The Five Rules of Recovery

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Throughout my years as an addiction counsellor, I’ve seen the transformative journey of recovery up close. Although everyone’s story is unique, there are common principles I’ve observed that apply universally. The five rules of recovery, as outlined by Steven M. Melemis, are these common principles:

  1. Change your life to make it easier to avoid using.
  2. Seek help and build a support network of family, friends, health professionals, and recovery groups.
  3. Be completely honest with yourself and your support network.
  4. Prioritize self-care.
  5. Avoid bending the rules or negotiating your recovery path.

I’ve seen countless times how straying from these guidelines can lead to stalled progress and eventual relapse. It’s a stark reminder that recovery is an ongoing process that demands vigilance, commitment, and a willingness to continually engage with these life-saving principles.

The path isn’t always easy, but adherence to these rules can be the difference between a life constrained by addiction and one that’s free and full of potential.

Change Your Life

Recovery is not merely about abstaining from one’s addiction; it’s about fundamentally transforming your lifestyle as it relates to the addiction. This comprehensive change is crucial because addiction often intertwines with the fabric of your daily life, habits, and social circles.

Embrace a New Lifestyle

First and foremost, recognizing that recovery extends beyond stopping the substance or behavior itself is vital. It’s about reevaluating and reshaping your daily life and routines. This might mean reassessing how you spend your free time or reconsidering who you spend it with. It’s about filling your life with activities and interests that support your well-being and don’t revolve around the addiction.

Create Distance from Triggers

A significant part of this transformation involves distancing yourself from places, people, and situations associated with past use. This might mean avoiding certain social settings or even taking a different route home to bypass places that trigger cravings. It’s not about isolation; it’s about protecting your recovery journey.

Find New Passions

Discovering new activities and interests that are not related to the addiction is crucial. Whether it’s picking up a new hobby, learning a skill, or volunteering, these new pursuits can offer a sense of purpose and fulfillment that the addiction once falsely promised.

Structure Your Day

Creating a structured schedule is another cornerstone of changing your life. Structure helps manage the unpredictability and chaos that often accompany addiction. It can provide a sense of normalcy and stability, which is incredibly soothing during the tumultuous times of recovery.

Cultivate Supportive Relationships

Lastly, seeking out and nurturing positive, supportive relationships is essential. Recovery can feel lonely at times, and having a network of friends and family who encourage your recovery can make all the difference. These relationships can offer both accountability and a reminder of what you’re fighting for.

In all, this rule is about building a life where the healthier choice is also the easier choice. It’s a journey of rediscovery, where you learn to live a fulfilling life without reliance on alcohol, substances, or gambling. Remember, it’s not just about subtracting the negative influences; it’s about adding meaningful, positive experiences and relationships that support your new life.

Be Completely Honest

In my role as an addiction counselor, one of the most powerful truths I share with those embarking on the path to recovery is the critical importance of honesty. This principle goes beyond simply not lying; it’s about embracing vulnerability and openness as the bedrock upon which recovery is built.

Embrace Vulnerability

Admitting past behaviors and mistakes to yourself and others is a daunting, yet liberating step. It requires confronting uncomfortable truths about one’s actions and their consequences. This level of self-awareness is the first step towards genuine change.

Acknowledge the Impact

Recognizing the reality of your addiction and its ripple effects on your life and the lives of those around you is crucial. It’s about seeing the full picture, the hurt, and the harm, not to dwell in guilt, but to understand the necessity of change.

Truth in All Dealings

Being truthful in all your dealings, not just about the addiction, establishes a foundation of integrity. It’s about rebuilding trust, piece by piece, starting with the small truths.

Share Your Journey

Opening up to a trusted person or support group about your thoughts and feelings is a vital step in breaking the isolation that addiction often brings. Sharing your journey can lighten your burden and connect you with others who understand.

Build Trust and Relationships

Honesty is the key to building and repairing relationships. It’s about showing up as your true self, flaws and all, and allowing others to do the same. This mutual vulnerability fosters deep, authentic connections that are essential for sustained recovery.

In essence, honesty in recovery is about stripping away the facades and facing the world, and oneself, with authenticity. It’s not always easy, but the path to recovery is paved with the truth. It’s a journey worth taking, filled with challenges, yes, but also with profound growth and healing.

Ask for Help

Understanding that addiction is not a moral failing but a complex disease is the first step towards healing. It requires a network of support, from professionals, peers in recovery, and loved ones.

Acknowledge the Need for Help

Recognizing the need for external assistance is often a pivotal moment in one’s recovery process. Addiction is a formidable foe, one that alters the brain’s wiring and affects one’s behavior profoundly. It’s not something that can be battled alone or through sheer willpower. Acknowledging this need is a sign of strength and the first step towards reclaiming your life.

