Sponsorship Is About Trust – Not “Firing”

By Joshua Hoe

At one of the meetings I attend, every third week we listen to CD’s from annual conferences…It is one of the coolest parts of the Recovery month as it almost always generates really great discussions afterwards.

Anyway, last month, we were listening to a CD about sponsorship and one of the taped participants started explaining that after a sponsee relapses a third time he “fires” them….


He fires them?

I guess had heard of some other people “firing” sponsees…and I have certainly lost sponsees who left the program or went with someone else…But, I have never personally thought of firing anyone.

Why not?

1. Don’t Feed The Shame

Addiction is almost always based in shame and the last thing in the world an addict needs is someone telling them they are too messed up to qualify for sponsorship.

In other words (IMHO) there are not many things I can imagine that would make a sponsee feel more shame than being “fired” by a sponsor (and that would be more likely to move them to a new bottom)

2. Negative incentives are a poor model for recovery

I am very wary of creating negative incentives for people in recovery.

Addiction is very often a house built from decades of negative incentives.

People have to want to recover for themselves..they have to want to be better…they should not recover so that they don’t lose a sponsor, or because they might not get a token etc.

3. Tough love DOESN’T WORK

Read the literature, read the studies, take your own anecdotal polls…you will find that people do not recover because someone was “tough” with them (or because anything really).

Usually, what tough love is really about is making people feel better about walking away from addicts (at least I am not enabling him/her anymore).

My point is not that people should not walk away when an addict has burned the bridge one too many times. Obviously, some times we have to walk away.

But my point is that NOBODY knows why people recover…

Tough love, enabling, rock bottom…there is no science behind any of it.

Whatever the alchemy is, it does not seem to start at a predictable place.

I know for me, I just decided I didn’t want to be crazy anymore…Tough love didn’t hurt or help..It was more about encountering answers that made sense (therapy + recovery program) at a time when I was open to recovery.

4. It is not about the sponsor, it is about recovery

I don’t know about you, but I came into recovery because I failed a million times without recovery (and several times with recovery). People find sobriety and traction in recovery at different times and for different reasons.

Why is it we so often hold people to standards we ourselves might not have met?

I always tell my sponsees that they can fire me anytime, because it is about them finding the best person to help them find recovery…If I am not that person great…But, if they want to stay with me, and they feel comfortable with me, I am sure not going to abandon them (often when they need me the most).

The reasoning on the CD was something like this:

“Obviously, if they keep relapsing, I am not the sponsor for them”

But, sponsorship is not about saving people…It is about making yourself available to help them.

Recovery, therapy, a strong program, and a spiritual awakening save addicts…Sponsors walk alongside sponsees…IMHO we are helped as much by sponsees (at least by being reminded how close we are to relapse) as we ever help sponsees.

I have often imagined a sponsor as like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio…Jiminy spent most of the movie giving Pinocchio great advice that Pinocchio ignored…But, Jiminy kept on keeping on.

You could be the best sponsor in the whole world, and your sponsee might relapse…You could be the worst sponsor in the world and your sponsee might recover for decades….You are a channel for good but it is not your story.

5. Don’t Rip The Safety Net

When people who have a program of recovery relapse, often what makes the difference between a cliff dive and a pedestrian relapse is support and a program of recovery.

There are relapses….and RELAPSES!

When people look for support, often, a sponsor is on the top of the totem pole when it comes to people in that network.

I have seen people who used to fall of that cliff – stop short ONLY because they had people to call who they could count on. I have seen people’s relapses cushioned because they had a strong network of support…and we have all seen people tumble into disaster without support.

And, even when they tumble all the way to the bottom, would you rather they have somewhere to go, a hope that recovery is possible? To me, recovery is about hope and we all have been at the bottom of that cliff…when there is no hope, cycles of acting out become inevitable.

6. Trust Is Important

So, if you have not reached the end of the road with an addict, you might be doing him or her no favors by throwing them back to their own devices.

Sometimes it takes every bit of courage a person has to even ask for a sponsor..Many addicts spend a great deal of time thinking that they will never be accepted or loved really…really….

Putting faith in people is VERY hard for addicts.

I have often said that I think recovery is a process of riding the intimacy and trust bicycle with training wheels.

Firing your sponsees is kind of like ripping the training wheels off.

People need the most help when they are struggling, and they need to know that their are people that they can trust.

Making that trust conditional seems a recipe for disaster to me.

But aren’t addicts manipulative?

Sure, but usually, if you have been around someone enough you get hip to their tricks…No?


I think this whole “firing” concept probably comes from the school that thinks you need to take a hard-line with addicts or risk enabling them.

In my experience, realizing you have no other option but recovery is not something that can be induced or coerced. It happens when it happens (often after years and sometimes decades of awfulness).

There are boundaries you should set as a sponsor, and if someone is endangering your recovery or hurting people, you sometimes have to remove yourself. But, most relapses probably do not reach this high bar (I would assume).

There are also personal boundaries you can ask your sponsees to respect, if they are not willing to respect those personal boundaries, you might have to remove yourself…But, again, most relapses probably do not reach this high bar (I would assume).

How often has tough love really worked as a solution to addiction? It certainly hasn’t been much of a success in our criminal justice system…It certainly hasn’t cured anyone I know of. To me, recovery is about helping people reconnect through empathic support and guidance.

What To Do With Relapses

Most people outside of the addiction community think along these lines:

Addicts never have any consequences for their actions,

Addicts are basically getting a free ride to destroy people’s lives all while they are having a good old time acting out.

This is really not too terribly different from the logic you usually hear when people talk about firing sponsees:

“Well, if you can’t keep sober then I obviously am not the sponsor for you…”

Except, we all know it is a progressive disease and that recovery happens at different times for different people.

No More Bootstrapping

One of the most harmful narratives in public policy discourses is the bootstraps metaphor.

“If I can do it everyone else can too” story that allows us to blame anyone who doesn’t accomplish what we accomplished as easily or despite hurdles (like we did).

I prefer the humility narrative myself.

I only found recovery after years of disastrous and progressive acting out, and but for the grace of God, I would be right where everyone struggling with sobriety is.

I certainly do not want to judge anyone else for failing to find lasting sobriety quickly enough.

And, more important, I don’t want to contribute to anyone’s addictive cycle…Sponsorship is about trust…Not tough love.

What are your thoughts on firing sponsors? On sponsorship in general? Would love to hear your opinion, feel free to leave a comment!

As always, we do not identify ourselves with any particular program or organization and we hold no leadership role in any particular program or organization. We are not therapists and do not pretend to be. The purpose of this blog is to share experience, strength, hope across the recovery community.


2 thoughts on “Sponsorship Is About Trust – Not “Firing”

    1. The web is what you make of it. I try to use it for good and write things that can be of help to people!
      Thanks for the nice words,



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