Do I Need a Sponsor in AA?
If you have chosen Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to help you get sober, you are not alone. With over 115,000 groups worldwide, the AA program has helped many people experiencing the same challenges you are going through now. 1 According to a 2014 survey, 82% of AA members have a sponsor.1
There is no one-size-fits-all program for sobriety. Most members have a sponsor, but people can still achieve long-term recovery without one. Knowing the resources available to assist you in your recovery journey can help you decide if having a sponsor will be helpful for you.2
In this article:
- The Role of an AA Sponsor
- Characteristics of a Beneficial AA Sponsor Relationship
- Benefits of Having an AA Sponsor
- How to Choose an AA Sponsor
The Role of an AA Sponsor
No matter your stage of recovery, encouragement and guidance from people who have successfully maintained sobriety over time is beneficial.
An Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor understands the challenges and potential consequences of alcohol misuse and has accomplished the goal of getting sober. Research shows that most sponsors in AA see themselves as playing specific roles in the recovery of the people they sponsor, including:3
- Encouraging the sponsored to work the program of AA
- Moving through the 12 steps
- Engaging in AA activity
- Providing support through regular contact
- Carrying the message of AA by sharing their experience
There is no pre-set timeline in which to choose an AA sponsor. Some research shows 75% of new AA members choose a sponsor within the first 90 days of recovery. 1 It’s recommended to attend 90 meetings in your first 90 days of recovery, which can allow you to establish a home group and get to know other members. 8 This gives you time to assess group members and meet potential sponsors.
Characteristics of a Beneficial AA Sponsor Relationship
As you start meeting and getting to know AA members, you may feel connected to someone by things you have in common.
Do not choose a sponsor solely based on these initial feelings and chemistry. Studies have been conducted to determine the characteristics to look for in a sponsor. The top qualities include the sponsor being personally engaged in Alcoholics Anonymous, trustworthy, and available for contact.4
Other important qualities of a sponsor include:4
- Giving honest feedback
- Respecting confidentiality
- Having a positive attitude
- Having integrity
- Having and sharing experiences that speak to your own experience
- Offering encouragement, attention, and advice
- Being good at solving problems and setting goals
Your Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor is intended to be a peer mentor and should not become your best friend or someone you hang out with in a personal setting. While you do want to connect with a sponsor you enjoy being around, building a strong bond of trust and open, clear communication that can enhance your recovery is the most important quality.4
With all relationships in your life, including the one with your AA sponsor, you must set healthy boundaries. Research shows that not setting healthy boundaries leads to setbacks and relapses in recovery.5
It’s important to note that building a strong bond of trust with someone and sharing very personal information has risks. You are vulnerable in early recovery. When you find someone you connect with, setting healthy boundaries protects you, your recovery progress, and your work with your sponsor.6
One study found potential risks within AA sponsored and sponsor relationships include:6
- The sponsored may become dependent on the sponsor
- The sponsor may misuse sponsorship to gain authority
- Both may misuse sponsorship as a counseling role
- The sponsor may impose a personally biased AA worldview
You can stop working with an AA sponsor or change sponsors if, at any time, the relationship is no longer serving your recovery. You may decide to change sponsors if you find you do not communicate well, your schedules make it difficult to reach your sponsor, or you find any of the toxic situations listed above developing.
Participating in other treatment modalities, such as one-on-one therapy with a clinician who specializes in alcohol addiction, may help you identify the helpful and potentially harmful characteristics of your sponsor relationship.
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You should also feel free to discuss questions and concerns about choosing a sponsor, setting boundaries, or deciding to change sponsors with senior members of your home AA group, your mental health care team, or a local AA hotline.
Benefits of Having an AA Sponsor
Analyses have been performed on the benefits of having a sponsor in AA. Researchers have found that AA members who acquired a sponsor were still abstinent from alcohol after six months and a year of follow-up. Also, more of the members with sponsors had greater meeting attendance at the one-year mark. 7
Additionally, researchers found that having an AA sponsor is associated with members having higher rates of:7
- Working the 12 steps
- Seeking the advice of other AA members
- Doing AA prescribed service work
- Praying, participating in spiritual and mindfulness practices, or otherwise building their relationship with a higher power
- Reading aloud at AA meetings
- Using the phone to talk with other AA members
- Working with other individuals struggling with alcohol addiction
- Feeling adequately supported socially and personally
How to Choose an AA Sponsor
Research indicates that the most effective sponsors have experience with and knowledge about AA, are available to the people they sponsor, and strongly invested in goal-setting and maintaining confidentiality. It’s recommended that you consider these traits over gender and age when choosing an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, while compatible gender and age may also be important and can narrow your options.4
Keep in mind that you are looking for a mentor, not a friend or partner. You want someone who can guide you through each of the 12 Steps. So, it’s essential to choose someone who has spent time working on each step in depth. 9
One of the main goals of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the use of the 12 Steps, is to allow one person with an alcohol use disorder to help another person with an alcohol use disorder. This part of the program was created because the founder of AA wanted to share the principles that he found critical in maintaining his own sobriety. This sharing became part of what allowed him to stay sober.10
As you continue in recovery and grow in the AA community, you may also have the opportunity to become a sponsor to someone else who is new to recovery. Becoming a sponsor allows you to give back and help others.10
If you are interested in learning more about Alcoholics Anonymous, you can find a meeting in our directory. You can learn more about all the treatment options that can help you overcome an alcohol use disorder by calling a treatment specialist at 800-839-1686Who Answers?.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Alcoholics Anonymous 2014 Member Survey.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); Office of the Surgeon General (US). (2016). Chapter 5 – Recovery: The Many Paths to Wellness. Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health [Internet]. Washington (DC): US Department of Health and Human Services.
- Whelan, P. J., Marshall, E. J., Ball, D. M., & Humphreys, K. (2009). The role of AA sponsors: a pilot study. Alcohol and Alcoholism, 44(4), 416-22.
- Stevens, E. B., & Jason, L. A. (2015). An exploratory investigation of important qualities and characteristics of Alcoholics Anonymous sponsors. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 33(4), 367–384.
- Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
- Stevens, E. B., & Jason, L. A. (2015). Evaluating Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor attributes using conjoint analysis. Addictive behaviors, 51, 12-17.
- Tonigan, J. S., & Rice, S. L. (2010). Is it beneficial to have an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor? Psychology of addictive behaviors: journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 24(3), 397–403.
- Rynes, K. N., & Tonigan, J. S. (2012). Do social networks explain 12-step sponsorship effects? A prospective lagged mediation analysis. Psychology of addictive behaviors: journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 26(3), 432–439.
- Nash, A. J. (2020). The twelve steps and adolescent recovery: a concise review. Substance Abuse: Research and treatment, 14, 1178221820904397.
- Gross, M. (2010). Alcoholics Anonymous: still sober after 75 years. American Journal of Public Health, 100(12), 2361–2363.