Sponsors are an essential part of the 12-step process. In the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which created the 12-step program, members select someone they can feel comfortable with and with whom they can talk freely and confidentially, and ask that person to be their sponsor. Sponsorship is a basic part of the AA approach to recovery and it’s also integral to other 12-step fellowships for other types of addiction.

A sponsor will work with you one-on-one as you begin to establish your recovery by following a 12-step program, moving from one step to the next. A sponsor isn’t a therapist, social worker or any kind of mental or health care professional, but simply a comrade in recovery who’s willing to share his/her own experience with you and guide and support you through the steps of your recovery.

Generally, sponsors are members who have long-term sobriety. While there are no hard and fast rules, sponsors should have at least one continuous year of sobriety and seem to be enjoying their sobriety and working the 12-step program successfully. According to AA custom, it is best for men to sponsor men and women to sponsor women, although AA acknowledges that some gay men and lesbians feel that opposite-sex sponsorship is more appropriate.

While it is true that not everyone needs a sponsor, many recovering addicts benefit from giving sponsorship a try. A sponsor is in the unique position to understand what you’ve been through and offer his/her friendship, advice and support 24/7, when you need it most. There is no such thing as too much support or too much accountability, especially in early recovery. Sponsorship guards against many of the problems that contribute to relapse, including isolation and dishonesty and even overconfidence once you’re a little further along in your sobriety.

Asking someone to be your sponsor does take a bit of courage, but no more than walking into a 12-step meeting for the first time. Simply approach your prospective sponsor and ask if he/she is available to sponsor someone. If the answer is yes, propose that you meet and discuss recovery. If the person says no, don’t take it personally or give up. Instead, find someone else to ask, and remember that someone saying no probably has more to do with his/her own availability and self-confidence than with you.

Working with a sponsor is like any relationship — it requires some navigating in order to be mutually beneficial. Here are a few dos and don’ts to follow when making this important decision:

Choose wisely. The ideal sponsor has at least one year sober, preferably more, and has an active relationship with his/her own sponsor. Choose someone you relate to, who has had the type of recovery you respect and admire. Ask the following questions when choosing a sponsor: Does your sponsor live the 12-step principles in his/her own life? Does he/she already have a number of sponsees? Is he/she honest and open-minded?

Don’t make a rash decision. When choosing a sponsor, talk to a number of people and find out if each is truly living by the program’s principles. If you feel that the sponsor is not a match for you — for example, because you don’t feel safe or comfortable with him/her or they have very different philosophies, talk to a few other potential sponsors and see if there’s a stronger connection. Choosing the right match from the start can quickly get you on the road to recovery.

Establish and respect boundaries. A sponsor is another addict in recovery who is willing to share his/her experience. Don’t rely on your sponsor for legal, financial, employment or relationship advice outside the scope of the 12-step program. Similarly, a sponsor is not a therapist. If you need emotional help, which most recovering addicts do, it’s best to see a counselor.

Don’t get romantically involved. Do not, under any circumstances, start a romantic or sexual relationship with your sponsor. This is a set-up for relapse. Protect yourself by choosing a sponsor of the gender you’re not attracted to.

Don’t hesitate to change sponsors if necessary. Your needs may change, depending on your stage of recovery. For instance, some sponsors are excellent for newcomers simply because they are calming and reassuring and offer the security and stability of always being there in times of need. But once you’re more grounded in your sobriety you may need a different type of guidance to enable you to continue to grow. It’s also possible for sponsors to relapse; if this happens, it’s strongly advised that you find a new sponsor.

When you look back on your recovery five, 10 or 20 years down the road, your 12-step sponsor is likely to be someone who will stand out as an important part of your journey. Even when your recovery is firmly grounded and you’re confident in yourself, your sponsor may continue to be a lifelong friend. He/she may even be the person you emulate if and when you become a sponsor yourself.

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