The Great Emancipator

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Those three words usually bring Abraham Lincoln to mind, the American president credited with ending slavery in our nation.

For me, however, someone else fills that role, someone who freed me as certainly as if chains of forged steel had been smashed and shackles removed.

During my childhood and teen years I struggled with perfectionism, anxiety and shame. My parents had a strong performance orientation and I was receiving messages, at least as I interpreted them, that I had to strive for perfection.

No, more than strive -– I had to be perfect, and look perfect.

I attended a private, very competitive all-girls school which has produced some of the world’s top thinkers and doers.

My friends were people who are now renowned experts in their chosen fields. I worked my heart out, trying to perform and be what I thought I was supposed to be – the perfect, straight-A student.

I’m a workhorse, but as hard as I tried I could never get better than a “B.” My teachers saw me that way, too -– merely a “B.” I felt I wore that label for all the world to see. To compensate, I worked harder than everyone else. I believed there was something wrong with me because I was putting in the same effort as others and not getting the same results.

I was trying harder, but not getting anywhere. Part of this performance standard was not just to be the best, but to always look the best.

Eventually this desperate attempt to be what I thought I was supposed to be led to a serious and shameful addiction – Bulimia. I kept this a big secret.

In college, I spent a semester in Dublin, Ireland, land of my family roots. Every weekend I stayed at the home of a cousin I had never met before, but I was soon embraced as family.

Máire McDonnell Garvey was much older than I, with her own five children, a row house with dirt floors and an alcoholic husband. She had her hands full as the sole support and driving force in that family, yet Máire always found time to show her love and support for everyone else.

Something clicked between Máire and me, and we built a strong bond. Her Irish wit kept me up at night listening to her stories. Somehow Máire saw through my façade. She seemed to know my secret, though she didn’t, really. She singled me out, like I was being selected from a litter of puppies.

I say this because I never felt “picked” before. I was special somehow. I never told her about my addiction, and she never asked. We had the most amazing conversations and for the first time in my life I felt unconditional love.

Máire was the first person I felt who cared for me just the way I was, no matter what. No straight A’s, no standards, no expectations, just me. She encouraged me to discover why I was here, what I would be giving to the world. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself.

All of a sudden my self-imposed prison gates were opened and all expectations of performance were gone. I felt a freedom I had never known before. My soul soared. I was not free of the addiction at that time, but I was free of the heavy burden of expectation and performance.

Máire’s life was a testimony and the validation behind her encouragement to find what I would give to the world. Her passion was Irish culture, music and art.

At the age of 40, after raising five children, she stepped out to complete her college degree. She authored and published five books about traditional Irish music, its history, tunes and dance, winning a prestigious award from Ireland’s President.

Her joyful fiddle playing delighted everyone. Even into her final days, her personal mission was to preserve the spirit of Ireland’s past and ensure it would spill over into the next century and not be lost…and to continue encouraging others to share their “music” with the world.

Máire’s wisdom and ability to see into my soul, and her embracing love and encouragement changed my life completely and shifted my entire world view. There was such joy, acceptance and unconditional love in that home. Her alcoholic husband never got sober, but she loved him still. She found and lived her passion and encouraged others to do the same.

Máire’s life was not about perfection. It was about passion, unconditional loving, encouragement and giving to others. She awakened my potential, and the ability to measure myself not on the outside, but on the inside.

I continue to live with Máire’s words of encouragement, in the shadow of her acceptance and knowledge that I would give to the world in unique ways. I can honestly say she completely changed me and freed me to embrace the personal freedom to just be me. Máire McDonnell-Garvey was my “great emancipator.”

Complete personal freedom came in stages for me, but Máire opened the cell door. And with a grateful heart I now celebrate 32 years of being free of my addiction, and I make the choice to be free every day.

Over the years, with her words still ringing in my ears, I have discovered my passion, purpose and my faith in a loving God. Through it all, one of my greatest discoveries is that I also have the power and opportunity to free others.

I have been blessed to experience that joy many times in my work and my personal life. It takes a lot less than we think.

Someone you know, or someone you may meet very soon, is just like I was, enslaved by expectations, standards, “have-to’s,” and comparisons. You may hold the key that unlocks those chains. Your interest, your encouragement, your acceptance can change a life.

Who can you set free today? Tomorrow?

About the Author

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Joan Wright is President of O’Sullivan Wright, Inc., a firm specializing in executive coaching, leadership development and talent management strategies. Her global business helps companies achieve targeted business results by attracting, developing and retaining key leadership talent. Prior to founding her firm in 2000, Joan acquired 21 years of corporate experience in HR Management roles with Philip Morris, Citicorp, General Electric and most recently at Wachovia/Wells Fargo where she led executive leadership development. As an MSW in clinical social work and MCC, Joan is an active speaker at major global leadership development conferences such as Linkage and ICF. Her recently published book, UP: Pursuing Significance in Leadership and Life, received a five star rating from Midwest Book Review. In September, 2012, inspired by her own book and the compelling needs in Africa (clean water, aids and genocide orphan care and tribal reconciliation) Joan raised money and awareness for Senai Global through her successful climb to the Uhuru peak of the largest free-standing mountain on earth, Mount Kilimanjaro.

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