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A sponsor is a more experienced person in recovery who guides the less-experienced aspirant (“sponsee”) through the program’s twelve steps. New members in twelve-step programs are encouraged to secure a relationship with at least one sponsor who both has a sponsor and has taken the twelves steps themselves. Publications from twelve-step fellowships emphasize that sponsorship is a “one on one” nonhierarchical relationship of shared experiences focused on working the Twelve Steps. According to Narcotics Anonymous:

Sponsors share their experience, strength, and hope with their sponsees… A sponsor’s role is not that of a legal adviser, a banker, a parent, a marriage counselor, or a social worker. Nor is a sponsor a therapist offering some sort of professional advice. A sponsor is simply another addict in recovery who is willing to share his or her journey through the Twelve Steps.

Sponsors and sponsees participate in activities that lead to spiritual growth. Experiences in the program are often shared by outgoing members with incoming members. This rotation of experience is often considered to have a great spiritual reward. These may include practices such as literature discussion and study, meditation, and writing. Completing the program usually implies competency to guide newcomers which is often encouraged. Sponsees typically do their Fifth Step, review their moral inventory written as part of the Fourth Step, with their sponsor. The Fifth Step, as well as the Ninth Step, have been compared to confession and penitence. Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, noted such practices produce intrinsic modifications in the person—exonerating, redeeming and purifying them; relieves them of their burden of wrong, liberating them and promising salvation.

The personal nature of the behavioral issues that lead to seeking help in twelve-step fellowships results in a strong relationship between sponsee and sponsor. As the relationship is based on spiritual principles, it is unique and not generally characterized as “friendship”. Fundamentally, the sponsor has the single purpose of helping the sponsee recover from the behavioral problem that brought the sufferer into twelve-step work, which reflexively helps the sponsor recover.

A study of sponsorship as practiced in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous found that providing direction and support to other alcoholics and addicts is associated with sustained abstinence for the sponsor, but suggested that there were few short-term benefits for the sponsee’s one-year sustained abstinence rate.