One central reason people in recovery feel safe enough to be honest sharing how they feel in 12-Step meetings is the principle of anonymity. Simply put, participants agree that what’s shared in meetings stays there. What people say isn’t to be repeated on the outside. It works because it’s a reciprocal: I know I can rely on anonymity for what I say because the people who are listening rely on me to keep what they say confidential.
Anonymity also extends to others’ very presence in meetings. 12-Step members don’t tell anyone outside of the program that others are in it. (Whenever I’m asked how I know certain people in the program by people who aren’t in the program, I say, “We have mutual friends.”)
Originally, the anonymity component of Alcoholics Anonymous was born of apprehension. The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous states: “Though ex-drinkers, we still thought we had to hide from public distrust and contempt.” Another concern was that unless the early AAs remained anonymous, they’d be overrun with appeals for help they weren’t capable of meeting. A third, that intimate details of a member’s past, meant only to be shared with a sponsor, might be revealed, break the bonds of trust so necessary for recovery, and cause great personal harm. A fourth anxiety was over publicity: that public representatives of AA might relapse, discrediting their message and the fellowship; and that some early adherents “changed from AA members into AA show-offs,” hungry for personal renown.
On the other hand, total anonymity wasn’t practical. Most new members wanted their families, spiritual advisors and close friends to be aware of their sobriety and support it. And how could sober alcoholics fulfill the 12th Step, carrying the message to other alcoholics, without sacrificing some anonymity?
“Our growth,” the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions concluded, “made it plain that we couldn’t be a secret society, but it was equally plain that we couldn’t be a vaudeville circuit, either. The charting of a safe path between these extremes took a long time.”
At the root of anonymity as currently practiced by AA is the importance of humility and sacrifice, giving up personal desires for the overall good. The principles of AA must always take precedence over any individual’s interests. Humility and fellowship is best served by anonymity.
The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions states that a member’s name and story “had to be confidential if he wished.” But the extent of anonymity, like the entire program (which is a “suggested” program of recovery and not a “required” one), remains an individual decision.