The Principle and Process of Sponsorship
The legacy of Milton Erickson has been elaborated and deepened in many ways in the last 20 years. My own work has moved from a more mainstream Ericksonian emphasis (see Gilligan, 1987) to the development of a neo-Ericksonian approach I call self-relations psychotherapy (see Gilligan, 1997). Like Erickson’s work, self-relations emphasises the positive aspects of problems and symptoms. It sees such disturbances of the “normal order” as evidence that “something is waking up” in the life of a person or community. Such disturbances are double-edged crisis’. On the one side, they are (often hidden) opportunities for major growth (most of us can recall negative events – a death, divorce, illness or addiction – that led to significant positive change in our lives). On the other side, such disturbances can be very destructive – we can get lost in depression, acting out or other problematic behaviors. Self-relations suggests that the difference is in whether a disturbance can be “sponsored” by a skillful human presence.
The principle and processes of sponsorship are the cornerstone of self-relations. The word “sponsorship” comes from the Latin “spons”, meaning, “to pledge solemnly”. So sponsorship is a vow to help a person (including one’s self) to use each and every event and experience to awaken to the goodness and gifts of the self, the world and the connections between the two. Self-relations suggests that experiences that come into a person’s life are not yet fully human; they have no human value until a person is able to “sponsor them”.
A good example of this can be found in the extraordinary life of Helen Keller (see Keller, 1902/1988). At 18 months Keller contracted a severe illness that left her without sight or hearing for the rest of her life. For the next six years she suffered in a dark and isolated world of intense sensations, anger, self-absorption and frustration. Nobody could find a way to connect with her, and she couldn’t find a way to directly communicate with others. When she was seven, her sponsor – the social worker, Annie Sullivan – came into her life.
As Keller wrote:
“The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects.” (p. 16)
Through her connection with Annie Sullivan, Keller re-entered the world of the living and never looked back. She went on to distinguish herself as one of the most intelligent, inspirational, humanitarian persons of the century.
The distinction between what we might call the pre-sponsored Helen Keller and the post-sponsored Helen Keller can be found in each of us at many levels. It is easy to see in young children, who have no language or other sponsorship skills for their feeling states (such as being tired, hungry, lonely, or angry) and thus simply mindlessly act them out until a sensitive adult can recognise their meaning and attend to them. Hopefully, over time a child learns to recognise and “sponsor” their own feeling states, and thereby becomes a “re-spons-ible” person in the community. However, any experiences or behaviors that arise that are neglected, ignored, or cursed by the person or community remain in their pre-sponsored, “not quite ready for prime time” state. They repetitively assert themselves, looking for the human presence that will sponsor them and thereby allow their positive value to become apparent to self and community. But if each time they are rejected anew, they become increasingly troublesome and antagonistic to the person and the community.
This is when clients appear in therapy offices: an “out of control” experience or behavior is increasingly disturbing them. While the normal sentiment of anybody (including client and therapist) might be to use whatever means necessary to defeat, destroy, or otherwise “get rid of” the negative otherness (and thereby re-establish the old “normal” self), self-relations builds on the legacy of Erickson by examining how such experiences can be sponsored as the gifts (however “terrible”) of growth.
Thus, a “depression” might be the gift that signals that the client cannot continue with their false self that tries to achieve happiness by pleasing others or achieving at all costs. An addiction can allow a person to discover that there is an intelligence within them that is greater than their intellect. A marital failure might force a person to learn to speak their true feelings. An anxiety can help a person discover the strength of the indestructible “tender soft spot” at the core of their being.
To transform these seemingly negative experiences into their deeper positive values, sponsorship includes many processes. The “yin” (receptive) aspect of sponsorship involves receiving, allowing your heart to be opened, bearing witness, providing place or sanctuary, soothing, gently holding, being curious, deep listening and beholding a presence with the eyes of kindness and understanding. The “yang” (active) aspect includes relentless commitment, fierce attentiveness, providing guidance, setting limits and boundaries, challenging self-limitations and introducing the sponsored experience to other resources. Through a skillful combination of these and related sponsorship processes, an experience or behavior that seems to have no value to the self or community can be transformed from an “it” that should be destroyed to a “thou” that can be listened to, appreciated and allowed to develop within self and community.