All things change with time. Even the best things pass in time, and the same is true of hard things. It may be tough right now (and potentially for a while), but we can say for sure that it won’t be “this” forever, and that’s a hopeful realization when you’re feeling particularly stuck.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Julia Corcoran.
Dr. Julia Corcoran is a licensed psychologist and Board Certified Coach working at BetterUp where she’s responsible for training hundreds of leadership coaches around the world and consulting about ethical, operational, and practical matters related to coaching, psychology, and behavior change. Her passion for helping others improve their well-being has been implemented as a psychotherapist, coach, teacher, and a leader in a wide variety of settings like corporate retail, academia, and healthcare. Dr. Corcoran is just returning from maternity leave and is both grateful and terrified to find herself operating as a stay-at-home mom for her 2-year-old and 2-month-old and then transitioning back to work in the middle of a global pandemic.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Asa child, I always said I wanted to be a teacher (that is, until I learned how hard that job really is!). In addition, I’ve been fascinated by how (and why) people are who they are for as long as I can remember. Somewhere along the way, I also learned to love computers and information systems, and through the twisting nature of life, ended up in a series of organizations that made me wonder how we could not only improve people’s well-being generally, but especially at work, where stress is almost always present, and where we spend so much of our lives. Becoming a psychologist, a training professional and a coach has allowed me to put all of those pieces together in really rewarding ways.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I don’t know how interesting it is, but one of my favorite “we’re all human” moments at BetterUp is from my last postpartum period: I was cleaning my pump parts in the office kitchen sink and a new team member came to introduce herself. She very generously praised me for balancing work with being a new mom, and as we chatted, we got pretty deep into the weeds about the many annoying and awkward things about pumping at work. I don’t know if I was sleep deprived or just too comfortable in our San Francisco startup culture, but my filter was basically nonexistent during that conversation. Later, the message introducing this woman came out and I realized she was impressively accomplished and was much more senior than I had guessed. Initially, I panicked about my oversharing, but I was relieved to find that the reason I felt so comfortable with her is because she’s so genuinely open and authentic. Still, I’ve been a tiny bit more cautious about oversharing since that day!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Since I’m just about to return from leave, my current project is helping my family get through the day intact. Upon returning to my “day job”, I’m excited to jump right back into creating learning opportunities for leadership coaches, and I’m very hopeful that many of those will focus on mental health and well-being since I know that many coaching sessions will be focused on managing stress, burnout, change, overwhelm, and grief during this time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be where I am without many amazing, supportive people. But one who stands out is Dr. Jacinta Jiménez (a talented psychologist), who hired me for my first coaching work, and who I am lucky to count as a mentor and friend. Jacinta is the kind of leader who is simultaneously innovative, ambitious, and down-to-earth. She’s helped me to dream bigger (like leading parts of a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative that I felt very passionate about) while also helping me get things done however necessary, like when she taught me that recording audio is best done in the closet to dampen outside noise (there’s nothing quite like asking your in-laws to sit in their closet so you can record a training segment over a long weekend!). It might sound simple, but I’ve rarely found someone who can operate at both the practical and aspirational levels so seamlessly.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
For me, the greatest challenges are happening right now and over the next few days. First, I’ve always been career-oriented and while I derive a lot of meaning from being a mom, being a stay-at-home mom is way outside of my comfort zone. Having my toddler at home all day for the last five weeks of my leave has been simultaneously incredibly rewarding and difficult for me. Soon, I’ll transition back to work which will pose the “normal” challenges (things like pumping multiple times a day and managing life with two kids while keeping up with a demanding work environment), but now with the added challenge of having the kids still at home and a global workforce that will need good support (and I’d argue good coaches) more than ever. As a woman, I find that in the best circumstances there is support and understanding about being a working mother, but the research still rings true for me: it’s nearly impossible to deal with the constant pressure to prove my worth in all areas of my life. I imagine I’ll need all of the coping skills I have (and probably some new ones) in order to deal with the added logistical and emotional stressors related to a family stuck at home, widespread economic uncertainty, and the anxiety related to a worldwide health crisis.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I work very hard to accept what is, which includes that I’m human and will never be able to meet all of my goals in all areas at the same time (or, really, even all of my goals in one area of my life). For me, this includes a lot of self-compassion and radical acceptance practices. I also make sure I spend time every day connecting with a close circle of trusted friends and colleagues who understand these challenges; I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to offer each other listening, validation, normalizing the struggles, and often most importantly, humor and levity. The best part is these practices can be really fast: a few text messages or a few seconds to repeat a self-compassion mantra (“anyone would struggle with this, it’s okay that I’m struggling right now”) makes a big difference.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?
