyle. As an organization with deep roots in Christian orthodoxy, many AA meetings also take place in local churches. These religious undertones in any given meeting (even if not explicitly stated during proceedings) can give AA meet-ups a feeling of religious ritual, and such rituals tend to create a culture that values insiders over outsiders.

For a person just starting on their road to recovery, this spiritual dimension of AA and its “us vs. them” mentality can be very hard to cope with. For people whose religious views do not square with those of other AA members, meetings can begin to feel like attending a social club without being a member of that club. Recovery is a difficult process, and no one wants to add extra stress to an already challenging period of life.

Thirdly, Alcoholics Anonymous is a very isolated community that exists in a kind of bubble within society. Many members are in the process of rebuilding their lives after a struggle with addiction, and many more are actively trying to put lessons they’ve learned in AA into use in their daily lives.

This is partly why it is so easy to spot someone who is currently going to AA meetings even when they do not explicitly mention that they attend such meetings. The language of AA often centers around personal accountability and a connection to a higher power; many members infuse their speech with mentions of such values.

In itself, this emphasis on personal accountability is not a bad thing, and many AA members become remarkably responsible and honest parents, spouses, and citizens during their time with the organization. But the esoteric lingo and attitudes of Alcoholics Anonymous can also set “true blue” members apart from non-members.

Fourthly, AA is not an organization that a person tends to pass through for a year or two before moving on to a new stage of life. For a high school student, there is an expectation that one’s school years are a temporary period through which one will eventually pass on to new things.

Because a healthy approach to addiction is a lifelong project, however, a person who joins AA may feel that they are making something of a lifelong commitment to the organization. The social connections that a person makes in AA can be intense. It may be very difficult to leave AA after putting so much on the line with other people.

In any scenario, in fact, that kind of commitment might seem off-putting and even scary. (For new members, dealing with AA “lifers” can be extremely intimidating for this reason.) Of course, this state of affairs runs counter to our notions of what living with sobriety should be. People who want to change their lives for the better should be supported and greeted with open arms. Sadly, that is not always the case for people who are new to Alcoholics Anonymous. To really feel accepted, many people must “earn their stripes” to belong to the group.

With that being said, it is worth noting that AA does seem to work for many people. And AA is far from the only game in town; other meeting groups do exist.

For many people, finding a system that works should be the real goal during a period of recovery: Whether that involves regular meetings with AA groups or a more individualized approach is a highly personal decision.

If you or someone you know feels ready to make the vital step towards sobriety, call 833-820-2922. Change is never easy, but our counselors are always here to help guide you or your loved ones through this challenging process.