Can You Outgrow Your 12-Step Sponsor?

When you think about your life in recovery, attending your 12-step meetings, working your steps, finding your place again in society, reconnecting with family and friends, do you find yourself feeling comfortable and secure, confident in your ability to remain abstinent, or are you experiencing a period of stagnation? In either case, you may be at the point where you’ve outgrown your 12-step sponsor.

Before you object that it’s out of the question, that you can’t possibly outgrow your sponsor, consider your own circumstances carefully. Think about where you are today versus where you were months ago. You may be surprised at the changes you’ve made.

And life in recovery is all about movement, discovery, and change. In this case, the change we’re talking about is positive change that you actively work to bring about.

Let’s look at some situations that may precipitate your outgrowing your 12-step sponsor.

You’re No Longer Desperate

For many in early recovery, particularly the first few days and weeks, it’s a period of near desperation. They rush to meetings with the fervor of seeking salvation, as if to stay away would mean damnation or instant relapse (which, for many recovering addicts is essentially the same thing). Remember back to your days in treatment? You attended 12-step meetings, grasped the concept and the basic format, and went through the whole introductory phase. Before you completed treatment, you were advised to continue attending 12-step group meetings and to get a sponsor as soon as possible.

This was likely high on your recovery to-do list – as it should be. So you gravitated toward a meeting that pretty much met your needs relative to time, location, and possibly group members. After all, it’s easier to attend meetings where there are others that you either like or feel some sort of kinship to. They don’t have to become bosom buddies, but it’s much better if they’re articulate, polite, and offer interesting insights. Early on, you’ll listen to just about anything. After a few months of sobriety and daily or weekly attendance, however, you may find your attention waning.

Somewhere along the line, you asked someone to be your sponsor. You felt the desperate need for connection with someone who knew the ropes, who would always be there for you, even in the middle of the night when you awoke with nightmares or couldn’t sleep because of overwhelming cravings. You didn’t have enough practice in using your toolkit strategies to avoid triggers or cope with out-of-control urges. You felt like you were going out of your mind and called on your now sponsor to help you out.

Good thing that you did. It may have saved your sobriety.

That was then. This is now.

You’re no longer so desperate that you feel the need to cling to your sponsor’s every word. You don’t call hourly or frequently during the day to check in. When you do get in touch with your sponsor on some long ago agreed upon schedule, you find yourself saying the same old things. There’s no progress. You’re not learning anything new. Maybe you’re feeling bored, restless, in need of a change.

It may very well be that you’ve outgrown your 12-step sponsor.

You’ve Reached a Point Where You Need to Grow

Let’s face it. Some sponsors are excellent for newcomers simply because they are calming and reassuring and offer the newbie the security and stability of always being there for them in times of need. We’re all human, after all, and there is no denying that we crave (in the good sense) security and stability and peace in our lives.

But after a point in your recovery – whether it be three months or six months or a year – when you are able to greet each day with joy and hope and excitement to learn something new or take advantage of new opportunities, when you see positives in every challenge, perhaps you need something more in the way of a sponsor.

Growth isn’t something that can be scheduled. You never know, when you first start going to 12-step meetings, how long it will be before you’re on your feet and able to do more than just get through the day without using. You do know that growth is something you want to achieve, however. You’ve probably detailed various short- and long-term goals in your recovery plan. Accomplishing them is a measure of your growth. But you don’t know how you’ll do any of them at the beginning of recovery.

When you’ve achieved certain sobriety milestones, you’ve likely begun to realize that you do have lots more options ahead of you. In fact, you begin to look forward to tackling even greater challenges, charting perhaps a different future than you had ever before envisioned.

This is growth of the best kind.

But what happens if your sponsor is still the same comforting and stable fatherly or motherly figure from your first days in the room? What kind of interaction do you have today versus what it was in the beginning? Is it like meeting with an old friend who continues to see you as needy or uncertain? Does your sponsor lecture you or seem patronizing? Does he or she tell you that it’s too soon for you to embark on any of the new directions you’ve said you’d like to take?
If so, your sponsor may be standing in your way. You may need to change sponsors in order to continue to grow.

Your Sponsor Seems Stuck in the Past

You’re going along, attending meetings regularly, being in frequent contact with your sponsor, and you notice that things just don’t seem right. When you discuss your problems or issues with your sponsor, he or she seems to always go back to things in the past – yours or his/hers. Everything seems viewed through the lens of the past: what you didn’t do right last time, how you didn’t listen to what you heard or put into practice the recommendations, how you’re not working the steps. Or, looking at it another way, your sponsor could be framing his or her comments based solely on how he or she thinks recovery should work. This may or may not be appropriate for you.

