Understanding the Role of a 12-Steps Sponsor

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

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When two men’s paths crossed in 1935, it was the start of the 12-Steps recovery program that has gone on to positively transform and save the lives of millions of people around the world. In fact, it is hard to argue against seeing it as the world’s most successful recovery program ever.

One of these two men was a chronic alcoholic called Bill Wilson. He had managed to stay sober for five months when he found himself in a hotel lobby in Akron feeling compelled to have a drink.

He knew his only chance of not having that drink was to turn his attention towards trying to help another alcoholic. After a phone call and a series of events he was introduced to Dr Bob Smith.

Initially, the doctor was skeptical. But as Bill shared his own experiences and struggles with alcohol a deep connection formed between the two men.

Seeing a kindred spirit in Bill, the doctor opened up about his own battles with alcoholism. Their relationship became the cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Their collaboration laid the groundwork for the 12-Steps program, emphasizing mutual support, the admission of powerlessness over their addiction, and spiritual growth. From that initial meeting between Dr Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, there are now more than two million AA members in 180 countries.

What are the 12 Steps?

The 12 Steps offer a transformative path for overcoming addiction – but are now also being adapted to help with many mental health problems, including depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety.

Beginning with admission of powerlessness over alcohol, drugs or whatever is the person’s particular problem, the 12 Steps guide people through self-reflection and making amends – and also enable spiritual growth. 

Their structured framework is simple to follow, empowering people on their journey to beat their addictions and other problems – as well as maintain their well-being as they continue to grow. Their main author, Bill Wilson, described them as: “a way to happy and effective living for many, alcoholic or not.”

Since AA was formed in the 1930s, the 12-Steps recovery program has been adapted to help people into recovery from all manner of addictions, including behavioral addictions. This includes for addictive gambling, sex addiction, workaholism, and overeating – and there are now 12 Steps groups for these problems plus many more.

One crucial aspect to going through the 12 Steps is having a sponsor – a mentor who has been through the 12 Steps themselves. This person will voluntarily guide someone newer to the program through each of the 12 Steps.

As Bill Wilson and Dr Bob Smith discovered, this not only helps the person being guided, but also helps the person who is offering the guidance too. A sponsor is generally not a trained therapist, coach or counselor – although some incidentally are – but they are someone who can offer experience, support, strength, and hope.

They are living proof that the 12 Steps work.

What is the role of a 12-Steps sponsor? 

Conversation of young woman with psychologist, social worker, outdoor at meeting in park on lawn

Sponsors are a testament to the transformative power of peer support and connection. But what exactly is the role of a 12-Steps sponsor?

Guidance through the 12 Steps

The 12-Steps program is a sequential process, and sponsors play a crucial role in guiding their sponsees through each Step. This involves explaining the principles behind each Step and helping their sponsees complete written assignments.

Sharing experiences

One of the primary responsibilities of a sponsor is to share their own experiences, strength, and hope. By recounting their personal journey through the 12 Steps, sponsors provide a living example of recovery in action.

This sharing helps demystify the process for the sponsee and creates a sense of connection. They can also offer guidance with any problems in life.

Regular communication

Effective communication is key in the sponsor-sponsee relationship. Sponsors are typically available for regular meetings, whether in person, over the phone, or online. This consistent communication provides a supportive framework for the sponsee. A sponsor is likely to be a good listener.

Encouraging accountability

Sponsors encourage accountability by helping their sponsees set realistic goals, monitor progress, and gently hold them responsible for their actions. This accountability fosters a sense of responsibility and ownership in the recovery process. It allows for a growth in self-confidence.

Introduction to a recovery network

Middle age man sharing struggles during support group meeting with multiracial people siting in circle and comforting him

Sponsors often introduce their sponsees to the larger recovery community. This network becomes an additional source of support, camaraderie, and understanding. Attending 12-Step meetings, events, and socializing with others in recovery provides a stronger foundation to build on.

Preventing isolation

Isolation is a common challenge in addiction and mental health issues. Sponsors play a vital role in preventing this by giving a great sense of connection. Regular meetings, phone calls, and activities within the recovery community help combat feelings of isolation that can lead to relapse.

Sharing coping strategies

Sponsors share practical coping strategies for dealing with triggers, cravings, and life stressors. These strategies, often rooted in the principles of the 12 Steps, allow sponsees to live life on life’s terms – without resorting to former unhealthy behaviors and habits.

A valuable resource for information

Sponsors are a valuable resource for information about the 12-Steps program and recovery. They can answer questions, provide clarification on program literature, and offer guidance on navigating challenges that may come up during a recovery journey.

A trustworthy ally

The sponsor-sponsee relationship is unique, built on trust, honesty and mutual respect. Confidentiality is paramount, ensuring that the sponsee feels safe and secure in discussing personal and sensitive matters.

Emotional support

Recovery can be an emotional roller coaster at times, so having a sponsor who understands the ups and downs is invaluable. Sponsors provide a consistent source of emotional support, offering empathy and encouragement during challenging times.

Challenger for growth

Sponsors also challenge their sponsees to grow. This involves gently pushing them to realize and confront uncomfortable truths, make amends where necessary, and embrace personal responsibility.

Reciprocal learning

Psychologist holding client's hands at therapy session

Although sponsors are more experienced in the program, the relationship is not all one-sided. Sponsors often learn from their sponsees, gaining new perspectives and insights that enhance their own recovery journey. 

Being a sponsor is part of the 12-Steps recovery program as Step 12 states: 

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics [or others struggling as the person in recovery once was], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

Addiction Recovery at Tikvah Lake

With a wealth of experience in helping people with all types of mental health problems including addiction, our devoted team of professionals at Tikvah Lake is committed to delivering outstanding care. We offer an introduction to the 12 Steps as part of our fully personalized treatment programs.

A family-run recovery center, we warmly welcome every guest into our extended family, fostering a nurturing and supportive atmosphere within our picturesque Florida campus. Situated by a breathtaking lake, our location enjoys year-round sunshine and a tranquil natural environment to encourage calm and reflection.

Contact us today for a confidential conversation to see how we can help you or someone you care about on the journey to healing, well-being and personal growth.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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