Exhausted and unable to concentrate. Trying to help many others, but not taking care of myself.

Exercise daily: good physical health. Single, PhD, many friends, but no intimacy. Sleeping too much. Need to get motivated. Great financial assets, but don’t enjoy anything.
Asked by Buck

The Sailboat



The goal of this sailboat metaphor is to offer a simple and multi-faceted perspective on the self. The metaphor attempts to address human functioning from a holistic perspective, considering the many factors, both positive and negative, that influence well-being daily.


1.       Water

 No boat moves in isolation from the water. The water can be compared to what we could call the “playground of life”. Just like the water entails the space in which the boat moves, this is the direct environment that we live in and interact with. This environment is characterized by many factors, like our job, our house, our possessions, geographical location, etc. In short, it is our direct physical reality. All the other elements of the boat metaphor influence the way we perceive and interact with our environment. For instance, a person who holds the belief that he/she cannot achieve anything (this is a “leak” in the boat: element 4) is unlikely to leave his/her comfort zone and is likely to stay in a rather static environment: he/she is unlikely to explore new areas of the sea. In a similar vein, the direct environment of a person who lives in line with his/her personal value of “social connectedness” (steering wheel: element 2) is likely to be characterized by cherished social connections (other boats; element 8). Many clients visit a practitioner because they are unsatisfied with the water upon which they sail: they wish to change their daily reality. Changing the water without considering the other elements of the boat metaphor is possible. We can decide to steer our boat in a different direction so that we move to another area of the sea. Consequently, the water we sail on changes. For instance, we may change our job or leave our hometown. Note, however, that changing one’s environment will not automatically increase well-being. There can be many reasons for changing the environment, like avoidance of negative experiences, such as in the case of a person who chooses another job due to an inability to deal with the negative impact of a current boss. Although he/she has successfully changed the water upon which he/she sails, and avoided the negative experiences with the boss, he/she may soon be struggling again, because the real leak has not been repaired: the water has simply changed. In the new environment, the boss may be replaced by a colleague (another boat: element 8) who brings the experience of the same uncomfortable feelings again because the colleague’s style is remarkably like that of the former boss. This case illustrates that it can sometimes be valuable to address the other elements of the boat first, before changing the physical environment.


2.       Steering Wheel

 The steering wheel represents personal values. In the same way, as the steering wheel determines where the boat will go to, values determine how we want to live our life. They are the answer to the question: what do you find important in life? Just like the steering wheel determines a certain direction, values can also be best compared to directions, rather than destinations. Whereas goals can be achieved, values cannot be achieved. For example, the value of being creative can never be fulfilled. Even if the person creates a painting (a concrete goal), it would be silly to say, “Now that I have created this painting, I’ve accomplished creativity. Now I’ll proceed to the next thing.” Therefore, values are best formulated as verbs, in that they are not something that is ever fully achieved. For example, a value might be “being creative” or “contributing to other’s well-being”. Note that the steering wheel represents our current values, whether they are adaptive or maladaptive. Adaptive values contribute to our well-being while maladaptive values reduce wellbeing. When clients have lost connection with their adaptive values, it is often because one or more other elements of the boat receive a disproportionate level of attention. For instance, a client who experiences fear (compass: element 6), may spend a lot of time trying to control and reduce the fear. He/she is constantly monitoring and trying to control his/her inner experiences. In other words, undue attention is focused on the compass, and “safety” and “control” become the main direction of his/her boat. Paradoxically, sailing in this direction may cause fear to increase. The values “safety” and “control” thus affect his/her well-being in a negative way. Another client may focus too much on the values of other people (other boats: element 8). This focus may be the result of a need for approval: a value that is currently guiding his/her behavior, but which does not contribute to his/her well-being in a positive way.