Who are sponsors, anyway, but regular people who have been through recovery and are at a point where others – and they themselves – feel they are ready to sponsor newcomers? They are subject to the same kinds of daily stresses and challenges and opportunities as we all are. They live and breathe and eat and go to work and deal with bills just like we do. They’ve had to overcome their addiction and learn how to manage their disease just like we had to and are currently doing.

Sometimes, they’re stuck in the past. Addiction recovery experts and 12-step participants alike say that you can’t move forward when you’re firmly rooted in the past. Despite what he or she may outwardly profess about making goals and working toward achieving them, if their expressions and words of encouragement and support start to seem false, it may very well be that your world-view and theirs are no longer compatible.

What are you to do if your sponsor is stuck in the past? You could continue to keep him or her as your sponsor, but what good would that do you? Rehashing old ways of doing or not doing things won’t help you advance in recovery. If your sponsor continues to see you as the needy, desperate newcomer who’s incapable of making decisions, where does that leave you in terms of developing your own self-confidence and abilities?

It may be time for you to find a new sponsor, having outgrown your current one.

Your Sponsor Relapses

One of the worst scenarios is, thankfully, not all that common – although it does happen. Sometimes sponsors relapse. When it’s your sponsor who relapses, what should you do? First of all, don’t panic. Relapse is an unfortunate and – to all concerned – concerning circumstance. But it doesn’t mean failure. Just because your sponsor relapses doesn’t mean that he or she can’t or won’t be able to pick up where they left off and resume recovery.

It may mean, however, that it’s time for you to get a new sponsor.

Isn’t this abandoning someone in their time of need? Actually, it’s not. While you are supportive of your sponsor’s getting back on track in recovery, it’s in your best interest to move forward. If your sponsor goes back into treatment, or is staying away from meetings as a result of relapse, what good is he or she to you as a sponsor? Obviously, the person isn’t the one you’ll be checking in with to give your daily or weekly progress report. Besides the obvious fact that when someone relapses, they’re not the best judge of the most appropriate thing to do and therefore incapable of giving advice or offering support and encouragement in return, you shouldn’t be involving yourself in a situation where you may be in over your head.

Your sponsor likely has his or her own sponsor to fulfill that role.

If your existing sponsor relapses and is out of the picture, you can and should go ahead and get a new sponsor. You can tell yourself – and the potential sponsor – that it’s temporary, just until your original sponsor returns. Or you could honestly say that you don’t know how long this will be for. It could be that you’re ready for a new sponsor.

It could also be that your sponsor relapsed at a critical time in your own recovery. You may be devastated by the loss of your sponsor at this time and fear that you’ll likewise slip and go back to using. This is all the more reason for you to get back in the room and find yourself a new sponsor.

So, one way or another, if your current sponsor relapses, now’s the time for you to look into getting a new sponsor. Depending on where you are in your recovery, look for a) someone who has more time under their belt in recovery, b) someone you admire from having seen him or her in the room, or c) someone whom others recommend highly.

You Suspect Your Sponsor Wants to Limit Your Growth

What if the unthinkable happens? What if you suspect that your sponsor, for reasons you believe to be true, wants to limit your growth? Could such a thing happen? While it’s probably not very likely or common, there are instances where a sponsor has subconsciously held back the individual or encouraged him or her to make bad choices.

Personal bias, sexual orientation, religious preference, social or political standing – any of these could get in the way of the relationship you have with your sponsor. None of them should, but sometimes they do.

Here’s one example of how this might play out.

Let’s say that you are struggling with your own sexuality and have been for years. You’re part of a co-ed 12-step group and have been with the same sponsor (of your own gender) for almost a year. During this time, you’ve begun to test out meetings whose members are gay or lesbian. You may have met someone in your home group that gave you the info on the subgroup and that’s how you decided to attend. Or you may have seen a notice of the group’s forming or looked up their meeting location and schedule.

All excited, you come back to your home group and talk with your sponsor privately about this new group. You may feel that you have more in common with this new group than your current one. You may wish to explore a part of your sexuality that you’ve not yet allowed yourself to think about. It doesn’t mean that you’re actually going to do something sexual, just that you feel a comfort level with members of this new group. It feels good to be there. You tell this to your sponsor and your sponsor reacts with strong disapproval, saying that you’re too vulnerable to make the right choices, and that you need to stick with what works.

