How Healthy is Sponsorship in AA?

I was talking to a friend about my blog post from yesterday and remembered some details about what it was like to be in AA and in my family. I remembered what it’s like to follow the norms and implicit rules in a cult, and the truth is that it can feel quite good, while at the same time feel quite bad.

When I examine my time in AA, I think of all of the dichotomies that occur within the organization. In AA you are put down for things like supposed character defects, your part in events that you have no part in, and are encouraged to share about your character defects or sins in front of your sponsor and at meetings. What this does is tear you down to the point of dependency on the group and a “higher power”, however, it can actually feel quite good and euphoric when this happens because it promotes feelings of unity within the person and a feeling that everything will work out because he or she is following the group norms. This can result even in high confidence and happiness, however, the action of tearing the person apart does affect them in many ways even if they are unable to see it due to euphoria that can be produced by participation in AA. But, creating spiritual euphoria or spiritual experiences is actually a common occurrence in cults.

The sharing of “sins” or “defects” is common cult behavior, as is the act of setting up newcomers in a cult with a more seasoned member who can help them learn how the organization works. In a cult, you are encouraged to ask members who are higher up than you are any questions that you may have about the cult. This is said to be because these members are wiser and more experienced and thus provide needed information and advice that another newer member or person outside the cult doesn’t know.

So, members are encouraged to run anything and everything by whatever mentor the person has. While this sounds great, it actually is part of the mind control of the cult. When you always submit to and bring all of your questions to someone who is already heavily involved in a cult, you miss out on outside opinions about the organization. It also leaves you open to mind control tactics. Also, the act of always asking an older member of the group questions and then following whatever he or she says denies a person of critical thinking and independence. And, just like sharing your character defects or sins with a member of a cult tears a person down and makes him or her dependent on the cult, so does the act of running everything by a seasoned member(s). Plus, discouraging free and critical thinking leads a person to be blind to what is happening in the cult.

These behaviors definitely occur in 12 step groups. A person is encouraged to find a sponsor and are told that they must always follow sponsor direction. This discourages free thinking and independence and encourages dependence on members of the cult (AA). People in AA are told things like “you have stinkin’ thinking”, “your first thought is always wrong” and that they don’t have anything to contribute as a newcomer and must listen to and take their concerns to other members of the group. They are also told that they are toxic or unhealthy just because they are newly sober “alcoholics”. In other words, newcomers are treated like they are entirely ineffective human beings and that they must turn to experienced members for support (especially their sponsor), as well as follow the suggestions in AA if they hope to live a good life and become “healthy” in any way. But, the truth is that this is a myth that is perpetuated in AA in order to make newcomers feel low enough so that they not only join the program but also don’t question what happens in it, as newcomers are told that they are not thinking clearly and need to learn how to do so by attending AA.

I remember that when I first went to AA, that I defaulted to my sponsor for every single little thing in my life. I really didn’t have confidence in myself at all due to all of the tactics that are described above. Within only a few months of being in AA I developed extreme learned helplessness and felt extremely bad about myself. But, at the same time, by the time that I worked the steps I had a sense of confidence that I had not experienced before because I was following the suggestions in AA. Even so, underneath this was a lot of negative thinking about myself and growing insecurity.

Throughout my time in AA, my learned helplessness showed up in many ways. I always defaulted to someone else for help for decisions that most people would have no problem making on their own. Sometimes these were for small decisions, and sometimes it was for big decisions. Also, whenever I was having a hard time, instead of dealing with it myself or finding coping mechanisms to help me I would just turn to everyone in AA for support. Sometimes I got it, but many times I did not. However, I kept doing it anyways because it felt good to follow the suggestions in AA, even if they actually didn’t work.

When I think about it, I find it funny that people in AA are told and believe that alcoholics are full of self pity because it’s part of alcoholism and the alcoholic personality. I remember that in AA it seemed as though I experienced self-pity for the first time in my life because the program wore me down so much and told me that I was a horrible person with all of these defects. Thus, this promoted “self-pity” as people in AA call it, which reinforced mine and everyone else’s feelings that the Big Book and AA really are correct in what they say about “alcoholics”. The truth is, though, that much of the ideas that are proposed in AA are actually a result of the problems and actions that are taken within the organization such as fourth and fifth steps. Even so, they perpetuate false ideas about alcoholics within the program and promote the program itself. Really, though, what happens in AA is not at all what most people believe to be true.

It’s been difficult for me to comprehend the extent of the effects that AA had on me, and that I wasn’t even aware of it for some time. I know that part of the reason why I wasn’t aware of these effects was because it felt good to be a part of something “greater than myself” and I found confidence in the fact that I was “taking action” and following the suggestions in AA. I always have been the type of person who looks for a purpose in life and I’ve always wanted to do anything that I can to better this world. So, AA gave me a purpose, but at the sake of my self esteem, independence, intellectual thoughts and abilities, and my sense of self. But, eventually it became my purpose for living, and the more that it did so the more I became dependent on the group. Eventually,though, I could no longer ignore the negative effects that AA had on me and the problems within the organization.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.

6 thoughts on “How Healthy is Sponsorship in AA?

  1. Virginia Panarella April 10, 2019 — 1:14 pm

    My first sponsor started going gambling in Atlantic City every weekend with her married (unknown to her) co worker drug counselor. I figured that was not going to work for me. Second sponsor fired me because I “reminded her of her sister. Thats after I supported her in a forged check deal. She was found guilty. My third and final sponsor was a great woman who never preached to me. She is deceased and I still mourn her passing. She was more of a friend than anyone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sponsors really can have quite an impact on a person’s life. I’m glad that you found one who you liked.

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  2. I dislike sponsors and sponsoring. I struggled to trust (a normal abuse survivor response). I just found the whole space weird and hypocritical and problematic. I attracted trauma survivors and cult survivors who needed more help than the AA program could offer. I was confused about my role. I just couldn’t see how alcohol was the problem for these women. They were just dealing with unresolved trauma and I was not equipped to be a therapist. I struggled with boundaries and found the process exhausting. I am very wary about sponsorship now. I think it is dangerous and as you said discourages people from critical thinking and adopting a sense of personal agency.

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  3. My first sponsor was someone with whom I’d drank and used with when a young teenager, who had gotten sober/clean in AA 7 or 8 years before I did. I really did give him all my power, and allowed him to make decisions that I regret to this day, 30 years later. For instance, he advised me to cut off all contact with my parents and siblings, because, he said, after I saw them I was crazy for weeks.

    He had also recruited me into Landmark Education, where I devoted hundreds of hours and spent thousands of dollars. It wasn’t until I saw an article about the Cult Hotline and Clinic run by the Jewish Board of Children and Family Services, called and started seeing a phenomenal therapist that I was able to disentangle myself from Landmark and then, soon after, detangling myself from AA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that’s quite the story. He definitely sounds like a scary person. I know that one of my sponsors in AA convinced me to cut contact with some of my college friends, claiming that I’d treated them badly and should no longer see them. But, years later they told me that they never felt that way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree. I attracted the same type of women both as sponsor and sponsee. I remember trying to get my sponsees to seek professional help instead of treating me like their counselor but none did. I also felt like their mental health issues were their main issue but most were so dependent on AA that they kept trying that instead of seeking help. Eventually I just stopped sponsoring because of this and because of my health.

    Liked by 1 person

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