There will be a thousand challenges as we support people around the world in dealing with this pandemic, but for me, the most pressing challenge will be how to balance the needs of my family and my lifelong drive to help people find resilience and strength in the midst of difficulty. Returning from maternity leave is an important time to work on boundaries and prioritization in order to have any hope of fulfillment at both work and home, and now more than ever, as the need for support is increasing, I will need to find a way to sustain my efforts on all fronts (instead of my habitual working style, which easily leads to burnout).
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Luckily, I have my own coach! We’re now focusing on how to set boundaries while still honoring my responsibilities and achievement-orientation. A lot of this work will involve honest conversations with my leaders and team, rigorous prioritization, and checking in with accountability partners (for me, that’s a few trusted contacts who know my long-term goals as well as my short-term challenges, and are willing to be supportive while also asking what I’m doing to take care of my career and self).
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
My best advice is to practice radical acceptance, which is a tool that helps us deal with problems that don’t have clear (or any) solutions — like sheltering in place for weeks (or months). To be clear, this isn’t approval, finding the silver lining, stagnation, or an attempt to like the situation, it’s simply removing the “fight” from a set of circumstances that’s hard enough on its own. When we’re faced with big challenges without obvious (or any) solutions, the normal response is to refuse to accept it (“this isn’t fair”, “this can’t be real”, “there must be a way to fix this”). Unfortunately, this typically just drains our energy, puts us in a negative state of mind, and isn’t effective. In addition, refusing to accept may shield us from painful emotions (right now, grief, loneliness and anxiety are some of the most common for people), but that process typically only makes us more likely to feel bad for longer, and it also makes it hard to feel our positive emotions.
Radical acceptance, on the other hand, is simply accepting what is without trying to avoid or fight it — it takes the edge off. For example, when news about unemployment first started to pick up, my anxiety increased quickly and it took me a few days to realize that the anxiety was adding to a series of unnecessary struggles with my toddler. After I took a little time to accept this new reality and experience the resulting painful emotions — sadness and grief, some anxiety about the future, and a bit of anger at the unfairness of this whole situation — I noticed three things: a big reduction in the intensity of those emotions, an ability to see what actions might help me move forward (like offering support to some friends who were laid off), and an almost immediate softening between me and my toddler. And by the next day, even though I was still experiencing the painful emotions, joy and gratitude were also present.
Another example might be if you have a deadline in an hour and your child really needs your support right now. You could get frustrated or anxious, or you could try to “multitask” your way through it, but I think most of us have realized by now how ineffective and painful that is. Radical acceptance would look like taking a breath, acknowledging and accepting the reality that you are being asked to perform at work and home in a way that isn’t feasible, and accepting how difficult it is to be in that position. Take just a moment to notice what emotions you’re feeling, how your body feels, and any thoughts running through your mind, but don’t label any of those as good or bad, they simply are what are. After you’ve given yourself the space to accept what is, what do you want your next steps to be? It could be that you need to renegotiate the work deadline, that you’ll offer your child something (other than yourself) to help them wait for you to finish, or something else to help you manage the situation. There is no great solution to a problem like this, but radical acceptance allows you to keep moving forward in the best possible way when things become impossible.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?
I’m doing so many things to try to stay sane! Externally focused things include getting fresh air, exercise, setting boundaries, mindfulness, listening to music, loosening rules, connecting, and taking time off. Specifically, that looks like taking my boys outside every day and using that time to exercise (I’m the funny lady doing walking lunges down the street while I push the stroller next to my toddler on his tricycle), saying no (when I can) to some work so that I can get a little more sleep, taking a few mindful bites at each meal or snack (as a compulsive snacker, it’s helpful to slow down and enjoy it for a moment), listening to music that feels positive, allowing more screen time than I’d prefer, checking in with friends and family a ton, and my husband and I giving each other a “night off” every week (which is basically just hiding in our bedroom, but it’s better than nothing). Internally, I’m doing a lot of self-compassion and radical acceptance (“this is really hard right now”, “I can get through this, even when it feels impossible”, “it’s okay not to enjoy this”). I’m also trying to keep things in perspective (in other words, noticing how my privilege and life circumstances are helping me right now), and when I do that, I find that I have so much to be grateful for.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Light at the End of the Tunnel:
The hardest thing I’ve ever experienced was the loss of my brother several years ago, and while my grief never goes away, I’ve learned that life keeps moving and changing, and if I’m paying attention, there are still so many good things to appreciate and enjoy along the way. In the year after my brother passed away, I completed a grueling internship away from my home and family, and even though I knew it was a time-limited job, that year still felt incredibly long and emotionally draining. But I also made (and reconnected with) some great friends, I learned a lot about what I’m capable of, and I became even more appreciative of my family and my work when I get to choose my career. I imagine the same will be true now: things will be scary and hard as we muddle our way through, but if we’re lucky, we’ll find the space to enjoy some moments along the way, and then things will shift and we’ll get to move on to new experiences.
