What a Recovery Sponsor is and How to Find One

Content medically reviewed by Vicky Magobet, PMHNP-BC, on December 13, 2021.

A recovery sponsor provides accountability and support to people who are new to recovery and the twelve-step process. Sponsors have experience in the twelve-step program through their own recovery journey, and they use their knowledge and experiences to help others. Those new to recovery can find sponsors by attending twelve-step meetings.

The History of Sponsors in Recovery Programs

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) began in 1935 when Bill Wilson, an entrepreneur and stockbroker, collaborated with Dr. Bob Smith. The two men supported each other in their sobriety and created the twelve-step Alcoholics Anonymous program. Wilson was sober for a few months but craved alcohol, and he realized how helpful it would be to talk to someone who shared the same struggle he was experiencing. He reached out to Smith, another individual working to remain sober, and they helped each other maintain sobriety.

Smith then moved on to help more people dealing with alcohol use disorder because he realized helping others maintain sobriety enriched his own life and helped him keep his own sobriety. Wilson and Smith learned people can strengthen their sobriety when they share it with others. The Oxford Group, a religious organization, inspired the two men to write the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook, which became the core of the twelve-step program. Sponsorship remained an essential part of the twelve-step program and eventually became part of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) in 1953.

Inpatient detoxification was the typical treatment for substance use disorder before Wilson and Smith began sponsorship and developed the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Eventually, the twelve-step process and rehab sponsors became a regular part of treatment for substance use disorder.

What Do AA Sponsors Do?

AA sponsors are people in recovery who have experience in maintaining sobriety. They understand what other people struggling with a substance use disorder are going through, and they can offer support and accountability for those who are new to pursuing recovery. Sponsors guide others through the twelve-step process and the methods AA groups use to maintain sobriety. Sponsors are usually people who have a few years of maintaining sobriety successfully and being active in the twelve-step community.

An AA sponsor encourages their sponsees, so they feel supported and connected throughout the recovery process. Substance use disorder can often harm a person's relationships with loved ones that they had in the past, causing them to feel isolated. A sponsor can step in as a sympathetic companion to offer connection and remind them they're not alone by contacting them regularly and meeting with them.

During their time in the twelve-step process, sponsors learn lessons and gain experiences that help them work toward recovery. They can share their knowledge and experiences with their sponsees as they begin the recovery process themselves, and they can answer any questions their sponsees may have. They can also explain AA terms that might be confusing to newcomers and rules for speaking and how meetings are structured. This can be especially helpful for people who might feel uncomfortable in social situations.

Sponsors also provide practical and emotional support, and they encourage sponsees to attend AA meetings and activities to stay connected with the AA community. Some sponsors form close relationships with their sponsees by becoming a significant part of their everyday life, while others provide more formal support.

The Role of the Sponsee

When a person begins their recovery journey and joins a twelve-step program, they are encouraged to find a sponsor and become a sponsee. The main responsibility of the sponsee is to remain active in the twelve-step recovery community, so they can achieve a successful recovery. Researchers have found that more involvement in the twelve-step program helps people reach more positive outcomes in recovery and maintaining sobriety.

Sponsees can involve themselves in the twelve-step process by attending daily meetings, volunteering to help with cleaning or setup at meetings, reading recovery and twelve-step literature and engaging in sober activities. Sponsees can also participate in the twelve-step program by sharing their struggles. By openly sharing what they're going through as they begin their recovery journey, they can feel supported and connected. Sharing their struggles can also remind sponsors and others who have been in recovery long-term why it's important to maintain sobriety.

Sponsorship benefits the sponsor and the sponsee. Sponsors offer guidance and encouragement to people who are new to recovery, and in return, sponsees give sponsors the opportunity to help others in need, which helps them maintain their sobriety. Even sponsors have difficult moments, so sponsees can also help them by offering words of support on tough days.

How to Choose a Recovery Sponsor

It may seem intimidating to choose a sponsor at first, but the most important thing is to find a sponsor you feel comfortable with but won't be a distraction. Heterosexual people should choose a sponsor of the same sex, and homosexual people should choose a sponsor of the opposite sex. This minimizes the risk that sponsors and sponsees will develop romantic relationships that may interfere with sponsorship.

It's also important to choose a sponsor who knows they have enough free time to fill the role. Some sponsors can handle sponsoring more than one person at a time, while others prefer to devote all of their attention to one sponsee. You should try to choose a sponsor who knows how to set boundaries. Some sponsors will be more compassionate and opening while others are more formal and detached, but a sponsor should never act as a therapist. When choosing a sponsor, look for the following five qualities.

1. Knowledge and Experience in Recovery

A sponsor should have at least several months or a year of recovery, and further experience with sobriety is even better. They should have a solid understanding of the twelve steps and maintain a lifestyle that follows the steps. They should also attend meetings regularly and lead by example by living a sober lifestyle.

2. Attentiveness

A helpful sponsor should be attentive and listen closely to what their sponsee shares with them, so they can give the most helpful advice possible. They should ask questions to clarify and try to read between the lines for a more complete understanding of what they're sponsee is going through in their recovery process. If a sponsor makes you feel as if you are heard and valuable, they might be the right match for you.

3. An Open Mind

Sponsors should be open-minded and understand that everyone's recovery path is different. What worked for them may not work for you, and they should respect that. Something that helps them stay sober might not help you stay sober, and they should recognize that you might need to do things differently from them.

