What is a Sponsor?

Recovery Tools

A sponsor is someone who is in active recovery and has had success working the program.

They’re working the steps, attending meetings regularly, and have found some serenity. Basically, you want what they have – because of their recovery.

They can listen, reason things out, and sometimes make suggestions that might be helpful. They walk their talk and are willing to share their experience, strength, and hope.

This is very important in the first few years of recovery when learning how to live sober and confront the past is necessary for continued sobriety.

What does a sponsor do?

  • A sponsor is a senior member of AA or NA who has been in recovery for usually at least a year. Sponsors help you navigate membership, answer questions, work on the 12-steps, and offer accountability.
  • A sponsor is also a confidant who understands where you have been. You can confide in your sponsor what you may not be comfortable sharing at meetings. Or, further discuss, things you have brought up in meetings but that you feel like you need to unpack more outside of the limited time frame.
  • AA, CMA, HA, CA, MARA, MA and NA outline the sponsor relationship in their literature. Although possibly slightly different, the core of the sponsor relationship remains the same for every 12-Step program.

According to studies, sponsorship leads to better treatment outcomes, and those in 12-Step programs with a sponsor have better attendance and more involvement in the group.

What does a sponsor NOT do?

  • A sponsor is not your therapist. You will not receive professional help from a sponsor. A sponsor should not impose his or her personal views on you. A sponsor is also usually not a close friend or a romantic partner.
  • For the sponsor-sponsee relationship to be successful objectivity and honesty are important. Close friendships or romantic relationships can make this very difficult to achieve. It’s best if your sponsor is someone you respect and trust but not someone with whom you have a long-standing personal relationship.

Some people prefer a sponsor of the same gender or who has a similar backstory, but this isn’t always necessary for a good sponsor-sponsee relationship. Sometimes a new perspective is beneficial, too.

All that matters is you are comfortable with your sponsor. Remember, all sponsors are temporary. You or your sponsor are free to end the relationship at any time for any reason. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you do so in person. Set boundaries and respect the end of the relationship. Always remember to thank your sponsor. If your sponsorship relationship ends, do not dwell on it. You can always find a new sponsor, or potentially move into a sponsor role for another person.

What do I do as a sponsee?

  • Always show up to meetings with your sponsor. If you do have to cancel, make sure to give your sponsor advanced notice.
  • Keep calls to a minimum. Set up boundaries with your sponsor in the beginning. When is the best time to call, morning or night? Would your sponsor prefer to communicate via email or text? Respect your sponsor’s wishes and privacy.
  • Do the work. As you work through the 12-Steps, you may have homework to do between meetings with your sponsor. Always make a full effort to do the work.
  • Limit sharing too much personal information with your sponsor. Try to talk primarily about addiction, recovery, and the 12-Steps. Remember, your sponsor is not your therapist. Your sponsor is a mentor and guide to work with you, but your sponsor will not have all the answers.

How can I find a sponsor?

At the end of many AA or NA meetings, the leader will ask people interested in being a sponsor to raise their hands. If this doesn’t happen at the meeting you attend, you can also let your group know that you are looking for a sponsor. You can also approach someone in your group one-on-one before or after a meeting. Don’t take it personally if the person turns you down. Their reasons may have nothing to do with you. Perhaps the person feels he or she does not have the time to dedicate to be a good sponsor. Be persistent!

What should be considered when choosing a sponsor?

Take into account the amount of time a potential sponsor been sober.

A general rule of thumb is that someone who volunteers to sponsor others should have at least one year of sobriety. This is suggested because it proves the potential sponsor is working on a program that helps maintain sobriety, and will, therefore, be able to pass on that type of program to a sponsee. A newly sober person should not sponsor another newly sober person because both are fresh into the world of sobriety. Someone who has been sober a substantial amount of time has more insight into what sobriety is really like after the initial months.

Consider the sex of your sponsor.

It is often suggested that women should sponsor women and men should sponsor men. For many, it is more natural and comfortable to speak to someone of the same sex when it comes to sensitive and sometimes private information exchanged in a sponsor and sponsee relationship. Same-sex sponsorship also limits the likelihood of romantic entanglement, which can be distracting from sobriety and recovery.

Examine a potential sponsor’s sobriety.

Do they have a sponsor themselves? Do they work the 12 steps? Do they seem happy and content with sobriety and outside life? If the answers to these questions are yes, your potential sponsor is likely the right person for the role because a good sponsor should practice what he/she preaches.

Consider how many other sponsees he/she has.

While it’s a good sign if a potential sponsor has other sponsees, consider how many they have. If it’s more than two or three, it’s possible it would be a better option to find another potential sponsor who has fewer sponsees and can devote more time to each.

Find someone who has what you want.

If you attend AA meetings often, you’ve likely heard this advice. If someone seems content with their sobriety and happy in other areas of life like work, school, and relationships, they’re probably working a strong program and would mentor you in doing the same.