5 reasons to be hopeful:
- You may be connecting with people who you’ve lost touch with, or in ways you didn’t think possible before. My family is doing extended family dinners by video call now, and it’s so joyful (if not chaotic) to see everyone. I’m very hopeful that we’ll continue when life gets busy and we can’t find the time to be together.
- You’re practicing creativity. From cooking meals without the ingredients you normally have on hand, to becoming a homeschool teacher with zero relevant training, to connecting without being together, all of us are being asked to be creative in order to get through this period. And while the results may not always be featured in a blog on innovation (my toddler hasn’t lasted more than 6 minutes on any learning or art activity I’ve offered), those moments are still helping you stretch your brain in new ways, which is great for your cognitive and emotional well-being. Plus, you might find some gems along the way (I learned my 2-year-old loves helping in the kitchen, so we’ve been getting creative in how to make that safe and fun for both of us).
- All things change with time. Even the best things pass in time, and the same is true of hard things. It may be tough right now (and potentially for a while), but we can say for sure that it won’t be “this” forever, and that’s a hopeful realization when you’re feeling particularly stuck.
- The helpers! I’m seeing the Fred Rogers quote a lot these days and I love how hopeful and inspired it makes me feel: “My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” While it doesn’t erase that this is hard, it’s really nice to focus on how many good things people are doing right now, like buying groceries for vulnerable neighbors and supporting children who rely on school lunches.
- Maybe we’ll learn to slow down a little. Call me a delusional optimist, but I have hope that this might bring about some shifts in the insane pace of life that most of us expect of ourselves. High achieving women, especially, tend to have lives that are absolutely packed to the limit (or beyond) with professional and personal to-dos and goals, not to mention the unending list of things that we wish we were doing but haven’t yet found the time. Wouldn’t it be amazing if this experience taught us a little bit about the benefits of taking a few things off of our plates — perhaps your kids don’t need to be scheduled in after-school activities every single day, or maybe you can take a night off from checking work email? If enough of us emerge from this with clarity on our priorities and limits, I believe we can create and demand that sort of change.
- Bonus hope, for good measure: we’re doing it! Social distancing and sheltering in place is working to flatten the curve, and I think if you’d asked 3 months ago, many of us would have doubted the willingness of so many people to put their lives and livelihoods into total chaos in order to serve a cause for the greater good. If that’s not hopeful, I don’t know what is.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that we can use to effectively offer support to your family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Simply checking in can be the most powerful tool you have. There is a lot of research supporting the positive outcomes that we see from people reaching out and offering a kind word, a thoughtful (or silly) video or picture to let someone know you’re thinking about them, or a few minutes to really listen to someone. There’s no right or wrong (do what feels right for you and this person), with one exception: don’t try to fix the situation, offer advice, or tell them it will all work out unless you have their permission to do so. Those behaviors can signal that you’re uncomfortable with their discomfort (making them less likely to feel supported) or that there is a solution (and there may not be right now). Simply listening and letting them know that you care is a lot more powerful than it may seem, and lucky for us, technology enables so many ways to connect right now!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Victor Frankl
This quote captures a big part of my approach as a therapist and coach: helping people find that space to make a choice in how they respond so that they can be their best self. And personally, this has been so powerful for me, from everyday moments, like realizing I don’t have to respond to a toddler tantrum with ultimatums (spoiler alert: those don’t work), to bigger ones, like deciding how to respond when a friend tells me they just had a miscarriage. One misconception about this quote is that the choice in how to respond is easy, or simply comes from having enough willpower to do the “right” thing, but in studying Frankl you quickly learn that he knew exactly how difficult this could be (he survived Nazi concentration camps, after all), but that we should aim for this because it has the ability to restore our personal sense of power, which can greatly improve our well-being.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can find me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/drcorcoran/.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!