Connect with Self-Help and Recovery Groups

Engaging with self-help and recovery groups such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous), or other similar communities can provide a sense of belonging and understanding. These groups offer a platform to share experiences, gain insights, and receive encouragement from others who are walking the same path.

Lean on Family and Friends

The support of family and friends is invaluable. Their love and encouragement can provide the strength needed to continue the journey, even when it feels insurmountable. Opening up to them, letting them in on your struggles, and accepting their support can fortify your resolve and provide a cushion against the hardships of recovery.

Get Professional Help

There are times when the expertise of addiction counselors, therapists, or medical professionals is necessary. Whether it’s for detoxification, therapy, or medication-assisted treatment, professional help can address the physiological and psychological aspects of addiction in ways that self-help groups and familial support cannot.

Strength in Vulnerability

Asking for help, contrary to common misconceptions, is not a weakness. It’s a profound act of courage. It’s admitting that you’re human and that you don’t have all the answers. This vulnerability is where true strength lies, for it opens the door to healing and recovery.

In my experience, the journey of recovery is as much about healing the spirit as it is about healing the body. It’s about rebuilding trust, not just with others, but with oneself. Asking for help, embracing support, and connecting with others on the same path is not just advisable; it’s essential.

Practice Self-Care

Beyond just about abstaining from substances; recovery is about nurturing your entire being—body, mind, and spirit. This comprehensive approach to self-care is foundational for a sustainable recovery.

Nurture Your Physical Health

Taking care of your body through balanced nutrition, regular physical activity, and adequate rest is crucial. These elements act as the physical foundation upon which recovery is built, providing the energy and strength needed to navigate the challenges of this journey.

Manage Stress Constructively

Finding healthy outlets for stress, such as meditation, yoga, or engaging in hobbies, can transform the recovery experience. These practices not only reduce stress but also enhance mental clarity and emotional resilience, key components for maintaining sobriety.

Establish and Maintain Boundaries

Setting clear boundaries is essential to protect your recovery. It’s about knowing your limits and communicating them to others, ensuring that you stay true to your path and avoid situations that might compromise your progress. People pleasing only builds resentment and resentment is one of the biggest contributors to relapse.

Celebrate and Forgive

Acknowledging your successes, no matter how small, fosters a positive outlook and reinforces your commitment to recovery. Equally important is forgiving yourself for any setbacks. Recovery is a journey with inevitable ups and downs; self-compassion is your compass through both. Just as you wouldn’t verbally abuse a friend who slipped in their recovery, speaking with yourself in this unkind way is not useful either.

Make Self-Care a Priority

Ensuring that self-care remains a priority in your life is perhaps the most critical aspect. It’s a daily commitment to yourself, a declaration that you are worth the effort and that your recovery matters.

Self-care in recovery is an act of self-love. It’s a daily practice that nurtures your body, calms your mind, and rejuvenates your spirit. By making self-care a cornerstone of your recovery, you create a resilient foundation capable of withstanding the challenges of this life-changing journey.

Don’t Bend the Rules

In my experience as an addiction counselor, I’ve seen how crucial it is to adhere strictly to your recovery plan. This steadfastness isn’t about rigidity; it’s about safeguarding your journey to sobriety. Looking for loopholes or bending the rules can seem harmless at first glance, but it’s a perilous slope that can easily lead you back into old patterns.

Stick to Your Plan

Following your recovery plan without compromise means not allowing yourself to find excuses to veer off path. It’s about commitment, even when it’s challenging, even when part of you looks for an out.

The Danger of Rationalization

Rationalizing or justifying actions that could lead to a relapse is a common pitfall. It’s essential to catch these thoughts early and confront them. Remember, every justification is a step away from your goals.

Commitment to Recovery Goals

Your recovery goals are your beacon. Maintaining a commitment to these goals means constantly reminding yourself why you started this journey and what you’re working towards. It’s about prioritizing your health and well-being above all else.

Avoid the Slippery Slope

Recognize that bending the rules, even slightly, opens the door to old habits and behaviors. It’s a slippery slope that quickly leads back to previous levels of usage. Acknowledging this danger is crucial in maintaining the integrity of your recovery.

Focus on the Long Term

Staying focused on long-term recovery means understanding there are no shortcuts. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. It requires patience, perseverance, and a steadfast commitment to the process, day in and day out.

In sum, not bending the rules is about respecting the journey you’re on and the person you’re becoming.


Time and again, I’ve seen individuals who strayed from these guidelines find themselves facing eventual relapse. These principles—changing your life, being honest, asking for help, practicing self-care, and not bending the rules—are not just theoretical concepts; they are practical, actionable steps that pave the way to a lasting recovery.

When these are overlooked or ignored, the journey to sobriety becomes significantly harder, often leading back to square one. It’s a stark reminder that recovery is a comprehensive process, demanding a holistic commitment. Embracing these principles fully offers not just a path away from addiction, but a roadmap to a new, fulfilling life.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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