Things to Consider When You Sponsor

By Ken Wells - 08/30/2022


Series Three: Blog Fifty-Seven

Sponsorship in the 12-step community involves a number of tasks. It is a privileged role that can inspire and disappoint. The one qualification that every sponsor brings to the table is that s/he is an addict who experiences the same challenges that a sponsee knows. The primary task is to help the sponsee successfully work through the 12 steps. In the process, a sponsor becomes a surrogate parent, coach and friend to the sponsee. Some sponsors insist on a boundary with their own recovery shares with the sponsee. The focus of the relationship is to help the sponsee with recovery challenge and not to identify their own recovery work. Every sponsor must make their own decision regarding self-disclosure about current challenges. In my opinion the best sponsor/sponsee relationship happens when both sponsor and sponsee are emotionally vulnerable to each other. It eliminates the “guru mentality” of sponsee to sponsor. Truth is that when a sponsee struggles with maintaining sobriety, they are more likely to be open to a sponsor who they know has experienced recovery failure. Sponsors do not rely upon sponsees for guidance. However, guiding and sharing with emotional openness, strength and hope in recovery is a sacred role. It fulfills the 12th step emphasis of carrying the message to others in a deep and meaningful way.

Addiction recovery is about growing up emotionally. The sponsorship role is critical to this journey. There are many parental tasks in raising children that parallel the sponsorship tasks in the emotional developmental needs of an addict.

Consider the following:

  1. Role model credibility. If you want your sponsee to be consistent with program work, you must be. When you agree to do something be sure to follow through with your commitment. Meeting times, calls, plans to work on the steps require that you prioritize the agenda. It is easy to get lost in conversation and not get to the essential work. Worry less about whether or not the sponsee is ready to plunge into the steps. Go for it. Be less concerned about pacing and more focused on getting through the steps. The idea is to make step-work an everyday lifestyle for the rest of their lives.
  2. Be coherent and clear. If you intend to have a sponsee call you every day make sure it is clear and circle back when they don’t follow through. Be clear about the conditions you will sponsor. If a sponsee is wishy-washy with follow through, a gentle reminder will be helpful. Be clear with your sponsee that if they continue to be irresponsible by lacking follow-through that you will terminate your role.
  3. Commit to patience. Learning to fail forward is a skillset that is critical to long term sobriety in addict recovery. A sponsor must practice being patient with a struggling sponsee. In recovery rooms, you experience the impatience of the “dry drunk” syndrome demonstrated by addicts who have stopped acting out but who are just plain irritable, caustic and judgmental. They are not fun to be around. If you are this way with a sponsee you will be received as judgmental and shaming. Take a deep breath and practice patience with your sponsee.
  4. Teach Co-parenting skills. That’s right! Sponsorship is a lot like parenting. If you try to provide all the answers to recovery you will stunt the recovery growth of your sponsee. Truth is you don’t know the answers for your sponsee. You only know what works for you. It is crucial to your spondee’s recovery growth that you allow them to figure out life. You walk alongside and simply notice, validate and share what works for you. If you don’t let them figure it out, they won’t survive the addictive craving that dominates in addiction relapse. You must teach that they become their own guru or sponsor.
  5. Cherish differences. Your spondee’s recovery won’t look like yours. Allow for variation. It is true for an addict that their best thoughts got them stuck in the devastation of destructive living. In the beginning of recovery, addicts do need to learn to listen and take instruction about a different way to live. However, the translation of what they hear will look different through their eyes than yours. Cherish their differences. Not everybody believes in God. The words Higher Power might be offensive to some. There is a clear difference in struggling with the concept of God and stubborn willfulness and resistance.  Let your sponsee figure out God or no God. Resourcing the unknown is vast and mysterious. Walk alongside with gentle support for your sponsee to figure out how to best resource themselves. They don’t need to see it just the way you do. Learn to fight through diverse understandings. Tolerate divergent approaches to understanding spirituality and commit to accept and cherish differences.
  6. Teach spondees to chronicle their recovery.  We are insistent that sponsees learn and tell their addict story through the first step. It is also crucial that they learn to chronicle their recovery growth. Addicts can live in either a crisis mode or with an “out of sight/out of mind” mentality. When things are going good and recovery growth is achieved, it is important that each addict mark what happened to make it so. This is the information that addicts learn to rely upon to build long-term peace and sobriety. Chip ceremonies are important not to just mark the day count but review and relish the steps taken and the principles employed to get from point A (acting out) to point B, no longer acting out. Each day, month, quarter and year chronicled will uncover a wealth of solid recovery wisdom.
  7. Teach resilience and accept consequences. Addicts relapse. As a sponsor, your role is to model resilience. Yesterday ended last night. Today is the day that matters. Learn what you can from your past failure and then fail forward, taking with you valued lessons and wisdom from yesterday’s experience. This is resilience, bringing yourselves back to center. It is essential that addicts learn this skill well. They must also learn to accept consequences. Every act out creates consequences which is different from punishment. Addicts do not gain sobriety through punishment which may be invoked in life circumstances. When you break the speed limit you will be fined if caught. There is punishment that can include incarceration when you commit serious crime. While punishment through imprisonment does not produce rehabilitation, it is a consequence that must be faced. In 12-step recovery, relapse will engage consequences. However, punishment is not helpful. A sponsee may relapse while working on Step 4. Some suggest that the sponsee must go back to Step 1 and start the Steps all over again.  It is almost experienced as a way of punishment. I suggest that the sponsee look at the relapse behavior that led to powerlessness and unmanageability and address it. Then, move forward with Step 4 work. It is not necessary to punish yourself by going back to the beginning and starting over again. Essentially, we can never go back to where we started anyway. We move forward from where we are.
  8. Teach sponsees to borrow from their strengths and what they are good at. Learning to do recovery often means to borrow from what you are good at in other aspects of your life. Skillsets for recovery such as discipline, acceptance, perseverance, etc have been incorporated in other aspects of living. It is important to show sponsees how they can transfer these skill sets utilized in other aspects of living to their recovery life. This is one of the most underrated resources in doing recovery.

Sponsoring addicts in recovery is very rewarding. I believe it is necessary in recovery. The role requires that each sponsor consciously practice the Twelve Steps. Sharing common brokenness is a vulnerable experience that enhances emotional maturity both for the sponsee and the sponsor.

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