Make sure your potential sponsor actually wants to be a sponsor.

Just because someone is sober and has been in the program for some time does not automatically mean they are willing to be a sponsor. Some are not comfortable with this idea yet, regardless of how long they’ve been sober. Typically, in 12-step meetings, there will be a point when potential sponsors raise their hands. Take note of this so as not to approach someone who is not comfortable being a sponsor.

Consider how you will approach your potential sponsor.

Often, this is done after a meeting by simply asking, “Would you be my sponsor?” However, though the best approach, that can be scary for some people. If the thought of approaching someone in person frightens you, utilize the phone list from the meeting and text or call a potential sponsor instead. If they’re willing to be a sponsor, most of the time their answer will be yes.

For many, sponsorship is a vital part of 12-step recovery. By following the above guidelines, you may be more likely to find success with a long-term sponsor.

9 qualities to look for in a sponsor.

  • They Are Happily Sober: If a sponsor is there to answer your questions about recovery, then they must have been through the same experience themselves. Ideally a sponsor is someone that has been sober for at least one year, and has completed all twelve steps. Some experts recommend choosing a sponsor that has successfully completed five years of sobriety.

  • They ‘Pay Attention’-at meetings, they are not saving seats and ignoring who is walking in the door-Are they supportive and encouraging?

  • They Are Not Sexually Attractive: A sponsor is there as an impartial party that you can trust. They should never be in it for any other reason than to help another addict achieve sobriety. Sex introduces a lot of complications, and for that reason it is better to select a sponsor of the same gender – or the opposite for homosexuals.

  • They Listen More Than They Talk: The sponsor is there to encourage the newcomer’s integration into the program. They are not your therapist, boss or clergy member. They are there to answer your questions about sobriety, not to treat co-occurring conditions, preach personal beliefs or order you around.

  • They reason things out, and sometimes make suggestions that might be helpful. They walk their talk and are willing to share their experience, strength and hope.

  • They Display a Positive Attitude: Obviously a person that maintains a poor attitude towards sobriety is a bad choice for AA sponsorship. They should also have a positive mindset about your recovery, and offer reinforcement as needed. For example, they will encourage you to participate in group activities, or identify common mistakes made by newcomers.

  • You Met Them at a Meeting: This may seem like a no brainer, but don’t pick up an AA sponsor at the bar, ball game or beach. The best place to find fully integrated members is at recovery meetings.

  • They Have Enough Time: Substance abuse, personality disorders and addiction don’t follow a work schedule. You have to find a sponsor that has enough time to talk to you throughout the week, and can promptly return your messages. That means picking someone who doesn’t already have several sponsees.

  • You Don’t Dread Contacting Them: Overall your sponsor is someone that the newcomer can trust and relate to throughout the process of recovery. If your instincts tell you something isn’t right, or you literally dread picking up the phone to talk to your sponsor, it is okay to seek out a new one. AA has rules in place for such situations.

  • They are not Counselors or Therapists:  Sponsors are peers; counselors or therapists who step into the role of a sponsor cross therapeutic boundaries and are  creating enduring relationships, which are not appropriate, even if the sponsee is not directly served by the counselor.  It is never OK for a therapist or counselor to take on the role of a sponsor.   

Finding a sponsor can be awkward. It may take more than one try. But remember that the program is there to provide a foundation for other addicts in the same place they once were, and they want to help you. In the end, sponsorship is an important relationship that is paramount to successful recovery through 12-step programs.

Every sponsor isn’t compatible with each person in recovery, and it often takes some trial and error before discovering the “right fit,” which can delay the support needed to fight drugs or alcohol. While having the right sponsor is a crucial asset, connecting with the wrong one will likely damage a person’s recovery. Relapse is a common threat for people struggling with addiction, and poor sponsorship can greatly hinder progress towards sobriety.

These 10 warning signs can help determine you have the wrong sponsor:

  1. Your sponsor talks more about him or herself than about you.

  2. Your sponsor has a cynical or pessimistic attitude.

  3. Your sponsor has trouble finding time for you.

  4. Your sponsor agrees with you when you blame your problems on other people.

  5. Your sponsor doesn’t return your messages promptly.

  6.  Your sponsor is rigid in his or her approach.

  7. Your sponsor tries to psycho-analyze you.

  8. Your sponsor isn’t a good listener.

  9. Your sponsor asks you to run his or her personal errands.

  10. Your instincts tell you that he or she isn’t the right sponsor for you.

Having the wrong sponsor can disrupt recovery and should be addressed as soon as possible. Addiction recovery is a life-long process of dedication and hard work, and resources, like a solid sponsor, can help provide the important support needed to learn to live free from addiction.

In 12 step recovery, people may get confused about what it means to have a sponsor versus having a therapist. Put some thought into picking your “support posse” because they will be vital to the quality of your recovery! 

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