One of the key elements of working a 12 step program is having a sponsor that guides you through the process. Often, sponsees will turn to their sponsors for more than just the steps in order to get direction and life advice. What is the difference then, between a sponsor and a therapist?
What is a Sponsor?
A sponsor is someone that has already worked the 12 steps of whichever fellowship someone is an active participant in, often Alcoholics Anonymous, and takes a newer member of the program through the steps. Usually, a sponsor will have significantly more time sober (in the case of AA) and have more experience applying the 12 steps in their lives as a result. Typically, a sponsee will be directed to call a sponsor once a day in the beginning to keep them current with life events taking place, to check in and to discuss the 12 steps. A sponsor will guide someone through the 12 step process, teaching them about the concepts in the program and showing them how to work the steps. Because of how personal the 12 step process is, sponsees will develop a very close and honest relationship with their sponsor as they spend time working with them. A sponsor is also someone who a sponsee can remain accountable to throughout their recovery. All in all, sponsors can have a big impact on someone’s recovery.
What is a Therapist?
A therapist is someone with whom an individual meets in a one on one, confidential setting, usually with the goal of resolving unhealthy behaviors and beliefs, working through various emotional issues, and growing in a therapeutic environment. Therapy is independent of 12 step work, although it is very common for an individual in recovery to become active in therapy. Therapists will explore deep seated issues with clients, often looking at relationships, modes of communication, problematic attitudes and behaviors, past trauma and other similar topics that can interfere with someone’s ability to be happy and content. Therapists receive financial compensation for the work they do with a client and there are clear and established boundaries in a therapeutic relationship as well as ethical guidelines that therapists are bound by. They can be extremely beneficial in helping an individual achieve their emotional goals and work through psychological obstructions.
As a result of the close mentor-esque relationship that develops between a sponsor and sponsee, it is not uncommon for a sponsee to start turning to their sponsor for direction and advice in every aspect of their life. This is not a bad thing. One of the hallmarks of an effective sponsor/sponsee relationship is transparency. If someone is not comfortable enough with a sponsor to be fully honest, it is difficult to do the often intense internal work that the 12 steps require. Likewise, if a sponsor is not armed with the truth about an individual, they can not effectively help to guide them through the 12 step process. Because of this relationship, sponsees will often turn to sponsors with the expectation of getting the type of help that they are not necessarily qualified to provide. This can be a problem if the sponsee has emotional issues that really needs professional therapeutic help to be worked through.
Therapy in Addition to Sponsorship
Ideally, if an individual is dealing with trauma or any other emotional issues that could benefit from professional assistance, they will work with a therapist in conjunction to working the steps with a sponsor. The two target different areas and used together, can be extremely beneficial. Having a sponsor to work the steps with is critical to recovery, but a therapist can allow an individual to work through other areas in their lives that the 12 steps are not necessarily designed to target. Even if someone is sober and has a strong foundation in their recovery, a therapist can be very helpful at looking at and working through issues and struggles that will naturally come up in life, not just sobriety. So a sponsor is someone that takes a sponsee through the 12 steps, and a therapist is a professional that helps a client work through emotional issues – both of which are very important, but very different.