The Sailboat Metaphor: Understanding the
Self and Human Behavior (Part 2)

Written by Rida Tahir on Aug 01, 2020 (11 minute read)

Read Part 1 here.

In my previous article The Sailboat Metaphor: Understanding the Self and Human Behavior, I talked about the first four elements of the Sailboat Metaphor i.e. water, steering wheel, destination and leak. In this article, I will talk about the remaining four elements i.e. sails, compass, weather and other boats.

5. Sails

The sails are the most important part of a sailboat because they use wind power to propel the sailboat forward. Sails represent our personal strengths, such as creativity, curiosity, gratitude, love of learning, love, purpose, perspective, judgement, leadership, etc. Our personal strengths help us achieve our goals and live a life that’s in line with our values. They boost our personal well-being.

Two psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman conducted research and identified 24 character strengths, called the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. There are 7.8 billion humans in the world and every person is a unique combination of these 24 strengths. Ryan Niemiec, Education Director of the Via Institute on Character in Cincinnati, Ohio, likens these character strengths to seeds. We all have 24 seeds within us and each seed has the capacity to grow into a big beautiful plant if we water it and pay attention to it. For example, I am working on developing my strength creativity by writing and painting regularly because I want to become an artist and author.

Character strengths make up our identity i.e. who we are as a person. My signature character strengths (top 5) are creativity, curiosity, love of learning, gratitude and love. Everyone who knows me personally knows that these aspects are a part of me. They have all seen my creativity in the form of my artwork. They have all seen my curiosity and love of learning in the fact that I love writing, reading and learning new things just out of curiosity. They have all seen my gratitude and love in how I never get tired of singing praises of my husband, who is a gem of a person (see what I did there?). The point is these 5 strengths are such a deep-rooted part of me, my identity and my character, that everybody can see it.

When we work on developing our character strengths, the result is stronger sails, which are crucial for smooth sailing of the sailboat. In other words, when we tap into our character strengths, we can potentially have better health, more intimate and close relationships, we can achieve more and live a more meaningful life, we can be better equipped to solve our problems, better able to manage stress and better able to cope with difficulties in life.

Also, when we tap into particular character strengths, we are working for the collective good, for a greater cause and connecting with our community and culture. This is because when we work on our character strengths, we are actually working on becoming a better person, a better human being, and a good human being is also automatically a good citizen and a valuable part of the community.

6. Compass

While steering wheel is used to steer the sailboat in a certain direction, a compass is what determines whether the direction is right or wrong. Compass is a tool that shows direction in terms of North, South, East and West. Compass of the sailboat represents our feelings, emotions and intuition, because just like a compass helps the sailors navigate the sea, our feelings, emotions and intuition help us navigate the sea of life. They are a valuable guide for us as they give us feedback on the direction we are currently heading towards and tell us whether it’s right or wrong. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your feelings, emotions and intuition and allow yourself to experience them fully.

Positive emotions, like love, joy, interest, enthusiasm, satisfaction, hope, pride, inspiration, flow and calm, indicate personal well-being and contribute to personal growth and development. They tell us that we are headed in the right direction. For example, if your job satisfaction levels are high, you feel appreciated and recognized, you have opportunities to learn and grow, you get along well with your colleagues and have built positive relationships at work, this is your brain telling you that you are on the right track. Even if this job doesn’t pay well, your experience of positive emotions is enough to tell you that this is what you want; this is what is good for you and for your personal well-being.

Negative emotions, like fear, anxiety, sadness, anger or despair, on the other hand, tell us that something is wrong or off and that we need to pay attention. Think of the negative vibes you get when you are with certain people or in certain places. It is your intuition telling you that something is not right and you need to be careful.

We are used to suppressing our negative emotions because they are uncomfortable, overwhelming, sometimes even debilitating, and also because we think it is dangerous to express negative emotions. But suppressing negative emotions or feelings is not wise because experiencing negative emotions or feelings fully can give you valuable insight into what you don’t want in your life and what is not right for you. In other words, negative emotions cannot point you in the right direction, but they most definitely can signal a wrong direction. That’s why our emotions are as important to our functioning, as a compass to the functioning of a sailboat.

Example: if your relationship is draining you emotionally and making you feel miserable, unloved and lonely, your brain is telling you through your emotions and feelings that this relationship is not right for you, because a healthy relationship is one where you feel loved and cared for, where you have space to breathe, to grow and to be yourself. 

7. Weather

Weather is an important but uncontrollable factor that has a huge impact on the functioning of a sailboat. When the weather is good or favorable and the wind is blowing in our sails, the sails work optimally and the sailboat moves along its course smoothly. When the weather is bad or unfavorable, the wind and the rain make it difficult for the sailboat to sail smoothly and stay on its course. Sailing in rough weather or through a storm is dangerous to both the functioning and the existence of a sailboat, and many sailboats are destroyed and capsize or sink in stormy weather.

In the Sailboat Metaphor, the weather represents circumstances in our life that we cannot control i.e. negative events (= bad weather) like death of a loved one, divorce/break up, illnesses, etc. and positive events (= good weather) like falling in love with someone, new friendships, success in business, winning a lottery, etc. While positive life events or experiences help us grow and flourish and allow us to make the most of our strengths, negative life events or experiences can have a more serious and significant impact on our well-being (physical as well as mental and emotional), depending on how we deal with them.

