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  • Writer's pictureDonna Richardson, CEC, ACC

Rejection and loss | How metaphors can help us reframe

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

We’ve all experienced them. Disappointments, rejections and losses.

It’s natural to feel strong emotions when these things happen. But, it’s sometimes hard to find the words to express what we’re feeling and to get past the disappointment to see new possibilities.

Metaphors help us paint a picture

I felt like a fish out of water when I joined the company. She felt like she had so many balls in the air, she was bound to drop one. He was on top of the world when he heard he got the job.

These phrases—metaphors—are well known to most of us and are examples of how we use words to paint a picture. When it comes to expressing our emotions, which may be hard to do, metaphors can help us describe how we’re feeling when other words escape us.

Set adrift in a rubber dinghy

A while ago, I was laid off from my position at a large post-secondary institution. The layoff itself did not come as a surprise and, in many ways, felt like a gift. What did surprise me was how I felt three months later when my paid leave period ended.

The metaphor that came to mind as I described this experience to my coach was that of me in a rubber dinghy. During the three months following my layoff, I still felt connected to the organization—as though I was out on the water in my rubber dinghy, but still tethered to the very large “mother ship.” Then, when that period ended (along with employee benefits and any further real communication with the organization), I suddenly felt as though I became untethered and set adrift, completely on my own.

Just as one metaphor can help us describe negative emotions, a different metaphor can help us reframe our thinking, picture and describe more positive emotions, and consider the possibilities before us.

From the rubber dinghy to the sailboat

When we’re feeling stuck or isolated, reframing our perspective can help us see things differently, turning negative emotions into positive ones, obstacles into openings, and challenges into opportunities.

My coach invited me to think about a different way to look at this experience and come up with a new metaphor. In doing so, I was able to get out of the rubber dinghy and step onto my sailboat, taking charge of setting a course for myself based on my purpose, values and needs. As we explored the sailboat metaphor together, I saw that the destination(s)—goals—I would set out towards were of my own choosing.

The sailboat is a metaphor that sticks with me. It’s been helpful when I consider factors that are beyond my control, such as inclement weather (e.g. COVID 19) and supportive resources that are available to me on my sailboat (e.g. my faith). I've also been able to consider resources around me, such as my family, coaching colleagues, and so on (e.g. other sailboats on the water).

Try it out

As it happens, the sailboat is sometimes a helpful metaphor when working with my coaching clients. Reframing our experience, recognizing what we can control and what we cannot, and looking at possibilities rather than disappointments can help us feel a greater sense of well-being and give us the ability to move forward, rather than feel stuck.

1. Think of a challenge, disappointment or loss you are dealing with.

2. Using a metaphor, describe how the challenge makes you feel. Where are you? Are you alone or with others? What is it that is causing you to feel stuck, as though you can’t move forward?

3. Take some time to think about this situation. Then, reframe it in a new way with a different perspective.

4. What metaphor comes to mind that helps you describe your new, reframed way of looking at your situation? In what ways might this help you move forward?

By the way, both of the images in this article are in my office as visual reminders that help me stay focused and positive.

Are you in a situation where you feel stuck? Connect with me and let’s talk.



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


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