3.       Destination

Just like a boat can sail to certain destinations, people can reach goals. While a value is a general direction of the boat, a goal is a specific and concrete destination of the boat. Goal setting and achievement are important processes that can help to concretize values. Goals can help to enhance focus, energize, and translate abstract values like “creativity” into practice. Achieving personally meaningful goals can help to build confidence. Or in terms of the boat metaphor, the sails of the boat (element 5) are becoming stronger.


4.       Leak

 A leak in the boat represents weaknesses: factors that hinder valued living and goal achievement. They reduce personal well-being. In a clinical context, these factors often consist of patterns of behaving and thinking that negatively affect well-being, producing emotions like fear, anxiety, and stress. Examples include negative thinking about the past, suppressing difficult emotions, and acting impulsively. Relating to performance, these are the factors that can de-energize you, resulting in poorer outcomes in task performance. When these weaknesses are used, they lead to feelings of negativity, disengagement, and lack of motivation.” (p.68 Linley, Willars, BiswasDiener, 2010). In either context, the weaknesses get in the way of flourishing. When we adopt a weakness focus, we focus solely on the leak. Although the leak is not the only defining characteristic of the boat (e.g., the boat has sails, a steering wheel, etc.) we focus our attention only on this specific aspect of the boat. In other words, we focus on what is wrong with an individual or ourselves. We direct attention on negative aspects of the individual. In the context of work and performance, a weakness focus means that we are primarily concerned with behavior that is causing suboptimal or low performance. For instance, during work evaluation, the employer is only focused on why an employee is not reaching his/her sales targets, or why he/she is not able to communicate well with customers. In a clinical context, this means that the focus is on behavioral or cognitive patterns that cause suffering and reduce well-being. For example, a psychologist is only focusing on the problems that the client experiences. Using this perspective, he/she may discover that the client thinks negatively about the past and has trouble dealing with these thoughts. The idea behind the weakness focus is clear and well-meaning: by fixing the weakness, we aim to increase well-being. In the terms of the boat metaphor: by fixing the leak, we expect the boat to be able to sail again. Indeed, if we do not fix the leak, then the boat will sink, and the client will not be able to sail anywhere. However, aiming to increase well-being by only focusing on repairing the leak of the boat is unlikely to result in success. This approach ignores the fact that the absence of problems or illness does not automatically imply well-being (see for instance Keyes, 2005). In terms of the metaphor, even if you would be able to repair the leak, your client may still not be able to get anywhere. It is his/her sails—the next component of the metaphor—that give your client’s boat forward momentum. In sum, it is important to address weaknesses (to prevent the boat from sinking), but one must also hoist the sails to catch a favorable wind (opportunity) and move forward.


5.       Sails

The sails of the boat represent personal strengths: factors that facilitate valued living and goal achievement: they increase personal well-being. These factors are positive traits reflected in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Park, Peterson, & Seligman, 2004). The sails include ways of behaving, thinking, or feeling that are authentic and energizing to the user. They enable optimal functioning, development, and performance (Linley, 2008). Examples of strengths are effective coping styles, like optimism or acceptance, but also activities that provide energy and enthusiasm, like writing or painting.


6.       Compass

 A compass is an instrument used for navigation and orientation that shows direction relative to the environment. It provides feedback on the current direction in which we are heading. In a similar vein, inner experiences like feelings, emotions, and intuition serve as a tool for navigation and orientation. Both positive and negative emotions/feelings are signals that provide feedback on the route we are taking in life. They can serve as a valuable guide on our journey. For this reason, it is important to pay attention to them and allow them to be present. Positive feelings like joy, energy, and gratitude signal personal well-being and inform us that we are on the right track. They can serve as a direct reinforcer and over time, build long-lasting resources (sails: element 5). Negative emotions like fear and anxiety inform us that attention is required. Rather than suppressing these negative feelings, allowing them to be present without acting upon them can reveal valuable information that may assist us on our route. Fear, for instance, may signal that we are approaching the edge of our comfort zone. Since we are uncertain about what the other side of the ocean looks like, we experience fear. Fear may indicate that we have a chance to broaden our horizons and expand our comfort zone. Possibly, we may also conclude that the thing causing us to fear seems important to us (why would we experience fear if we did not care about it?) and may give us insight into a personal value. Note that emotion itself is never the problem. In terms of the boat metaphor, the compass is not the problem: it just provides information and feedback. The problem is that clients often use their compass in an ineffective way. The negative emotions that are indicated by the compass cause many clients to attempt to control or avoid them, which paradoxically can lead to increased negative emotions. The inability to use the compass is a common leak (element 4) of the boat.


