12-Step programs for addiction and recovery provide vital benefits for people to get clean and sober. These programs are more than just a schedule of meetings — they provide a fellowship of like-minded individuals, sponsors, and peers in recovery to lend support during times of need.
12-Step sponsorship is a voluntary position where members help other members. However, while sponsorship should be an act of love, caring, and kindness, some sponsors take advantage of vulnerable or naive peers. This article will explore the dangers of bad sponsorships, advise on how to recognize harmful behavior, and end harmful sponsorships.
What Is a Sponsor in a 12-Step Program?
Sponsorship provides accountability, structure, and guidance within 12-Step programs. Many consider the 12-Step sponsorship relationship the pillar of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and other 12-Step programs. Sponsors are people who have been through getting sober and can offer their experience, strength, and hope to help others. The most important role of a sponsor is they are the person who will walk you through the Twelve Steps. Sponsorship can be a beneficial tool to make it through early sobriety.
Sponsors navigate you through the Twelve Steps. Under a sponsor’s tutelage, newcomers learn how to apply the Twelve Steps to their lives and the problems they encounter in their recovery. To do so, a sponsor may instruct their sponsee to read the literature on each step to start. Then, how each sponsor works the Steps will differ. For example, some sponsor may provide their sponsees with worksheets for each step. Other groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have a Step Working Guide that many members work out of.
A sponsor can also serve as a role model for what it means to stay sober. They can provide additional support when you might feel tempted to drink or use drugs. The sponsor can also provide another source of support — someone to talk to during difficult times.
Why Should You Get a Sponsor?
Good 12-Step sponsors play an integral role in your recovery journey, providing a level of support that may not always be available from family or friends outside of the recovery community. Working through the Twelve Steps is the 12-Step philosophy, making getting a sponsor the core of working a 12-Step program. Having a role model can also help you avoid some common mistakes people in recovery make and keep you focused on your sobriety.
If you are unsure about whether or not you want to work with a sponsor, here are some benefits of having a 12-Step sponsor:
- They listen without judgment or ridicule
- Their experience will offer fresh perspectives on recovery
- You’ll have another person to share your successes with as you work through the program
- They will help keep you accountable for your recovery goals by checking in regularly
- Your 12-Step sponsor may be able to introduce you to new opportunities for growth in sobriety
- You can turn to them for strength when times get tough
- Sponsors can also provide more information on program literature while sharing personal anecdotes that may help your recovery journey
- If you ever have any questions about your addiction or recovery, you can always ask your sponsor
- Your sponsor can help you get through cravings and other difficulties that arise along the way
- A sponsor can provide you with phone numbers of other people in recovery, whom you can call if you’re feeling triggered
- A good sponsor will normalize your feelings and experiences to show that you’re not alone
- A sponsor won’t judge you for your past mistakes or what is going on in your life currently
- Sponsors offer objective perspectives on challenging situations that can be hard to see when in their midst
The Five C’s of Evaluating a Potential Sponsor
Finding the right sponsor can be a challenge. Many of us have tried one sponsor and then another, only to find that none of them was the right fit for us. If you’re not sure how to evaluate a potential sponsor, consider the Five C’s:
Does this person have the character to be a good sponsor? In other words, have they been in recovery long enough, are they stable and solid in recovery, and do they have the maturity to help guide you through the program? The most critical consideration in choosing a sponsor is that you like and respect this person and feel comfortable talking with him.
Are you compatible with this person? Are your personalities compatible enough for you to feel comfortable approaching them with your issues and questions? Is their approach consistent with your needs?
It’s nice to have a sponsor available when you need them. Thus, before you ask someone to be your sponsor, make sure you are both clear on what the role of the sponsor entails. Are they easily accessible, or will it take significant effort to meet with them?
Do they walk their talk? If not, it won’t be long before you lose faith in their guidance. Thus, when evaluating a potential sponsor, check if they have completed and are living the Twelve Steps. You can also check if the sponsor is in good standing with the group you attend.
