Leopards & Their Spots: A Personal Growth Journey
How do we know when the person we are is the truest version of ourselves? You may hear colloquialisms like “be true to yourself” or “don’t be someone you’re not” but what does that actually mean? I thought for a very long time that “I was who I was” and that nothing could change that – after all, a leopard can’t change its spots right?
As a grew older, I began to realize that I was capable of change and the more time I spent around people who I looked up to and wanted to emulate, the more I wanted to change.
For the first fifteen years of my life, I was largely the same person. I had many traits that I would consider strengths and a few traits that I believed were hindrances. At fifteen, the traits I least liked about myself were that I was selfish and I was stubborn. All things that fourteen years later, at twenty-nine, have turned out to be some of my biggest assets.
At fifteen, life changed when I met and started dating my husband Mark – yes, my husband and I have been together since we were 15 and 16 years old. Mark was quite literally the polar opposite of me in almost every way. In our demeanors, our style of conflict resolution, our personalities, and our beliefs. It’s not to say that we didn’t have things in common or that we didn’t have chemistry, we certainly did, but on paper, we were polar opposites. I learned in my third-year psychology class that “opposites attract” is a myth, but despite this, Mark and I just worked.
I reflect often on the person that I have become and while I know that I was the one to actually do the work to get here, I wholeheartedly believe that I wouldn’t have become this person had I never met Mark. As I spent more time around Mark and observed his interactions with others and with me, he had a certain way of being that brought a natural calm to the room. People gravitated toward him, and he was deeply insightful and wise at only sixteen years old. He was thoughtful, daring, pushed me out of my comfort zone, and made me laugh like no one else ever could.
Conversely, I was anything but naturally calm and didn’t feel like anyone really gravitated toward me. I played life “safe” and was very accustomed to my comfort zone. To say that Mark intrigued me would be an understatement, but at fifteen, believing that our differences were what made us a great couple and for the most part, believing that there wasn’t anything that needed to change about who I was, I remained that version of myself.
A few years into our relationship, I was presented with an ultimatum: address my selfish behaviour or lose Mark. It was unexpected and I resisted at first because I didn’t believe that I was capable of changing, but because I cared deeply for him, I was willing to give it a shot. This was the beginning of my self-growth journey.
Over those next few years, I became more mindful of how I treated others and reflected on what kind of person I wanted to be.
Throughout my undergraduate degree, I feel like I grew as a person, but not in a transformative way. This transformative growth didn’t happen for me until I moved to Kamloops for law school in 2016. I didn’t know it at the time, but this move would be everything I needed. It would be restorative, challenging, transformative, devastating, and awakening, sometimes all at the same time. Kamloops was where I found myself – the self that I didn’t realize that I was hiding from everyone else.
This version of me became the foundation for the version of myself that I am proud to be now.
Kamloops was the first time that I was truly on my own and it was also the first time Mark and I had lived together. It was a fresh start for me. An opportunity for me to be exactly the person that I wanted to be without anyone’s preconceived notions of who I was. If you ever have the opportunity to move to a new city, even temporarily, I strongly encourage you to do so.
At law school, I was exposed to more diversity than I ever had before when living in Medicine Hat. There were people from all walks of life, cultures, and academic backgrounds, who all held different opinions and beliefs than I did. This was the first time in my life that I could hear something different, take it in and then decide if it resonated with me or not. Kamloops allowed me to explore sides of myself I didn’t know I had. I discovered a resiliency and strength I didn’t know I had. I discovered that energy work and spiritually resonated with me and were things I had always felt but didn’t realize it. I challenged belief systems and unconscious bias. I discovered a love for rugby. I re-discovered my love for singing, music, and WHL hockey; and I grew my passion for snowboarding. I found a pocket of love I didn’t know I had and poured it into a kitten. I discovered the necessity and benefits of therapy; but most importantly, I discovered that my peers genuinely liked me for who I was and that felt pretty incredible.
At home, Mark and I grew together. He learned about an entirely different area of social work: additions counselling and he found an unexpected passion for this work. Through his work at the treatment center, he helped me to challenge my beliefs and preconceived notions about addiction and mental health. We found favourite restaurants and places to hang out. We would dedicate one day a week to doing the mundanities of life together – usually Saturday, because I was busier than I’d ever been with law school.
Through all of the growth and chaos, we made it work and Kamloops became home.
At twenty-five, I was confronted with the choice of deciding where I was going to build my legal practice and where Mark and I were going to put down roots. Were we going to move back home to Medicine Hat where most of my family was or Calgary where Mark’s family was?
