Learn / What Is a Sponsor in Addiction Recovery? 

What Is a Sponsor in Addiction Recovery? 

Hannah Friedman
 July 6th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

As a mentor and friend, a sponsor supports every part of your recovery progress, and plays a vital role in guiding your recovery journey. Whether by answering questions, holding you accountable, or just listening, they can help you commit to healing. Sponsors can help in any phase of recovery, especially when you’re newly sober.

Having a sponsor in addiction recovery isn’t mandatory. However, most 12-Step programs encourage you to find one. To do that, it’s important to understand the purpose of this relationship.

What Does a Sponsor Do?

A sponsor does a lot of different things, but their primary role is to offer guidance. In most 12-Step programs, a sponsor is a senior member1 who has been sober for at least a year. With personal experience in recovery, they can help you learn how to work the 12 Steps. 

Sponsorship is one of the key differences between 12-Step vs. non-12-Step programs. Studies show sponsorship leads to better recovery outcomes.2 Once you connect with your sponsor, you can come to them with any questions about addiction and the program itself. For example, say you have a few tough weeks and miss a couple of meetings. Expect a call from your sponsor to get you back on track. Your sponsor’s job is to hold you accountable, encouraging you to do the work to attain and maintain your sobriety.

Qualities of a Good Sponsor

A good sponsor is there for you but also knows when to let you figure things out for yourself. You should always feel comfortable reaching out to them for help. Here are some qualities to look for in a sponsor:3

  • They can guide you in the right direction: Your sponsor can answer your questions about membership, the 12 Steps, and addiction. They’ll also encourage your program attendance and participation. A good sponsor knows you’re responsible for yourself and capable of making your own decisions. Still, they’ll give you a nudge to keep you moving forward if you ever need it.
  • They set boundaries: It’s always okay to ask your sponsor for support. But a good sponsor lets you know when contacting them is appropriate. You can agree on times and ways to connect that work for both of you. 
  • They listen and offer support: Your sponsor is there to advise and support you—but they’re not your therapist. A good sponsor knows when a professional should step in. They may even connect you with outside resources.
  • They’re patient: Addiction recovery takes time. A good sponsor understands that you’ll face challenges as you adjust to sobriety. They’ll keep supporting you even when you’re having a hard time.
  • They understand you: With an understanding sponsor, it’s easier to ask for help. You might seek someone with a similar background to yours. Maybe you’re a mom of 4. A sponsor who has been through motherhood and addiction might understand you on a deeper level. But everyone’s needs are different. Sometimes it’s better to find a sponsor with a different history of addiction. You never know what you can learn from a new perspective. Considering your unique recovery goals can help you find the right fit.

What Does a Sponsor Not Do?

There are some things your sponsor shouldn’t do.4 Even if you like them as a person, you should be wary if your sponsor shows any red flags: 

  • They impose their personal views on you: Your sponsor shouldn’t judge your recovery process. They might have similar experiences, but only you know what’s best for you. A sponsor should never urge you to make a decision based solely on their own beliefs. 
  • You’re already close with them: It’s not a good idea to have a loved one as your sponsor. You should be able to trust your sponsor and open up to them. Sometimes, personal relationships can lead to bias.
  • They exploit you: Your sponsor should never try to take advantage of you. Anyone in early recovery is in a vulnerable space. Your sponsor should understand that and do everything they can to empower you.
  • They’re not engaged in the program: If your sponsor regularly misses meetings, or you question their sobriety, they likely aren’t the best person to help you.
  • They believe they have every answer: A good sponsor isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” If you feel like your sponsor always thinks they’re right or never considers another way, they might not be a good choice.

If you notice red flags like these, reach out to trusted members of your support network, both in and outside of AA. You can also talk to your therapist. And remember: you always have the right to change sponsors. AA’s literature on sponsorship5 specifies: 

We are always free to select another sponsor with whom we feel more comfortable, particularly if we believe this member will be more helpful to our growth in A.A.

Explore Twelve Step Treatment Centers

How to Find a Sponsor

Typically, the process of finding a sponsor is informal. You might notice someone in the 12-Step program you admire. Maybe their outlook on sobriety inspires you, or they seem very open and honest. All you have to do is ask them to be your sponsor. Then, they can either accept or decline.

As a newcomer, you can also ask around the program. At some meetings, the leader may ask people who want to become sponsors to raise their hands. You can also ask people you meet if they know of anyone interested in taking on that role.

Your Responsibilities as a Sponsee

Just like your sponsor, you’ll have certain responsibilities in this relationship. Here are some tips to be a good sponsee:

  • Show up: Attending meetings regularly helps you stay on track. Try to let your sponsor know in advance if you have to miss a meeting.
  • Respect your sponsor’s boundaries: After you and your sponsor agree on boundaries, it’s important to honor them. Your sponsor has their own responsibilities outside of your recovery process. Of course, there may be times when you need to call them out of the blue. But this is an opportunity to practice building respectful relationships. Recognizing the other person’s needs is an important part of that process.
  • Work the 12 Steps: Show your sponsor that you’re just as committed to your recovery as they are. You can do this by working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or another 12-Step program. Sometimes you might leave meetings with assignments. Dedicate time to work on your sobriety outside of the program. Then, talk to your sponsor about your progress.
  • Don’t overshare: It’s easy to overshare as you become more comfortable with your sponsor. There’s nothing wrong with seeing your sponsor as a friend. But your sponsor isn’t your partner, your parent, or a clinician. They’re just one person in your wider support network. 

In most 12-Step programs, your sponsor plays an integral role. Still, many people reach sobriety without a sponsor at any point in addiction recovery. It all depends on what makes the most sense for your recovery process. 

Learn more about sponsorship and 12-Step rehab programs that might be a good fit for you.

Frequently Asked Questions About AA Sponsorship

What’s the role of a sponsor in my recovery?

A sponsor serves as a mentor and guide, providing crucial support throughout your recovery journey. They offer guidance, answer questions about addiction and the program, and help you work the 12 Steps. While having a sponsor isn’t mandatory, it’s highly encouraged in most 12-Step programs for better outcomes.

What qualities should I look for in a good sponsor?

A good sponsor should be knowledgeable and able to give guidance, while also maintaining healthy boundaries and encouraging your personal responsibility. A good sponsor listens, offers support, and understands the challenges of addiction recovery. Finding someone who understands your background and recovery goals can be beneficial.

What are red flags to watch out for in a sponsor?

While sponsors are meant to support your recovery, there are certain warning signs to be aware of. A sponsor should not impose their personal views, exploit you, or be disengaged from the program. It’s also important to avoid choosing a sponsor who is a close friend or family member to maintain objectivity. If you notice any red flags, seek support from other trusted people in your support network and consider changing sponsors.

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