Dos and Don’ts of Choosing a 12-Step Sponsor

Posted on June 25th, 2012

Drug rehab – check. Daily 12-Step meetings – check. What’s next on the list of recovery tasks? Most experts advise, "Get a sponsor." But why? And how?

Addicts helping addicts is part of what makes AA/NA so effective. Sponsorship involves one recovering addict walking another through the Steps and helping them stay sober. A sponsor is someone you call when you need emotional support or feel threatened by relapse. They will respond without judgment or criticism by teaching you the language of AA/NA, encouraging you to continue working your recovery program, providing emotional support by staying in regular contact and sharing their experience of recovery.

Working with a sponsor is like any relationship – it requires some navigating in order to be mutually beneficial. Here are a few dos and don’ts to follow when making this important decision:

DO Get a Sponsor
While it is true that not everyone needs a sponsor, most recovering addicts benefit from giving sponsorship a try. A sponsor is in the unique position to understand what you’ve been through and offer their friendship, advice and support when you need it most. There is no such thing as too much support, or too much accountability, in early recovery. Sponsorship guards against many of the problems that contribute to relapse, including isolation and dishonesty. If you’re willing to learn by working the Steps, a sponsor can be an important influence on your continuing sobriety.

DO Choose Wisely
Not all sponsors are an ideal match for a newcomer to AA/NA. Frankly, some should be avoided. Who you put your trust in during the vulnerable early stages of recovery can be critical for your continuing sobriety. Choose someone you relate to, who has had the type of recovery you respect and admire. Don’t shy away from someone who is honest and willing to confront dishonesty or diseased thinking.

The ideal sponsor has at least one year sober, preferably more, and has an active relationship with their own sponsor. In studies, the average sponsor had about 10 years of sobriety and AA attendance and was strongly affiliated with the AA program. While length of time clean is one factor, it is not the only one. Does your sponsor live the 12-Step principles in their own life? Do they already have a number of sponsees? Are they honest and open-minded?

DON’T Make a Rash Decision.
When choosing a sponsor, talk to a number of people and find out if they’re truly living by the program’s principles. Choosing the right match from the start can quickly get you on the road to recovery.

DO Establish and Respect Boundaries
A sponsor is another addict in recovery who is willing to share their experience. They are not an expert in all things. Do not rely on your sponsor for legal, financial, employment or relationship advice outside the scope of the 12-Step program. If they try to provide this type of advice, meddle in your personal life, make specific demands for your thinking or behavior, or try to convince you that they have all the answers, find a new sponsor. Do not, under any circumstances, get romantically involved with your sponsor. This is a set-up for relapse. Protect yourself by choosing a sponsor of the gender you’re not attracted to.

DO Seek Additional Help
A sponsor is not a therapist. They do not have special training; they are not perfect. They are simply fellow addicts in recovery. If you need guidance in other areas, which most recovering addicts do, it is a good idea to see an individual therapist.

DON’T Hesitate to Change Sponsors, if Necessary.
Like all relationships, the sponsor-sponsee combination must be mutually rewarding. Someone who is inspirational and caring in the early stages of recovery may not be as effective when you’re more grounded in your sobriety and need a different type of guidance. It is also possible for sponsors to relapse, in which case finding a new sponsor, at least for the time being, is strongly advisable.

If you feel that your sponsor is not a match for you – not because they are honest and forthright, but because you don’t feel safe or comfortable with them or your philosophies are dramatically different – talk to a few other sponsors and see if there’s a stronger connection. While a change of sponsor is sometimes necessary, be sure you’re not giving up on a worthy mentor just because loving confrontation can be difficult to take or because addictive thinking is causing you to sabotage your recovery.

When you look back on your recovery 5, 10, 20 years down the road, your 12-Step sponsor is likely someone who will stand out as an important part of your journey. Even when your recovery is firmly grounded and you are confident in yourself, your sponsor may continue to be a lifelong friend. They may even be the person you emulate if and when you become a sponsor yourself.

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