How to Be a Good AA Sponsor
One of the gifts of being an AA member is the opportunity to sponsor another member through the 12 Steps. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous defines a sponsor as “An alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety through AA.”1
Being a good AA sponsor means you’re in the role of a mentor, a teacher, and a guide. You’re a light shining your experience onto the path of your sponsee so they don’t encounter recovery in the dark. In so doing, you’ll also strengthen your own recovery.2
AA Sponsorship vs. Behavioral Health Professionals
An AA sponsor is not a behavioral health professional. As a sponsor, you’re a fellow traveler, sharing experience, strength, and hope with your sponsee and guiding them through the 12 Steps.2 You are not applying or prescribing treatment.
You do not need certification or formal training to be a sponsor. The only requirements for being a sponsor are that you are sober, have worked the steps you are sponsoring, and are active in your program of recovery.3 A behavioral health professional, on the other hand, has a degree in the field of psychology, addiction, or counseling, and often holds a certificate or state license to practice.
As you work the 12 Steps with your sponsee, the topics of anxiety, depression, trauma, or other mental health diagnosis related to addiction may arise, as these diagnoses commonly co-occur with addiction.4,5 If these issues come up with your sponsee, use the 12 Steps as an anchor in your work with your sponsee and recommend they see a behavioral health professional. If you’ve seen a counselor, psychiatrist, or engaged in treatment yourself, you can share your experience about how the combination of professional treatment and your AA program supported your recovery.
AA Sponsor Responsibilities
You’ll want to have several traits and take on some specific responsibilities as a sponsor.
You Are Sober
This is a core responsibility of sponsoring. Some recommend that you have at least a year of sobriety before sponsoring another. However, this recommendation is dependent upon your group.3 If you relapse while sponsoring, let your sponsee know and pause your sponsorship while you focus on your sobriety.
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You’ve Worked the 12 Steps with Your Own Sponsor
Before you sponsor another through the 12 Steps, you need to have worked the steps yourself. As a sponsor, you are not responsible for the sobriety of another—you are responsible for sharing your experience, strength, and hope. Therefore, you need to have experience navigating the steps and a willingness to share your experience with your sponsee.
In most cases, it is recommended that you have worked all 12 Steps prior to sponsoring.3 However, small communities may have a shortage of sponsors, in which case you can sponsor up to the step you’ve worked through.2 For example, if you’ve worked steps one through eight, you can let a sponsee know you are available to sponsor through step number eight.
You Have Humility
Each of the 12 Steps requires humility.1 Humility is the balance of knowing your weaknesses and your strengths. A good AA sponsor understands their vulnerability to alcohol, as well as vulnerabilities around their own character defects, and keeps this awareness at the forefront of their mind. A good sponsor encourages humility and awareness in their sponsee.
If this is your first time as a sponsor, you may need to reach out to others in the program to guide you through the process. What’s more, you may need to ask for advice from your own sponsor or other AA members.
You Have Compassion
Addiction is a challenging, life-altering experience that is often accompanied by shame.6 When you greet your sponsee’s experience with kindness and compassion, it makes them feel more comfortable sharing with you and confident they will not be criticized.
As a sponsor, you need to balance compassion with accountability. Be clear within yourself where compassion can be confused with enabling, as you never want to support behaviors in your sponsee that could involve a relapse, no matter how compelling their suffering may be. On the flip side, you need to balance accountability with being overly firm. Moderate firmness is optimal when working with a sponsee. If you need to provide feedback to your sponsee, it is best to do this in the spirit of love and wisdom.
You Have Good Active Listening Skills
As a sponsor, you give close attention to the experience of your sponsee. You allow time and reflective listening to support your sponsee in working through their thoughts and emotions. Good active listening skills include being patient, being comfortable with silence, paraphrasing what was shared, asking clarifying questions in the spirit of curiosity, and validating the emotions of your sponsee.7
Clear Expectations for You and Your Sponsee
As a sponsor, be clear with your sponsee about what they can expect. Be aware of your availability and limits in terms of the amount of time you have to sponsor. Express this to your sponsee so they can determine if your availability is the right fit for them.
Some sponsors make themselves available 24/7. Other sponsors share that they are available for impromptu phone calls between certain hours of the day. Some sponsors prefer scheduled times for phone calls or in-person meetings. Other sponsors expect to have, at a minimum, one daily check-in from their sponsee, while another sponsor lets the sponsee take the initiative in terms of regular check-ins. All of these time allotments are acceptable, as long as you are clear in your expectations and follow through on your commitments.
If your time availability is such that you cannot meet all of the requested needs of your sponsee, share what you are able to do and suggest that your sponsee seek additional support in the form of additional AA meetings, program phone calls, turning to literature, or working with a professional, in addition to their work with you.
