Embracing Our Falling Leaves

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While driving the other day, I spotted this quote on a sign in front of a church and realized I really needed to hear this…and how much I need the reinforcement to do exactly what it says.

Historically, I have not been great at letting things go. From an early age, I’ve internalized nearly everything, from feeling embarrassed at the mistakes I’ve made (and beating myself up for them) to feeling guilty for not being able to make everyone in my life simultaneously happy.

One of Mr. Rogers trademark lines was, “I like you just the way you are,” but sometimes I find it hard to embrace or even believe that. I focus on what I could have done better, how I could have avoided a particular error in judgment, how I can feel like I’m not holding up my end of a relationship. I’m not sure where that gets me though.

So I decided to look to the lesson I can learn from the trees in autumn. Although I know the science behind falling leaves, I found this simple yet beautiful explanation on the Indianapolis Children’s Museum website and it really made me stop and think more deeply about it (the bolded phrases are some of what resonated with me most).

The word “fall” is a bit misleading. It implies that the trees are passive this time of year, when, in fact, they are actively “pushing” the leaves off their branches.

The changes in weather and daylight trigger a hormone that releases a chemical message to each leaf that it is time to prepare for winter. Over the next few weeks, abscission cells form a bumpy line at the place where the leaf stem meets the branch. And slowly, but surely, the leaf is “pushed” from the tree branch.

This winterization process is a must for trees’ survival. In spring and summer, leaves convert sunlight into energy in a process we all know as photosynthesis. During that process, the trees lose a lot of water – so much water that when winter arrives, the trees are no longer able to get enough water to replace it.

And so now we know. Leaves fall—or are pushed—off trees so that the tree can survive the winter and grow new leaves in the spring.”

Wow. So by shedding something I am carrying, I might actually be able to do something good for myself, to survive and even thrive when the cold, dark days are upon us? This hit me hard and then got me thinking, so what can I shed that might pave the way for “new leaves” on my tree?

Starting this exploration with intention was really important. I had a specific process and end in mind: determine what I am holding onto unnecessarily, figure out a way to let it go, and grow something beautiful in its place.

One very small thing that came to mind first – probably because it had just happened - was that I had just booked a trip on United Airlines and, ten minutes after finalizing it, received an email from United offering me a free upgrade because it’s my birthday month. I sat there for a few minutes stewing and  muttering (ok, maybe shouting) things like “Are you kidding me??” Then I got angry – at United, for sending it when they did, and at myself, for not seeing it before I booked. And then I gave myself a reality check. In the grand scheme of things, is bemoaning this (pretty small) missed opportunity really the best use of my time? I think we all know the answer to that question. But I tell you, in the moment, it’s hard to stop beating myself up for stuff like this. Having just seen that sign at the church – and writing about it now – helped me intentionally shift my mindset away from this small loss. The timing of my booking and the email was completely out of my circle of control and all I was doing was wasting time that would have been much better put towards working on the agenda for the client meeting I’m flying on United to facilitate.

So what does this have to do with kindness, you might ask? We often think of kindness as how we treat others. And while that is certainly true, there is also a kindness we need to give ourselves, particularly as the bright days start to turn dark and cold (both literally and metaphorically). I can sometimes be so focused on bringing kindness to others, that I forget about this. But we, as humans, need to extend the kindness inward, to stop beating ourselves up – especially over the little things – and to focus on ourselves as individuals and let go of the things that prevent our continued growth and survival. Just like those trees.  And, at the end of the day, they’re still trees – they don’t become something else when they push off their leaves. So too can we preserve our sense of self while intentionally shedding the things we unnecessarily hold onto.

What do you need to let go of to survive and thrive in the months ahead? What will you do to help yourself let those things go? I’d love to hear.

Alison French is the Managing Director of Alto Solutions, LLC. Her work as a facilitator, trainer, coach, and consultant focuses on using kindness, connection, and brain science to bring people and ideas together for learning and success.

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