After having spent three years away from my hometown the immense amount of personal growth I’d done while I was away made it near impossible for me to imagine going back. I didn’t identify with the lifestyle or views of many of the residents and I didn’t recognize the version of myself I’d been when I’d lived there. When I’d go back to visit, everything felt “off”. When I approached the city limit signs, the energy of the entire town made me feel differently physically – unsettled. It made me want to spend as little time as I could there, and it made me realize that moving back to my hometown wasn’t for me.
One of the most difficult things about being on a personal growth journey and having made such drastic changes over a series of years is that I knew that anyone else who I ran into would only view me as the person that they knew when I’d last lived there. I knew I’d never make it out of the box I had been placed in in their minds, and I’d always be viewed through the same lens. Even the people closest to me, including my family, who I’d only seen intermittently over that three year period, needed time to adjust to this new version of me. If they thought they knew what I would say or how I would react to any given situation before, chances are they had no idea anymore. It was like I was introducing myself to them as if we’d just met – and in some ways, we had.
Mark and I decided to move to Lethbridge, in part because Calgary was too big and not a good fit and in part because I realized I had outgrown my hometown and the person I was when I lived there.
However, the fresh start was different this time – I wasn’t looking forward to starting over because I was trying to escape the person I was, this time I was building on her and refining her.
One of the first things that I did in those early days was find a new therapist. In the last three years, we’ve made incredible strides and worked through more of my anxieties and insecurities than I ever thought possible. She was who made me realize that those traits that fifteen-year-old me thought were my biggest hindrances, were actually strengths of mine. We did this through re-defining what each of those things meant to me. Re-defining these character traits was extremely empowering and helped me overcome fourteen years of baggage associated with these traits.
Selfishness is traditionally viewed with a negative connotation because it is viewed in the context of putting yourself first to the detriment of other people. It’s perceived as being self-centered and with little to no thought toward how others feel or how it will affect others. To be told you’re being selfish is most often done as an insult. Fifteen-year-old me behaved in the traditionally selfish way and when that happened, I wasn’t proud of it. It was like a reflex I couldn’t control.
I had overcome this reflex by the time I was twenty-four and living in Kamloops, but I still regarded selfishness as a part of who I was – albeit an embarrassing part of who I was. As a result, I went out of my way to bury this part of me. This became the focus of a therapy session late last year and what I realized is that being selfish can actually be a positive trait. Particularly because of how far I had come in my personal growth and the ways in which I was “selfish”.
For instance, being selfish in this new way was what allowed me to set boundaries in my personal and work life. It was what allowed me to advocate for myself and look after my mental health. It allowed me to nurture the personal relationships in my life, including my marriage. It was what prevented me from overloading myself and allowed me to pursue personal and professional opportunities confidently. What I had learned through my years of self-growth was that I hadn’t buried this trait. Instead, I had changed and adapted this trait to put myself first, but not to the detriment of other people. I had learned how to be selfish in a respectful and healthy way, instead of in an abrasive, disrespectful way.
Stubbornness is also traditionally viewed with a negative connotation. People who are stubborn are often perceived as abrasive, closed minded, resistant to change, and difficult to work with. Fifteen-year-old me was all of these things at different times in those years. Embarrassingly, I was voted as the most stubborn person in my sixth-grade class. I was absolutely mortified.
As I got older and grew as a person, people would refer to me as determined, rather than stubborn. That resonated more with who I felt I was. If I had a goal, I’d go after it relentlessly until I had achieved it. Becoming a lawyer was a prime example. After I was called to the bar in June 2020, my father-in-law asked me, what next? and I realized it was the first time in my life I didn’t have an answer. It was the first time I had achieved everything I had set out to do and needed to decide what came next. There were many times in my life that being determined brought me to milestones and achievements and it’s a trait that I’ve become very thankful for.
A Leopard’s Spots
Redefining these traits has brought me a lot of peace and helped me realized how much growing I’ve actually done. When I reflect on my journey, I beam with pride because it was a very long journey to get here and it’s far from over. I intend to be on a continuous journey of self-growth. When I think about who I’ve become in this decade, I feel like I’ve grown into the woman I wanted to become at the outset of the decade.
While a leopard can’t change its spots, I learned that I could change and redefine mine.
If you’re looking for a change, my advice to you would be to surround yourself with people who you want to emulate. Change your environment. If a move isn’t in the cards, maybe a change in job or occupation is. Identify the personality or character traits that are no longer serving you well or are causing difficulty in your life – if you’re unable to do this, try asking a trusted friend or family member for this feedback. While it may sting, it might be the perfect first step for you on your journey. It stung when Mark presented the selfishness ultimatum to me, but it started my journey, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. Reflect on these traits and the behaviours associated with them.
Each step you take toward the changes you want to make, while at times may feel small, will bring you closer to where you want to be.