Popular 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous highly recommend that members find a sponsor to guide them through the recovery process — and with good reason.
No one understands the journey to sobriety as well as someone who has been through it, and studies have shown that having a sponsor early on in recovery reduces the chance of relapse and decreases the likelihood of dropping out of recovery process.
What is a sponsor? A sponsor is another person in recovery further along in the process who acts as a recovery coach of sorts, sharing their experiences and understanding of the program to help newcomers get and stay sober. A sponsor is a confidante you can call if you feel the urge to drink or use drugs and need support and encouragement. Because they’ve worked the program, your sponsor may even notice warning signs of potential relapse before you do and assist you in heading off a crisis.
While a sponsor may wear many hats — mentor, friend, confidante and role model — the purpose of the relationship remains the same: to provide support and help you achieve long-term sobriety.
Given the importance of the role, you should take care when choosing a sponsor. Although there are no set rules for picking a sponsor, here are some tips to help you find the most beneficial match possible.
For some, the prospect of finding a sponsor can feel like a daunting experience, akin to dating. And just like dating, it helps to get out there and mingle to meet the right person. 12-step meetings provide the perfect forum to meet like-minded individuals so frequenting meetings is usually the best way to find a sponsor. Don’t be shy. Let other attendees know you are seeking a sponsor, and if you meet someone you think might be a good fit, go ahead ask them. If you aren’t sure how to go about it all, ask the chairperson leading the meeting if they can help you. They might even have a list of temporary sponsors who are available.
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Your sponsor shouldn’t be a novice. They should be actively involved with the 12-step program and have at least one year of sobriety, and preferably two or more years of abstinence under their belt. An experienced sponsor will have worked all 12 steps and be familiar with program literature like the Big Book and “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.” They will have a solid understanding of how a sponsor functions because they have a sponsor themselves. A good sponsor should “walk the talk” and lead by example.
While choosing a member of the opposite sex to be sponsor might seem harmless, it’s not advisable since any romantic entanglements that might arise could complicate recovery. Choosing a same-sex sponsor prevents any such complications and allows you to stay focused on the work of recovery. Gay or lesbian newcomers would probably be better suited in choosing a sponsor of the opposite gender for the same reasons.
Because your sponsor is someone with whom you’ll be sharing secrets, fears and insecurities, trust is a critical component of the relationship. The person you select to be your sponsor should respect and maintain your confidentiality, as you should theirs. Early recovery can also be a vulnerable time, so it’s essential that your relationship be a safe space, where you can speak freely without fear of judgment, betrayal or reprisal. Observe how a potential sponsor treats and speaks of others and trust your instincts.
Frequent, regular contact is important when building a bond with your sponsor, so make sure your sponsor has the time to commit to the relationship. That said, sponsorship is highly individualized so the time involved can vary significantly depending on your needs. For those who are new to recovery, it can be beneficial to have a sponsor who is available most of the time for questions and support, since cravings and temptation can crop up at any moment. While 24/7 availability may not be feasible, at the very least, your sponsor should have enough time to help you work the steps, take your phone calls and regularly attend meetings with you. Discuss your expectations in advance to make sure you are both on the same page. Be wary of selecting someone who is sponsoring numerous other people because they might not have enough time to provide the attention you need.
Seeking a sponsor similar to yourself may be comforting, but it’s not a requirement. In fact, choosing someone with a different background is often better because, as AA’s pamphlet on sponsorship points out, it forces you and your sponsor to focus on the most important area you have in common — addiction and recovery. A sponsor with different life experiences might also be better at challenging your assumptions and providing honest feedback.
Debbie Downer, the fictional “Saturday Night Live” character who always found the doom and gloom in any situation, wouldn’t have made a very good sponsor. Likewise, a pessimistic sponsor probably won’t be able to add much to your recovery and might even harm it. Just as science has shown that positive thinking can improve heart health, a happy attitude can go a long way in helping someone recover from addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy, in fact, focuses in large part on teaching individuals how to replace addictive thought patterns that so often ruminate on the negative with new positive thought patterns that reduce the risk of relapse and improve one’s quality of life. That’s why it’s important to select a sponsor with a positive attitude, who will help you embrace sobriety and all the positive life changes that come with it.
At the end of the day, selecting a sponsor is a personal choice, and what works for one person, might not work for another. Whereas one person might benefit from a more structured approach with reading assignments and frequent check-ins, another might respond better to a more casual approach akin to a sympathetic and understanding friendship. Figuring out the approach that works best for you will help you form a rewarding relationship with the right guide to keep you on the path to sobriety.