That's why a sailboat has to be prepared to deal with rough weather or storms. Having strong sails is the most important way to prepare for bad weather conditions, because if the sails are unable to withstand wear, pressure, or damage, the strong winds of the storm will tear the sails and the sailboat will be at the risk of capsizing and sinking.

In the same way, our character strengths, when developed, can help us deal with negative or traumatic life events effectively and make us more resilient i.e. better able to withstand or recover quickly from the traumatic event and bounce back to normal.

If our character strengths are underdeveloped or underutilized, negative life events can hit us hard i.e. they can potentially have a more negative impact on our well-being, as compared to those who have well-developed character strengths. We might not be able to cope with the circumstances and might take longer to recover from the trauma and bounce back to normal.

Some people find it difficult to deal with negative life events, but with time, they eventually come to terms with whatever happened.

Some people never recover from the trauma; they get stuck in grief and their physical and mental health rapidly deteriorates. Some develop addictions to alcohol or drugs, while others end up as criminals or commit suicide.

Some people recover from the trauma quickly and move on with their lives like they were before the tragedy struck. There is no growth or positive change.

But some people experience Post-Traumatic Growth, which refers to a positive change experienced after a major life crisis or traumatic event. Divorce, for example, can be devastating, especially for women. Many women are so traumatized that they suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and take years to recover from the trauma. But some women experience Post-Traumatic Growth after divorce i.e. they come out stronger and have happier, more meaningful and fulfilling lives after divorce than what they had before tragedy struck. They are better able to cope with divorce, no matter how traumatic, because they have well-developed character strengths of hope,
bravery, spirituality, self-regulation and perseverance.

8. Other Boats

Other boats in the sea are also important for the smooth functioning of a sailboat because a sailboat has to ensure that it’s not getting in the path of other boats, or other boats are not crossing its path or sailing too close together. Sometimes, collisions happen between boats when sailing too close together.

Since humans are social animals and can’t live in isolation, other boats in the Sailboat Metaphor represent the people around us or our social network. The people that we are surrounded with influence us in many ways, which can be positive or negative. Think of all the people, your parents, siblings, teachers, friends, celebrities, people you follow on social media, etc. who have been a great influence, positive or negative, on you, your life, your choices and decisions. 

Some people have a positive influence on you. They believe in you and teach you to believe in yourself. They support you, motivate you, encourage you and push you to be a better version of yourself, because they want you to be happy and successful.

When the weather is stormy, other boats can help a boat stay on its course and safely cruise back to the dock. In the same way, in your difficult times, some people support you and make sure the difficult times don’t break you. They are your life support system and come to your rescue, like a lifeboat that rescues people from a sinking ship. These are the people who matter the most to you in your lives.

At the same time, there are many others who don’t believe in you and make you doubt yourself and question your choices and decisions. They are toxic; they actively oppose you, undermine you, demotivate and discourage you, and try to bring out the worst in you, because they are jealous or envious of you and want you to fail and be unhappy. These are the people you need to keep a distance from, because they can poison everything they touch.

Because other people can influence you and your choices, it's important that you stay true to your own values and the direction that you have chosen for yourself and not let other boats determine the direction of the sailboat.

Takeaway: You are the Captain

There is one more element that needs to be discussed i.e. the captain of the sailboat. The captain is an inseparable and indispensable part of a sailboat because a sailboat cannot sail without a captain. The captain represents you. The sailboat is under your control and you are responsible for effectively managing the sailboat. 

While you, as the captain of the sailboat, have only some control over the water (physical environment) and absolutely no control over the weather (uncontrollable circumstances) and other boats (other people), it is important to remind yourself that you do have the power to steer your sailboat in any direction you want (you can choose your values and the direction of your life, you can choose to stay true to your values and stay on track).

You do have the power to choose the destination of your sailboat (you can set goals for your life).

You do have the power to use the compass to navigate the sea (you can use and manage your feelings, emotions and intuition to determine what’s right for you and what’s wrong).

You do have the power to find any leaks in the boat and repair them (you can identify your weaknesses and work on them).

You do have the power to hoist and adjust the sails (you can identify and develop your character strengths and make the most of them).

Ask yourself:

Are you the Captain of your sailboat? Or just a silent spectator or a puppet controlled by others? Are you controlling your sailboat, or letting it be controlled by other boats (other people) or weather (uncontrollable circumstances)? 

Does your sailboat have a destination (goals)? Are you using the compass (feelings, emotions, intuition) to guide your sailboat? Are you in control of the steering wheel (values) of the sailboat and steering it in the direction you want? or is it drifting aimlessly around the sea?

Are you aware of the leaks (weaknesses) in your sailboat? Are you doing something to fix them? Are you making the best use of your sails (character strengths)? 

Are you prepared to deal with bad weather (uncontrollable circumstances)? Do you have what it takes (character strengths) to deal with bad weather?

Do you know how other boats (other people) are helping your sailboat stay on its course, and how some are getting in your way creating obstacles for you? 

The answers will surprise you.

Source: Alberts, H.J.E.M. (2016). The Sailboat. Maastricht: Positive Psychology Program. Available online at