What is a Sponsor in Recovery?

sponsor sponsee talking outside

Sponsorship is an integral part of any 12-step recovery program. Most people begin by simply attending meetings and for some, that may be all they ever do. It is important to understand however that going to meetings alone does not constitute “working a program”. In terms of the 12-step recovery programs, the work is in the steps themselves. And to work the steps, you need a sponsor.

What is a Sponsor?

Simply put, the role of a sponsor here is to take you through the 12 steps. A sponsor will provide guidance and may ask you to read certain sections of text or to do some writing or journaling along the way. The purpose is to help you gain a greater understanding of the meaning of each step as you take it. It is the sponsor’s responsibility to help you understand the steps and to encourage you to think, ask questions and engage the material. Doing step work is intended to introduce new ways of thinking and generate insights. A large part of it is about understanding your own behavior and thinking and learning how to change for the better. You should feel comfortable being honest with your sponsor, and you should feel you can trust them implicitly. Trust and honesty are essential for the sponsor-sponsee relationship to work.

What a Sponsor Isn’t

A sponsor is not a therapist or a marriage counselor. A sponsor is non-professional. They may give you advice, but their primary role should always be focused on the literature of the program you are in. Ideally, there should be a clear separation between what is simply their opinion and what is actually in the literature. An effective sponsor will more often try to lead you to find your own answers in the literature and program. An effective sponsor will ask you just as many questions as you ask them. Their role is as a guide through the material and in working your steps. They may share wisdom and insight they have picked up along the way, but a sponsor is not a guru or a saint. They are not infallible. A sponsor isn’t your “higher power”. You should not choose a friend or a buddy as a sponsor. You should not choose an employee of a treatment facility you attended. You should not choose your employer or superior at work. The primary relationship should be sponsee (you) and sponsor (them). Any other relationship dynamic can potentially complicate matters. Steer clear of people who do not exhibit humility and do not put the program, literature and higher power first. Avoid narcissists and blowhards.

How to Choose a Sponsor

In most cases, you will find your sponsor through the meetings and fellowship. A great place to start is simply by listening. Listen to people who speak at the meetings. Look for people who demonstrate the qualities you aspire to in yourself. That means spiritual and character qualities. Honesty. Integrity. Virtue. Humility. Not the guy or girl who drives the nicest car or has the most impressive career. A sponsor should have worked all 12 steps and should have a sponsor of their own. Time in recovery is relevant, but not as relevant as character and knowledge of the program. You are likely better off with a sponsor with 3 years who applies the principles of the program in their life and knows the material than a sponsor who has been going to meetings for 20 years but does not work a serious program. Take care in choosing a sponsor, but do not spend months without one trying to find the “perfect fit”. You have the right to choose another sponsor if the first one does not work out. Just keep your focus on the primary purpose of a sponsor. It is to introduce you to the program, take you through the 12 steps and inspire thought and insight. Choose a person who you believe is of good character and will do a good job of those things for you.

In Conclusion

The relationship between sponsor and sponsee is a sacred one. You must be able to tell your sponsor things in complete confidence. Your sponsor should be someone you respect and trust. Remember that your primary goal in a 12-step program should be to work all 12-steps to the best of your ability. Meetings are about fellowship and support. They are an important part of the program, but they are not the program itself. Get a sponsor. Work all 12-steps. That is what 12-step recovery is at its core.

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