Despite many recovery experts and treatment professionals recommending participation in self-help or support groups, you still might wonder what you’re supposed to do when you attend these meetings, especially if you’re newly sober and just entering recovery.

To ease your mind and make the prospect of attending a meeting a little less intimidating, you should first know that self-help or support groups are welcoming, non-judgmental; everyone is there to encourage and support one another’s recovery efforts.

Still, walking up to a meeting for the first time, seeing people congregating outside, may seem a bit intimidating and make you wonder what, if anything, you’re expected to do once inside. Fear not. Newcomers will be welcomed with smiles and words of encouragement. You’ll also notice a lot of laughter in these so-called “rooms of recovery.” Laughter is a way to share how much everyone in the group relates to one another and also expresses relief that those who are now sober are no longer engaging in destructive behavior, to themselves or others.

After coffee and casual chatter, the meeting will be called to order. Often, a prayer or a saying will be recited by group attendees who wish to do so, or you can choose to remain silent. You don’t have to join in if this makes you feel uncomfortable.

The group leader will generally ask if there’s anyone attending for the first time (or the second or third time, sometimes). If this is your first self-help group meeting ever and you have 30 days or less of sobriety, you may be welcomed with a hearty hug. If you’re returning after a relapse or having missed meetings for some time, you might be given a “keep coming back” chip or coin. Meeting items may then be discussed, followed by individuals sharing their stories of recovery in brief three- to five-minute increments.

What should you do when you first start attending meetings? Maybe this is your first self-help group meeting outside of rehab and you don’t know anyone. Maybe you’re checking out a number of different meetings to find a group that makes you feel most at home. There’s really nothing you have to do but be there and listen.

It’s going to feel a little awkward and strange when you first start going to meetings. After all, this is something new and very different. Rest assured that you’ll gradually settle into the routine, and you’ll come to understand how meetings work and, more important, how they can help you with your recovery efforts and goals. Make sure to listen to the stories of others as they relate their personal recovery journey. You’ll hear what worked for them and this may spark an idea that you can use, too, to help you overcome a specific difficulty or problem. Suppose you’re having recurring urges and your coping skills aren’t enough to keep those cravings at bay. Hearing what proved effective for others may be just what you need to adapt your current tactics or adopt new ones.

What and when should you share? This will vary, since no one will think poorly of you if you aren’t ready to speak at a meeting. You could say, “I’d rather just listen for now,” or “I’ll pass on talking this time.” It’s perfectly fine to just be in the room and sit silently but attentively. You’ll find your voice and want to share at some point — everyone who’s committed to their recovery wants to be supportive of and supported by the group. That’s why these are called support group meetings, after all. Here are some ways you can get started at meetings without feeling pressured or out-of-place:

  • Go to a few different support group meetings to find one where you feel most comfortable.
  • Acknowledge those who welcome you with a smile and a hello. Don’t feel obligated to engage in small talk with people you don’t know.
  • Listen and be present. While attending a meeting, be fully there. Don’t allow your mind to wander to the next thing you have to do today or worry about something left undone, problems from the past or what’s on your agenda for tomorrow.
  • Respect the rules. There are few rules for self-help and support groups, but cardinal ones are that anonymity is guaranteed and what’s shared in the room stays in the room. In addiction, most meetings don’t permit “cross-talk,” which means directly addressing the comments of others.
  • Come to be supported and to support. Though it’s not an obligation, participation is highly encouraged — when you’re ready — for those who are eager to maintain their recovery. When you come to meetings, receive the support and encouragement that’s freely offered. Later, when you’ve spent some time in meetings and your recovery foundation is stronger you’ll be in the position to enthusiastically support other newcomers to sobriety.
  • Find a sponsor. Another reason why self-help group participation is recommended for your recovery is that it provides an opportunity to find a sponsor. This is the person from whom you’ll receive guidance and encouragement as you begin to work on your program to maintain sobriety. It may take some time to feel comfortable enough to approach someone to ask them to be your sponsor, so going to meetings is an excellent way to make that happen.
  • Keep going back. Remember that recovery works if you work it, so attend meetings as often as you need to help you gain your footing in sobriety and let others help you, too.

What You Might Get Out of 12-Step Meetings

Meetings provide a secure, readily available and consistent environment to continue to work on your recovery. In particular, these groups provide a support system that can offer stories of hope and reminders of the importance of working a recovery program. After all, in the context of recovery from addiction, support groups have a specific purpose: to allow recovering addicts to work on their recovery and help others do the same. It’s a place where hope and a sense of purpose can begin to grow, and then flourish.

Here are the primary reasons you might find attending meetings beneficial to your sobriety:

Shared experiences, strength and hope. In support groups, there’s a collective strength — a collaboration of like-minded individuals all pursuing recovery and willing to help others who desire a sober life as well. Here you’ll share experiences as well as provide encouragement and support to fellow group members.

Help when you need it. Early recovery in particular can be a perilous time. Cravings and urges can, and often do, surface at any time. When that happens you really need the support of others who’ve been down the same road. In support groups, there are people who will help you reinforce your commitment to sobriety at the same time as they continue to encourage your efforts to withstand and overcome early recovery pitfalls. Even if you’ve been clean and sober for some time, hearing stories of individuals who are new to the program or have relapsed can serve as reminders of the consequences of using again. Remember, addiction is a chronic disease, much like heart disease or diabetes, so you need to take steps to maintain your health even when you’re feeling strong.

A place to listen and learn. Where else can you get access to so many real-life tips and techniques about what works and what doesn’t in sobriety? Granted, not every strategy works for everyone or all the time, but there’s always something to learn by listening to others share how they successfully tackled common issues and setbacks.

No judgment. One thing you shouldn’t find in a meeting is any form of judgment; it’s simply not part of the philosophy. Instead, the focus should be on honesty, fellowship and a sincere willingness to help newcomers and others struggling with sobriety and trying to establish a firm foundation of recovery. If you don’t find this environment at first, however, it’s important to keep trying different meetings until you find the right match for you.

Meetings are free and available almost everywhere. If there’s not an in-person meeting near you when you need it you can almost certainly find one online.

Other support-group meetings that may prove worthwhile to attend are those geared toward specific addictions. These include Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Co-Dependents Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Heroin Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous and others.