4. Honesty

A sponsor should make you feel safe to share anything with them. They should keep your conversations anonymous and refrain from sharing the things you say with anyone else. They should also offer honest feedback and advice free from judgment or shame. The truth may be painful or uncomfortable to hear, but it's crucial that sponsors give you advice and feedback to support your recovery.

5. A Willingness to Validate Your Feelings

When a person uses alcohol or other substances to cope with emotions, those emotions can feel overwhelming when they stop using the substances. A good sponsor will remind you that it's normal to feel numerous emotions and what matters most is that you react to your emotions in productive ways. A sponsor should make you feel comfortable enough to be honest about your feelings and give you advice about how to manage your emotions safely.

When Should You Choose a Sponsor?

The right time to choose a recovery sponsor depends on your unique needs. You may enter recovery and feel you need immediate support, or you may need some time to meet people and decide who can best support you. Attending many meetings can help you get to know people and determine who you feel most comfortable with.

While it's vital to reach out for support when you are new to recovery, you have the right to decline sponsorship offers. If someone doesn't feel like the right fit, it's OK to say no. The important thing is to reach out for help when you find someone who you feel may be a good AA sponsor for you.

Can Sponsors Be Changed?

You can change sponsors if needed. If you choose a sponsor early in your recovery who isn't quite the right fit, or if you simply feel you need a different sponsor at any point in your recovery, you can choose a new sponsor. You should feel comfortable with your sponsor, so you are allowed to switch sponsors whenever you feel your current sponsor is not the best support for your recovery or you find a sponsor who is a better fit for you.

Tips for the Sponsor-Sponsee Relationship

For a successful sponsorship, sponsees must follow several guidelines, including the following:

  • Attend all meetings with your sponsor or give notice if you can't attend.
  • Set and respect boundaries with your sponsor.
  • Complete any work that's assigned during twelve-step meetings.
  • Avoid sharing or asking for too much personal information.

In the beginning of a sponsorship, ask your sponsor how they prefer to communicate and what times of the day are best to reach them. Some sponsors might prefer email and text while others prefer phone calls. They may reserve evenings for family and only take calls during the day, or they may work all day and prefer to talk in the evenings. When you find a sponsor, talk with them to determine how many calls per day or week you are both comfortable with.

Sponsors are meant to be supportive, but they also have to focus on their personal life, so it's vital to respect their time. Set clear boundaries that you are both comfortable with. Some sponsors and sponsees talk often and spend a lot of time together while others have a more distant and formal relationship. You should set boundaries early in the sponsorship, so you and your sponsor understand how to respect each other best.

It's also crucial to respect your sponsor's privacy and try to keep your conversations focused on addiction, recovery and sobriety. Avoid talking about personal troubles unrelated to your recovery journey, and avoid asking your sponsor too many personal questions unrelated to their recovery. Sponsors are not therapists and cannot provide professional help, but they can act as a mentor and offer support related to addiction recovery.

You may receive assignments in your twelve-step meetings to help you get the most out of the program and support your recovery. If you receive work to complete with your sponsor,  make your best effort to do the work, so it can benefit your recovery.

Becoming a Sponsor Yourself

Becoming an AA sponsor gives you the opportunity to help others in need, which can have a significant impact on maintaining your sobriety while helping others maintain their sobriety. While sponsorship is a great way to continue your recovery journey and help others, you must remember there is a lot of responsibility that comes with sponsorship.

Before you become a sponsor, it's best to reach several months to a couple of years of sobriety. This period gives you enough time to learn and grow through your own recovery, so you feel equipped with knowledge and experience to share with others. You should have a solid understanding of the twelve-step program and how to maintain a sober lifestyle.

Sponsorship requires patience, understanding, compassion and time. Before you commit to being a sponsor make sure you have the time to dedicate to mentoring another person. When people are new to recovery they often feel overwhelmed and need someone who will take the time to guide them through the twelve-step method. As a sponsor, you will need to be available to offer support.

If you're not sure if you're ready to be a sponsor yet, your own sponsor can be a great resource. Ask your sponsor for advice if you feel you may be ready to become a sponsor yourself. They can offer valuable insight into whether or not you may be ready to provide sponsorship.

Contact Us for Individualized Rehab Services in Northern California

Sponsorship is essential for a successful recovery. At Diamond House Detox, you can find a safe and compassionate place to attend AA and NA meetings for support through your recovery. Our treatment facilities also have medical providers who can provide Incidental Medical Services such as medically-assisted detox and injections if needed. Since our medical providers work within our facilities, they can create personal treatment plans, including medication adjustment.

At Diamond House Detox, we believe evidence-based medical treatment combined with the twelve-step program and social support is the best way to prevent relapse. You can receive medically monitored detox while being treated for co-occurring disorders such as mental health conditions, so you can work toward a more successful recovery. Contact Diamond House Detox to learn more about how we can help you recover.

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Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at Diamond House Detox
Vicky is a board certified Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, certified by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. She began her nursing career in healthcare by working in the intensive care unit, and then an inpatient psychiatric hospital. After realizing the mental health needs of both the patients and the families she served, she became a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Throughout her experience working with clients, she has developed a passion for those with dual diagnoses and specializes in helping individuals recognize the issues driving their substance use. This recognition has been crucial to the individual’s success in treatment. Vicky opened Diamond House Detox so that she can address these issues early on in a therapeutic environment to allow clients to transition to the next level in their recovery.
Vicky Magobet
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