7th September 2020

What we can learn from the leaves that don’t fall

By Dr Caroline Horner

I came across a word I’d never heard before this week, marcescence.

It’s used to describe dead leaves that don't fall from a tree.

It’s not something I ever really stopped to think about, why some leaves remain on the trees through winter while the majority fall away in autumn.

After a little googling, I discovered that there are a number of reasons why trees retain some of their dead leaves. That they deter browsing animals is thought to be one reason. The other idea is that trees hold on to some leaves for nutrient cycling – leaves on the forest floor decay and nutrients leach away. This means they are unavailable to nourish the tree in the next growing season. The tree keeps some leaves back to feed itself later.

These mechanisms allow the tree to protect itself and yet leaf drop is beneficial for trees. It allows them to reduce water loss and to develop new leaves that efficiently use sunlight in warmer months.

Regardless the reason for marcescent leaves, when growth begins, the expanding buds push them off and clothe the branches with new greenery.

It made me reflect on why we cling onto things when letting go might actually serve us better, allow for growth that will make us happier and more fulfilled in the long term.

We hold on to things – people, beliefs, behaviours – much like the trees do, in an attempt to protect ourselves. It is a survival mechanism that we use to avoid discomfort, fear and keep ourselves safe. However in times of transition we frequently need to ‘let go’ of behaviours, beliefs, people that have “passed their sell-by” date in order to ‘let in’ and make space for new ideas, people and experiences.

This is not easy. Our bodies tell us that we need these things to survive. Yes, those things might’ve been useful at one point in our lives, but are they still?

Retraining our brains and our bodies to not feel triggered and to not snap into old ways of being is critical if we are to grow, experiment and develop new opportunities for ourselves.

I wanted to share a few thoughts on the subject of letting go, which seem particularly fitting as we head into autumn and a change of season.

We have all experienced a number of changes since the pandemic – not physically being in the office, not seeing our loved ones, not going on that holiday we had planned, losing the job we loved.

However, change is not the same as transition. We can change our house, our job, our partner – we can “move in” to the house, sit in a different office, spend more time with another person but that visible change doesn’t mean that I have transitioned. Emotionally and psychologically I may still be ‘living’ in my old house, missing my old coffee shop and friends; I might still be processing the pain and disappointment of my hopes and dreams for the career or relationship I had. On the surface I look as though I have made the change but internally, I am still processing, still making meaning of the change.

Letting go, saying goodbye, gaining closure on one stage of our lives is similar to the grieving process. You may question why not getting a promotion you wanted initiates grief but it’s the sense of loss. It’s not for anyone else to judge your response.

There is no set schedule to process loss. it’s a personal experience, unique to you and no one can accelerate it for you. Kubler-Ross’ s grief model is the frequently sited to express the stages or grief: shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These emotions are frequently part of all life transitions

Learning to let go is therefore an important part of any transition. It helps you move into the next transition phase where experimentation, new learning and energy can be discovered.

These early stages of transition can be uncomfortable and it is not uncommon to want to hide under the covers, put our heads in the sand and hold on.

Others may wish to pick up their rucksacks and run across hot coals to get to the other side where the assumption is the grass is greener and the pain will go away. However, in my experience there is no quick fix to the letting go process. It takes time.

Learning the skills of transition are increasingly important.

We live in a fast-changing world where we face the challenge of and have the opportunity for far more life and work transitions than ever before.

Some reports estimate that we will now have at least four careers (not roles) in our lifetime. This can feel daunting or exciting but the days of the myth of the one-time midlife crisis where we jump on a Harley-Davidson, get a tattoo and take up underwater basket weaving are over.

Life transitions are not a once-off event where we can sigh with relief that we have survived. We all go through many stages and phases in our lives. Effective transitions help us feel more fulfilled in each chapter.

Feeling comfortable in our own skin and grounded is a great place to be, but it is not a static state. We all evolve and grow through our lives. Learning the skills to do this is something we all need to master.

Letting go, one of these key skills is essential for growth and makes transitions more effective. I have included a few tips below to support you.

Also during significant life transitions it is enriching to have someone by your side throughout the process to give you the ‘tough-love’ and nurturing you need on occasion.

If you are keen to learn more about the stages of life transition and the key mind-sets and skills which enable transition you may wish to attend Design the life you want webinar or explore the support that individual coaching or our iOpener programme can offer so that you can move forward and start your next great chapter.

Tips for ‘letting go’

  • Be kind and gentle with yourself – expect to feel up and down, emotional and don’t beat yourself up for being low at times, or for the process to take longer than you or others would like it to
  • Talk, cry and process your emotion. Be wary of burdening one person with your need to talk so draw on different friends or work with a coach or therapist
  • Allow yourself to be angry, disappointed. Write letters (which you don’t send) to people who have let you down, upset you, hurt or disrespected you; Take up kick boxing and do physical activities that process anger
  • Nurture yourself. Engage in activities than feed your soul. Take time to be on your own, reflect and journal. Perhaps consider a daily gratitude reflection (write down three things each day that you are grateful for) or treat yourself and feel good about it!
  • Tap into your entire body’s wisdom. Engage in activities that calm you and allow you to listen to what your body is telling you not just your head; long baths with scented candles, walks in nature, gardening, breathing deeply, mindfulness, meditation, yoga
  • Read poetry. Sometimes others words capture what we feel or prompt another perspective
  • Allow yourself to receive support. Let others care for you and tell them what you need; touch is a healer so invest in a massage, ask for hugs, cuddle a friend’s dog.

Photo Credit: John Brighenti