A good sponsor will have worked through all of the Steps already. Sponsors who are still working on their own Steps might not be available to you when you need them most, so it’s essential to confirm that they’ve already worked through most of their Steps before beginning sponsorship with them.
If an individual is currently sponsoring other people and is unwilling to take on more sponsees, it’s best not to ask them to be your sponsor; instead, ask if they might be willing to recommend someone else to be your sponsor. Are they ready to commit to being your sponsor, or are they just doing it for a while until someone else comes along?
The Ugly Side of Sponsorship: Recognizing a Bad Sponsor
Sponsorship can turn ugly in a hurry. There is a fine line between tough love and being an antagonistic jerk. This means that not everyone is qualified to be a sponsor. Some people are so far from being qualified that they represent everything that the 12-Step program is not. When involved in a sponsor-sponsee relationship, watch out for the following:
The Know-It-All Sponsor
This person always knows what’s best for you, regardless of what you say or think. They deem their opinion as to the law.
The Impatient Sponsor
In two meetings, this person wants to get through the entire 12-Step program.
The Inconsistent Sponsor
One minute they’re hot, and the next they’re cold; one hour they’re there and the next, gone; one month they’re your sponsor, and the next, not. This is not sponsorship material. It would help if you had someone consistent and reliable at your side when you work through recovery issues.
The Absent Sponsor
This person is always busy, too busy to meet with you. They make excuses and never follow through with their commitments to complete. The absent sponsor will make promises but not keep them and find reasons why they cannot meet with you regularly or discuss your progress in sobriety.
The Poor Boundaries Sponsor
Sponsors must know how to set boundaries with their sponsees and others in the program. Those with poor limitations want to know every intimate detail of your life, thoughts, feelings, or financial status. Poor boundaries can lead to people getting hurt.
The Imposing-Religion Sponsor
Good sponsors don’t preach or proselytize. Suppose your potential sponsor is religious. A good sponsor won’t impose their religious or spiritual beliefs onto you. They will encourage you to find your own sense of spirituality, which is about the personal relationship with your Higher Power, which can be whatever you want it to be.
The Manipulative Sponsor
This person may use manipulative language and tactics on you to gain control over your life decisions. They might pretend that they have all the answers when struggling, just like you are.
The Relapsing Sponsor
You might think this one goes without saying, but it has happened too many times: a person in early recovery sponsors someone else before their sobriety has taken hold. Then, the sponsee relapses because their sponsor did first. The sponsor relapsed because they sponsored someone too early in their recovery.
The Judgmental Sponsor
If a sponsor judges you, puts you down, or makes you feel bad about yourself, find another one. You deserve a safe place to share your feelings without fear of judgment or condemnation. Recovery involves enough guilt without adding more from a sponsor who constantly judges you and tries to make you feel bad about yourself or your actions.
The Narcissistic Sponsor
This type of sponsor puts themselves first and uses the relationship for personal gratification rather than helping their sponsee. They love to hear themselves talk and have no problem telling you how great they are. The narcissistic sponsor is self-centered, emotionally needy, overbearing, and generally thinks you should be doing what they say when they say it. They love to throw their weight around and make sure people know how important they are. Look for a sponsor who is genuinely interested in you as an individual and not just your sobriety. If a potential sponsor does most of the talking or focuses the conversation on themselves instead of you, keep looking.
The One-Size-Fits-All Sponsor
This sponsor believes that everyone should work the program precisely as they did. They don’t bother to get to know you as a person with different needs and circumstances; they expect you to follow the same steps in the same way that worked for them – regardless of whether or not it works for you. If a sponsor has only one way of doing things, consider finding another who is more willing to adapt.