7.       Weather

The weather can be compared to uncontrollable circumstances in life. Just like we cannot control the weather, both positive and negative events will take place that cannot be controlled. Sometimes the wind blows in our sails and we encounter situations that allow us to use our strengths to the maximum. Other times the wind and the rain make it difficult to keep traveling in our preferred direction. Real-life examples include the loss of a beloved one, getting stuck in traffic, winning the lottery, falling in love, etc. Although these circumstances are completely beyond our control, especially in the case of difficult circumstances, they can have a serious impact on our well-being depending on the way we deal with them. The ability to deal with these circumstances in an effective way can build resilience and help us to stay on track, despite any challenges that accompanied the circumstances. In concrete terms, this means that we fully utilize our strengths and become aware of what we can or cannot control.


8.       Other Boats

The other boats in the sea represent the people that surround us. These boats can be compared to our social network. Others can influence us in many ways, both positively and negatively. For instance, when we decide to turn the steering wheel and take a different course, we may experience support by peers who motivate us to pursue our new direction. At the same time, there may be others who disapprove of the new direction and provoke feelings of self-doubt and fear within us (compass: element 6). In the latter case, it is important to stay true to one’s own values and direction, rather than letting others determine the course of the boat. Our social network may also offer support in difficult times. In times of stormy weather, other boats can help us stay on our course and remind us of what is enormously important on our journey (our core values).



Interaction between elements


 The different components of the boat metaphor do not exist in isolation but are interacting with each other continuously. Some examples of how the elements of the boat work together synergistically are described below.

  Ignoring weaknesses (leak: element 4) while boosting use of strengths (sails: element 5) will give the boat momentum but will gradually cause the boat to sink. In other words, it is important to address both weakness and strengths.

A boat that sails in a personally valuable direction (steering wheel: element 2) will be more likely to stay on track during stormy weather (element 7) compared to a boat that is sailing in a direction that is not perceived as personally meaningful. Stated differently, valued living can enhance resilience.

A boat that is not willing to choose a different direction (element 2) because of fear (compass: element 6) of leaving the “comfort zone” will be unlikely to sail in new waters (element 1). Using more psychological terms, this means that structural changes of the client’s environment are unlikely to emerge when avoidance-based coping is used to deal with negative emotions.

  The nature of the water (quiet, turbulent, etc.) is not only influenced by uncontrollable circumstances, like the weather (element 7), but also by the deliberate choice of the boat sailing in another direction (steering wheel: element 2). This new direction might cause the boat to enter a new zone that is characterized by (temporary) turbulent or quiet waters, rocky or dangerous areas, etc. Likewise, other boats (element 8) can block the sail route, making it difficult to sail in a certain direction. These examples illustrate that the daily reality a person is facing is influenced by many factors, internal and external, all varying in the degree of controllability. Not only uncontrollable events like the loss of a friend or the negative influence of other people influence daily reality, but also the deliberate choices we make in life. By making the deliberate choice to live by the influence of your personal values, the changes we typically experience (both behavioral and circumstantial) will tend to align with those values. In terms of the boat metaphor, this means that we deliberately choose a different route and will encounter different waters. This new route will be characterized by easy and difficult parts.


