Recovery presents joy and challenge in competing measures. This battle to regain control of one’s life does not have one linear path. Rather, it’s a series of twisting, convoluted choices that hopefully end up cobbling together a healthier, happier way of living. But most of those meandering paths to sobriety include some form of backsliding. Regression back into using takes many forms. But every backslide doesn’t necessarily indicate a headlong tumble to rock bottom. Depending on who you ask, hiccups in recovery may always be labeled as a full-blown “relapse” (we’re looking at you, Alcoholics Anonymous). But others argue that gray areas exist, and that not all slip ups or bumps in the road need to be called a relapse. So, is there a difference between backslide vs. relapse?

Backslide vs. Relapse

It Depends Where You are in Recovery

We find the most vulnerable among us in early recovery. At this stage, we rarely possess the self-awareness and perspective to judge our own slip ups. That’s why AA’s policy of total abstinence works so well with people in early recovery. When there’s no gray area, it’s pretty simple to force your way forward into a clean and sober lifestyle. A minor backslide won’t escalate into a full-blown relapse if it doesn’t happen in the first place.

But what about once you’ve successfully gotten your life back on track for a few years? That same minor backslide may act as a rude awakening rather than temptation to backslide further. And labeling a successful wakeup call as a “relapse” may or may not help keep your recovery on the right track.

Prioritizing Failure as Guidance

Most treatment centers follow AA’s 12 Step model to some degree. Simply put, its wisdom offers a better way forward for most people who struggle with substance abuse. And one of AA’s core tenets is acceptance of failure as a tool for accountability.

Backsliding behavior indicates a threat to our health and happiness. AA takes the position that there is no difference between backsliding vs. relapse. That differentiating between the two only muddies the waters and prevents us from taking accountability. And for many who have suffered with crippling chemical dependency, that black-and-white approach offers the best formula for a happy and healthy life.

When Discouragement Snowballs

However, not all of us respond to the same incentives. Ownership of backsliding works to motivate people who don’t take it too personally, or who have a strong support system in place. But for some, the word “relapse” can do more harm than good.

The sense of forward or backward momentum affects some people’s choices more than others. And when it comes to addiction, it’s easy to fall prey to the “all or nothing” mentality.

Backslides are scary. Period. But is it really a full-blown relapse if you have a minor, isolated incident a few years into your sobriety? When it comes to the long game of recovery, the semantics of “backslide vs. relapse” don’t really matter as much as your trajectory going forward.

One Day at a Time: Decision Fatigue

One of the most well-known adages of Alcoholics Anonymous is, “One day at a time.” This phrase acts as a shorthand reminder that focusing on the present cuts out a lot of unnecessary worry and stress. When you’re only responsible for your sobriety through the end of the day, you don’t need to worry about defining the difference between backsliding and relapsing.

Our days are full enough without having to constantly make choices about our sobriety. “Was that glass of champagne at my cousin’s wedding just a moment of weakness? Or did I relapse?” Decision fatigue such as this is a real psychological phenomenon that can be detrimental to sobriety.

decision fatigue

psychological phenomenon


Deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of irrational trade-offs in decision making.

So if you sit around worrying about past bad decisions, you risk compromising the quality of decisions going forward. That sums up a lot of the wisdom behind one day at a time.

Backslide vs. Relapse: Being Fair to Yourself

Rather than worrying about the difference between a backslide vs. relapse, consider why you ask that question in the first place. Are you concerned that small mistakes foreshadow larger ones? That kind of mindset fosters dangerous discouragement. Throwing up your hands at a small mistake easily leads to a hefty case of the “eff it“s.

So if you’re here asking yourself if it’s okay to parse mistakes, our answer is conditional:

  • Always admit to yourself that, at the very least, you slipped up or had a bump in the road.
  • Take ownership of your mistakes with the intention of being fair to yourself.
  • Whether you call it backslide vs. relapse, don’t downplay regression in recovery. 

Participating in a therapeutic program for recovery helps establish a foundation to address these sorts of questions. AA meetings help as well. If you or a loved one is seeking treatment for a substance abuse problem, our addiction counselors are available 24/7 over the phone: 855-737-7363