The 13th-Step Sponsor
The “13th-stepper” is the member who uses their role as a sponsor to prey on new members. It’s not just an urban legend; it’s a real problem. The problem is so pervasive that some groups have created rules against dating other group members in the first year of sobriety. Many groups have unspoken rules against dating a newcomer (the “90-day rule”). Beware of any overly flirtatious or suggestive sponsor in their interactions with you. This person may have ulterior motives for taking you under their wing, and it’s unlikely that this sponsor will focus on your best interests.
The “I Want Favors” Sponsor
Sponsors should never ask for anything in return for their sponsorship. If someone asks you for money, sex, or other favors, move on. If anyone ever makes you feel like they’re doing you a favor by sponsoring you, find another sponsor immediately. Good sponsors understand that sponsoring benefits their recovery, not just the sponsees. Sponsorships play a vital role in everyone’s recovery, including the sponsor.
The Codependent Sponsor
You’ll spot a codependent sponsor from a mile away. Instead of putting your sobriety first, they put themselves first. They want companionship more than the opportunity to help someone else. If you’re looking for someone who will be there for you when the going gets tough, a codependent isn’t the right choice for you.
The Can’t-Give-Advice Sponsor
Though a sponsor can’t solve your problems for you, they should possess the experience and ability to point you in the right direction, often found in the Twelve Steps.
The Sacrificial Lamb Sponsor
This person will do anything to help you. They can’t say no to you even when you’re wrong. Eventually, this causes resentment, often on both sides.
Breaking Away From a Poor Sponsorship
Ending things with the wrong or manipulative sponsor can be scary because these sponsors often try to intimidate you into staying with them. If they try to scare you into staying with them, remind yourself that you have the right to choose your recovery support and network. Use these suggestions to help you:
Talk to Your Sponsor About Your Concerns
If you feel your sponsor isn’t meeting your needs, be open and honest. Having a conversation may help you understand what isn’t working and how to fix it. If you’ve tried this and still aren’t happy with your relationship, it’s time to move on.
Get Help From Another Member
Maybe another member of the group knows someone looking for a sponsee or can recommend another sponsor who might better match you. Don’t rely entirely on word of mouth — ask around, but also speak up at meetings and introduce yourself to other members afterward so that they get to know you.
Let Go of the Guilt
Sometimes, we blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault, like when a relationship fails. If this happens to you, realize that it’s not your fault. The reason may be as simple as you and your sponsor were not a good match. Don’t be hard on yourself or your sponsor if things don’t work out.
Recognize That Your Needs May Have Changed
You may have outgrown your old sponsor. If you’re struggling with issues or going through a challenging time, it may be time to get a new sponsor who can offer more understanding and support than your current one can give right now.
Identify what worked and didn’t work in the relationship with your former or current sponsor. Reflect on what you need in a sponsor and how you want a relationship with a sponsor to look and feel like. This will help you find a better fit next time around.
Change Home Groups
If necessary, change home groups. Although people might feel that their home group is somehow “sacred” and must be maintained at all costs, this is not part of the 12-Step philosophy and should not stand in the way of taking care of yourself and having what you need to work the steps successfully.
Seek Out a New Sponsor
If talking to your current sponsor didn’t resolve the problem, it’s time to seek out another one. Ask any member you trust in the program if they can suggest someone else as a sponsor, whether it’s a friend or someone they’ve seen interact with members who are new to the group.
An effective sponsor is not an authority figure. The best sponsors don’t need to be in control or look good to others — they want to help others stay sober and healthy. We know you should have a good sponsor who wants to help you along the path toward a healthy life. Here at White House Recovery and Detox, we want to make sure you’re as successful in your sobriety as possible. The White House treatment method takes a holistic approach to care, which has proven successful. We offer a comprehensive treatment program that allows participants to learn and focus on an addiction-free and healthy lifestyle. Our care is focused on the 12-Step program with additional evidence-based therapeutic programs, medically-assisted detox, and other tools and resources. Addiction treatment does not have to be overwhelming. White House Recovery and Detox can help you recover. To learn more, contact us today at (800) 510-5393.