For clients, it is often helpful to consider the parts of the new route that will be potentially challenging and evaluate the degree of controllability. By doing so, a client can prevent him/herself from trying to influence uncontrollable events. For instance, a client who decides to quit drinking may anticipate ex-fellow drinkers (other boats: element 8) to be unsupportive of the new direction. Rather than attempting to gain control by trying to convince these people to choose the same direction, the client may wisely decide to focus on controllable elements of the boat, like the direction of the boat or the sails. The client may decide to steer the boat in a direction that allows more frequent encounters with supportive boats or may decide to deliberately use his/her personal strengths to deal with the challenges.


Key ingredients for well-being


Taking all the different elements of the boat into consideration can help to understand what contributes to personal well-being. Some considerations are listed below:



 For well-being to increase, awareness of the different elements of the boat metaphor is not sufficient. A person who becomes aware of the fact that his/her boat is sailing in a direction that does not promote personal well-being, must act, and turn the wheel in a valuable and adaptive direction to increase well-being. In other words, in addition to becoming aware of one’s values, one must take specific behavioral steps to benefit from this awareness. Likewise, it is not enough to hoist the sails of the boat (element 5). One must also steer the boat in a direction (element 2) or turn the sails in a position that allows them to catch the wind. So, to increase well-being, merely becoming aware of one’s own strengths is not sufficient. In addition to (increased) awareness, behavioral and circumstantial changes that allow strengths to be used are required.



The balance between elements:

 A balanced amount of attention to the different elements can be considered a baseline condition for well-being. Too much focus on any component is unlikely to result in well-being. For instance, a client may focus too much on the destination of the boat (goals: element 3) and consequently fails to enjoy the view during his/her journey (positive emotions: element 6). Another client may focus too much on the uncontrollability of the weather (uncontrollable events: element 7) and experience learned helplessness (leak: element 4).


Taking all elements into consideration:

 Ignoring elements is likely to result in low levels of well-being. For instance, the destination of a boat (element 3) that is too strongly determined by the destination of the other boats (element 8) may ignore its compass (element 6). Consequently, the boat is lacking a sense of autonomy (steering wheel: element 2) and feels like it is being controlled from outside elements. A boat that ignores its sails (strengths: element 5) will have a hard time going through stormy weather (element 7) and may lack a sense of energy and enthusiasm (compass: element 6).


Continuous involvement:

 All the elements of the boat metaphor require continuous attention. For example, even if a client manages to repair a leak and focus on strengths, the water will still create strong pressure on that leak: clients will repeatedly be tested in their weaknesses. Therefore, it is not sufficient to temporarily repair or patch the leak. The client needs to consistently check the leak (reflect) and strengthen the repair (consciously work on weaknesses). Weaknesses do not simply vanish in a day and typically require continuous attention. The same holds for the steering wheel of the boat. As stated before, values are chosen actions, that can never be obtained like an object, but can only be concretized from moment to moment. This means that valued living is an ongoing process that requires continuous attention. Moreover, continuous involvement is also the key to strength development. Through effort, challenging oneself, learning how to deal with failure, and taking risks, the client can increase his/her sails. By increasing the size of his/ her sails and learning how to effectively use the sails, the client forces more wind to hit the sails. Consequently, the boat will become faster and stronger. In other words, continuously working on strengths will also increase their beneficial effects.



 Rather than perceiving the elements of the boat as static and attempting to maintain their current state, they should be considered highly dynamic. One is always allowed to change direction (values: element 2) and destinations (goals: element 3) at any given moment. Likewise, the compass, the weather, and the social environment are constantly changing. The importance of flexibility is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the sails (strengths: element 5) of the boat. The sails are dependent on external factors like the weather (element 7). The wind may not blow in a direction for the sails to catch it. In this case, the sailor must be flexible enough to change the direction of the boat, adjust the sails to catch the wind, or wait until the wind turns in a favorable direction again. In other words, optimal strength use requires careful consideration of the situation and context one is facing. Rather than just blindly using strength to its fullest degree, one must be able to flexibly interact with the environment.