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Developing a support system in early recovery can be overwhelming. Choosing a sponsor is an important choice that gives stability. Here's what to look out for.
Traditional wisdom in Twelve-Step Programs dictates that having a sponsor is a crucial component of growing, healing, and learning in recovery. Sponsors offer us the opportunity to be accountable. They guide us through the highs and lows of working the steps.
However, it’s a common misconception that all sponsor/sponsee relationships are the same. Just as each person in recovery has both unique and common struggles, sponsors come with equally unique and common character and approaches.
We urge folks to put pen to paper and consider what that looks like. The more you know about what you’re looking for, the more likely you are to find it.
Pick someone who clearly practices what they preach...
We often focus on choosing people we see as being like ourselves, whether by age, education, race, or socioeconomic status. Instead, it’s often more effective to seek folks who have the ability and willingness to challenge us. Long term sobriety is desirable, but not crucial. As a general rule two years or more is a starting point.
Avoiding Commitment Issues
Don't get bogged down in the fear of choosing the wrong sponsor. The easiest way to avoid "commitment issues" is to ask for a temporary sponsor. This is a well-established and respected practice in 12-Step Programs. It allows you to ensure a good fit and it recognizes that your needs may change as you go through early recovery. When you find someone who more fully meets your needs, you can thank the temporary sponsor for their service and move on.
In “old school” recovery, it's common practice for sponsors to clearly dictate what they require from their sponsees in the first minutes of the relationship. Most often this includes directives to call regularly as well as in times of need and to meet once a week. This approach establishes clear boundaries, limits and expectations - all of which promotes actively utilizing support.
Progressively, it has also become common practice that sponsees are asked to share their expectations, needs, and wants. This not only ensures a good fit but also helps to reduce misunderstandings. The greatest benefit is that it helps identify needs that exist in addition to sobriety and step work.
A Common Pitfall
The most common pitfall in working with a sponsor is that we subconsciously relate to them as the mom or dad we always wanted.
It’s an easy mistake to make: we’re relating to someone we depend on who guides us and cares about us. These are the kind of interactions we associate with parenting. Those of us who did not experience healthy parents growing up are especially vulnerable to making this mistake. But just as our sponsors do not sign up to be our parents, they also do not sign up to be an authority figure in our lives.
The importance of this trap cannot be overstated for a very simple reason: Most of us hate authority figures.
In early recovery, we tend to have the emotional maturity of an oppositional and defiant child. Consciously and subconsciously, we expect authority figures to judge us and reject us. This most often leads to projection (deciding our sponsors see us as we see ourselves) and transference (relating to them as our high school principals, bosses, or police officers).
Why We Encourage "Same-Sex Sponsorship"
Without intention, this approach is admittedly heterosexually biased. We recognize the inherent vulnerability in the sponsor/sponsee relationship and seek to inhibit impulsive romantic or sexual behavior. A very high percentage of us find it easier to relate to members of the opposite sex and so this practice should be viewed as an opportunity for growth.
Don’t Put Your Eggs in One Basket
In any recovery program, a strong and holistic support system is recommended. Depending on your sponsor to meet even a majority of your needs is ill advised and no responsible sponsor would seek to meet all of your needs. In addition to friends and family, we have found it remarkably beneficial to have contacts (peers in the program available for phone calls or coffee).
Many of us chose spiritual advisers and even secondary sponsors to support us. In an active recovery community, you’d be hard pressed to find an area of expertise that is not available to you.
Those we’ve seen achieve the greatest success in twelve step programs develop their own “families” in the halls. There is no such thing as having too many supports in your quest for transformation.