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The Mentoring Elephant in the Room: The Relapsing Mentor

Yep. That’s an elephant alright. Or at least it will be, the moment we are ready to admit we see it too.

This week we start a new series based on a phrase coined by my lovely friend and colleague, Dr. Wendy Oliver-Pyatt, during a recent presentation we offered at an eating disorders conference.

She likes to call the mentoring (and other!) questions everybody has but nobody wants to ask “elephants in the room.”

In other words, the elephants are snuffling noisily through their long trunks, dragging their giant padded feet, flopping their big wavy ears back and forth, and we are still hesitant to mention the presence of what we fear no one but us sees.

But everyone sees them. You can’t miss an elephant.

Our inaugural elephant question is, “what happens when a mentor relapses?”

I chose this question first because it is probably the most common question I get asked when I am sharing information about how MentorCONNECT approaches adding a mentor to a recovering person’s support team.

The answer is – drum roll please – we deal with each situation as it arises.

The good news is, at least where MentorCONNECT is concerned, that a mentor relapse situation doesn’t happen very often in our community. Maybe this is because we are good at screening our mentors (to learn more about the requirements to serve click HERE).

Maybe it is because our mentors discover as they begin their mentoring work that helping others helps them get stronger in recovery too (in a study by researcher Maria Pagano, 2009, it was shown that 40% of alcoholics were able to sustain 12 consecutive months of sobriety by incorporating service to others into their recovery program. Only 22% of alcoholics who did not get involved in service work were able to stay sober for a year).

And maybe it is a combination of the two, plus other elements as well.

What happens in the rare instances on MentorCONNECT when a mentor does relapse is that we talk about it.

First, we try to determine what the mentor means when they use the word “relapse,” how long the relapse has been going on, what that mentor’s support base is like, and how close the situation seems to be to resolving itself.

We then ask that mentor to self-assess whether they believe they can continue in good faith to support their mentee post-relapse.

Sometimes the mentor breathes a sigh of relief and says “no,” at which point we reassure them that we will work with their mentee to facilitate a rematch with another mentor.

And sometimes that mentor says “yes” and we allow the match to continue.

Interestingly, when it comes to mentoring for eating disorders recovery, we place many more controls around an applicant’s demonstrated readiness to serve, and many more scheduled evaluations of how the match is working out, than our sister Twelve Step communities do.

If you were involved in a Twelve Step fellowship, and you had completed all 12 steps with your own sponsor, you would be deemed ready to serve as a sponsor yourself. If you held yourself out as a sponsor before completing all 12 steps, no one might ever know.

It is good to have controls in place to assess a recovered person’s readiness to serve. But in the end, a mentoring relationship is just another opportunity to practice living life, meeting new people, and having new experiences in new contexts, and as such will never be played out in an environment that is free from risk.

Today’s Takeaway: Where have you been feeling overly concerned about offering what you have to share, or accepting help from another, because of fears of readiness, worthiness, or all of the above? Progress is always a worthy goal to have. Perfection, on the other hand, is often just the stumbling block we must learn to sidestep if we ever want to learn how to truly live.

The Mentoring Elephant in the Room: The Relapsing Mentor

Shannon Cutts

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2013). The Mentoring Elephant in the Room: The Relapsing Mentor. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 16, 2018, from


Last updated: 16 Oct 2013
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 16 Oct 2013
Published on All rights reserved.