Your sponsee may ask if they can have two sponsors. This is generally not recommended in AA; it prevents a sponsee bouncing from sponsor to sponsor until they finally get the feedback information they want to hear.3 However, this is not a rule set in stone. Depending on the circumstances, you may recommend a sponsee obtain a sponsor who is available for 24/7 support, while your sponsorship role is to guide your sponsee through the steps.
Expectations of a Good AA Sponsor
Other expectations include letting your sponsee know how you’ll work with them through each step. Will you read the Big Book together and discuss the content paragraph by paragraph? Do you expect your sponsee to read chapters on their own, then engage in workbook questions with you? How will you support accountability in your sponsee? Will you have them text you when they attend a meeting or complete a step-related task? While there are multiple ways you can approach sponsorship, the important thing is to be clear about how the process will take place.
The AA Question and Answer pamphlet on sponsorship suggests reading through the pamphlet with your sponsee at the start of your work together.3 This can help navigate clarity around the roles of sponsorship, circumvent overdependence on the sponsor, and lead to upfront discussion about what the sponsor and sponsee should do if there is relapse. This type of discussion sets both participants up for success.
Boundaries and Sponsoring
People struggling with addiction also tend to struggle with boundaries.8 One of the reasons that 12-Step members are reluctant to engage in a sponsor/sponsee relationship is due to a history of confusion and hesitancy around the topic of control.9 For example, some people may have trouble saying no, which often makes them feel reluctant to seek a sponsor. They do not want to be in a position where they feel forced to comply with everything a sponsor suggests. On the flip side, if you are a sponsor who has trouble saying no, you put yourself in a position to foster an overdependence from your sponsee, thus leading to resentment.3 This is one of the reasons why honoring the boundaries you create with your sponsee at the onset of your work together is so important.
When navigating boundaries as a sponsor, be aware of honoring your limits, keeping agreements, and not overstepping your boundaries. Your role as a sponsor is to share your experience, strength, and hope, support accountability, and share resources with your sponsee.10
In keeping with the 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, sponsors do not endorse or promote any cause.11 You do not attempt to alter the spiritual perspectives of your sponsee, nor do you aim to influence their political perspectives. As a sponsor, you keep the focus on AA, recovery, and sobriety.
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Sponsorship and Other Relationships
As a sponsor, it is recommended to stay in the role of sponsorship. Don’t sponsor someone you are attracted to and avoid situations in which attraction could develop.2,3 While you’re sponsoring a person, it is recommended to avoid friendship with your sponsee so that your shared focus together is clear: the support of maintaining sobriety.2
By keeping a clear dynamic of the sponsor/sponsee relationship, you avoid situations that could compromise integrity and risk relapse.
AA Sponsor Guide
Several resources can guide your sponsorship role:
- Ask your sponsor for techniques and philosophies that guided their work with you. Ask your sponsor how they learned what they learned.
- Ask other AA members who serve as sponsors how they learned to be good AA sponsors.
- Attend an AA sponsorship group activity and/or become part of the AA sponsorship committee.
- Seek AA literature on how to be an effective sponsor, such as books, pamphlets, or watch videos on the topic. (See the resources below for some helpful literature.)
- Improve your active listening skills. Practice with your own sponsor and read books or watch videos about being a strong active listener.
Sponsorship is incredibly rewarding. It strengthens your own sobriety by teaching another what you’ve learned. You recite and revisit what has worked for you, bringing your own sober thoughts and behaviors to the forefront of your mind.
AA membership, sponsorship, and treatment are all excellent supports for sobriety. For information about treatment options for you or your loved one, call 800-839-1686Who Answers? today.
- Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book (4th ed.). (2002). Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.
- T., (1998). A Sponsorship Guide for 12-Step Programs. St. Martin’s Press.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (2017) Questions & Answers on Sponsorship [Pamphlet]. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
- Shantna, K., Chaudhury, S., Verma, A. N., & Singh, A. R. (2009). Comorbid psychiatric disorders in substance dependence patients: A control study. Industrial psychiatry journal, 18(2), 84–87. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.62265
- Davis, L., Uezato, A., Newell, J. M., & Frazier, E. (2008). Major depression and comorbid substance use disorders. Current opinion in psychiatry, 21(1), 14–18. https://doi.org/10.1097/YCO.0b013e3282f32408
- Matthews, S., Dwyer, R., & Snoek, A. (2017). Stigma and Self-Stigma in Addiction. Journal of bioethical inquiry, 14(2), 275–286. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11673-017-9784-y
- Sorensen, Joseph (2019). Active Listening, Improve your conversation skills, learn effective communication techniques, achieve successful relationships, with 6 essential guidelines. Amazon Digital Services.
- Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1989). Facing codependence: What it is, where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.
- Miller, W.R., Forcehimes, A.A., Zweben, A. (2011). Treating Addiction A Guide for Professionals. The Gilford Press.
- Anonymous Guest (2012). How to be an Effective AA Sponsor. Anonymous Guest, 3rd
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (1989). Twelve steps and twelve traditions. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.