You’ve always trusted your sponsor. Maybe he or she is right. Maybe you are getting out of your depth. But are you? Look at what else is going on between you and your sponsor? Are there other areas where your sponsor seems to hold you back? Is he or she too critical whenever you are excited about venturing into something new? You can’t always be too green. Sooner or later you need to move forward, to take advantage of opportunities or work through challenges with all that you have learned through interacting with your sponsor and your fellow group members.

It may be time for you to have a candid, but caring, conversation with your sponsor. It may be time for you to say that while you appreciate his or her being there for you, now is the time that you would like to look for a new sponsor.

How to Choose Your New Sponsor

Recognizing that sponsorship isn’t a permanent or forever relationship, you still may feel a bit uncertain about how to go about choosing your new sponsor. There aren’t any hard and fast rules on what to do. In fact, there aren’t any rules at all.
But recovery experts and 12-step members have suggested a number of things that may help. Here are some tips:

• Look for someone who has been clean and sober for a minimum of one year. Beyond just being clean and sober, make sure that you choose someone who is stable.

• The best person to be your sponsor is also someone who understands your particular situation or needs. If you are struggling with a certain addiction or multiple addictions, it’s better to have a sponsor who is familiar with and understands co-occurring recovery.

• Do not select someone as a potential sponsor with whom you have a romantic or sexual attraction or relationship (or one that feels that way toward you).

• Choose someone who is working on a recovery plan and will provide a model for you to use in your own recovery journey.

• Look for someone you feel you can trust, and someone with whom you believe you can develop a meaningful relationship (note: not romantic or sexual).

• You should look for a sponsor who will always challenge you to keep moving forward and to always be accountable to the truth. This does not mean that you necessarily have to feel comfortable with the sponsor. In fact, being a bit uncomfortable is probably a good thing, in some respects. What you want is someone whose recovery example you admire, a person you think will challenge you to develop your own personal and healthy program of recovery.

• Find someone to be your sponsor that has the energy and the time to take you on as a sponsee.

• Finally, make sure that your potential sponsor lives, acts, and talks the steps and principles. In other words, make sure he or she isn’t just “talking the talk,” but is actually “walking the walk.”

How to Approach Changing Sponsors

If you’ve decided that it’s time to change sponsors because you’ve outgrown your current one, don’t just blurt it out. That’s both hurtful and inconsiderate. In recovery, you’ve learned a great deal from your relationship with your sponsor. You owe your sponsor at least the respect and courtesy to approach the subject of a change with dignity and patience.

Arrange to have a private conversation with your sponsor at a time and location where neither of you will be disturbed nor need to rush off to attend to something else. Broach the subject by saying that you’ve been feeling for a while that you’d like to explore different areas or you are thinking about changing home groups – or whatever you feel will work to break the ice. Mention how much help your sponsor has been to you, how much you’ve grown as a result of being in the relationship. While this is not a romantic/sexual union, it is very much a kind of partnership. Think of the break-up, if you will, accordingly. You need to handle it with care.

Eventually, bring the conversation around to your desire to change sponsors. You could say that you will not do so right away, and that you want to remain close, but that you will be looking. You want to do it right, not jump into anything.
How will your current sponsor react? It could be any number of ways. Your sponsor could be angry, upset, relieved, excited, pleased that you are taking the next step, indifferent, challenging, or anywhere in between. You should not be surprised at any of the reactions, no matter how well you think you know the person. It isn’t a rejection of him or her as a person. It’s simply recognition that you feel the need to move on.

Remember that you don’t always have to be comfortable with your sponsor in order to learn. A little discomfort may mean that you’re being challenged or called on your stuff. If, when you are contemplating getting a new sponsor, your underlying motive is to get out from under being challenged, maybe you’re not ready to change sponsors. Examine what’s really going on. Are you trying to escape your responsibilities or are you sincerely looking to continue to grow?

Answer the question honestly: Have you outgrown your 12-step sponsor? If the answer is yes, then you know what you need to do. If the answer is no, get back to working your steps and talk about whatever comes up with your current sponsor.

One day – it may be sooner or later – you will find yourself ready to make a change and find a new sponsor. And when that day comes, you will be ready