Shedding Old Skins

Shedding Old Skins

On the threshold of change, we need to learn to let go.

Karen Hering
An animated disintegrating human face made up of many different colored squares.


We might think that shedding skin is for caterpillars and snakes, but it is also what we humans do. We are continually letting go of the skin we wear, that largest of all our organs, protecting all other organs, constantly communicating between inner and outer realms and often a key player in how others perceive and respond to us.

An Exercise for Reflection

Where in your life or in the world today do you feel constriction that might indicate a skin—a belief or identity or opinion—too small for who you are or who you are becoming? Is there a breach already opening, or will you need to make one? What are you already doing or what might you do now to loosen the old skin from the new skin already grown beneath it? How are you now doing, or might you do in the future, the wriggling that will draw you through the old, allowing a new skin to meet the light of day? And what will it feel like when you finally do?

The skin of an average sized adult weighs in at about eight pounds and covers, in total, 22 square feet. Its job, as the old jingle goes, is to “keep the inside in” and “the outside out,” but it is neither as permanent nor as impermeable as that would suggest. The skin is an extraordinary switchboard facilitating a constant exchange, taking in information about our environment and its potential threats and pleasures, and releasing sweat, scent, and even anti-bacterial substances from the inside. This role as a two-way communicator is no less important than its function as protector, so the skin’s ability to remain flexible and vital requires a continual replacement process, sloughing an estimated 600,000 particles every hour. Our new skin cells last only four to five weeks before they migrate to the outer surface to be washed, scratched, or flaked off—in short, to be shed.

On so many fronts—locally, organizationally, nationally, and globally—we are all living on the threshold of change. Together, we are experiencing great and necessary shifts that can amplify the changes reverberating in our personal lives. The first skill we need to develop for this threshold moment is learning to let go—of what we had or knew, of what had been before but now no longer is. If we want to learn to let go, we have no further to search than the rim of our own bodies, where in a most literal sense we are not wearing the same skin we were housed in just one month before.

Of course, this process of letting go often escapes our notice because it happens on a cellular level and not as a shedding of our whole skin at once. We can turn to other creatures for more obvious thresholding lessons. Caterpillars and snakes, for instance, need to shed because their skins do not grow with them. Molting their whole skin, as if pulling off a sock at the end of a long day, is necessary whenever their growth makes their skin too tight and too small.

Questions for Conversation

With a buddy or a group, choose any of the following questions to start a conversation:

  • What are you being asked to let go of now, on your personal or global thresholds? And does that stir grief or relief? How do the norms and responsibilities of the dominant culture affect your ability to let go? What does your culture teach you about releasing and letting go? Might your ancestors support you in this process? Who or what else might help you to let go?
  • Share an experience you have had in the past where you mustered courage to move into the unknown. Where did you find that courage? How might it be available to you now, on the thresholds you are currently living on?
  • What assumptions do you have about your personal or shared thresholds that might be freeing to let go of? What possibilities open up if you let go of those assumptions?
  • Is there a “skin” you wear that no longer fits who you are or who you are becoming? How might you wriggle free of that skin, letting yourself grow into your new possibilities? What is a stretch you might welcome, living on the threshold?
  • Do you have an outer or inner identity you might need to let go of on your personal or global thresholds? What is an identity that might carry over through the change? Will that identity need to adapt or adjust to this time of change, and if so, who or what might support that adjustment?

Snakes do this two to four times per year, or as often as every two weeks when they are young and growing rapidly. Caterpillars, with a total lifespan of ten to fourteen days entirely devoted to eating and growth, will shed their skin four to five times, or almost every other day. In both cases, the shedding begins with a small breach in the old skin near the head. Caterpillars’ growth itself will split the skin, whereas snakes may have to make the breach by rubbing on a rock or log, often after swimming to first loosen the old skin. Then, for both, the wriggling begins. It is an almost rhythmic rolling of the body, undulating as it loosens all attachment to the old skin and allows the body to pass through the sheath like a new shoot emerging from a stem. The old skin piles up behind it. For the snake, it is a soft, translucent artifact to be left behind. For the caterpillar, it is a heap of nourishment it will turn around and eat, leaving no trail for predators to track.

On the threshold, where the ingredients for growth are plentiful, we may have many skins to shed: ideas too small or rigid for what lies ahead; habits, practices, or roles no longer possible or practical; identities, appearances, names, or relationships that do not fit who we are becoming; reliance on old networks of awareness not attuned to the new conditions, opportunities, and threats of our changing environments. It is a molting that can be either terrifying or exhilarating. Often it is both. Always, it is a natural requirement of growth.

For the caterpillar, each new developmental phase between moltings is beautifully named an instar. Poetically, it calls to mind the stardust of which each one of us is made and with which we are continually finding new ways to let the ancient light shine. Etymologically, the word instar derives from a Latin root meaning “form” or “likeness.” Either way, we are reminded of the memory that remains when old skins are shed.

What a caterpillar learns about its environment will be carried over across several instars. Even through its greatest change, from caterpillar to butterfly, the memory of dangers to avoid and environmental mapping survives. We too can trust that when we let go of whatever has become too small in the changing conditions of our lives, we will retain the knowledge we need on a cellular level. On the global thresholds we now face, one significant shedding we are all (especially white people) asked to undertake is to wriggle free of the too-tight skin of the dominant culture’s message of self-reliance. Instead, let us affirm the interdependence practiced by many other cultures today, and recall what previous instars knew about the necessity and givenness of relationship and belonging.

This article was adapted with permission from Trusting Change: Finding Our Way Through Personal and Global Transformation by Karen Hering (Skinner House, 2022).