Meet Beth Payne, Resilience Coach: Women’s History Month

Udemy instructor Beth Payne

Udemy instructor Beth Payne helps individuals and teams thrive in adversity by providing practical skills and tools she developed over several decades as a U.S. diplomat in challenging environments.

In 2003, Beth was the U.S. Consul in Iraq. Early one October morning a rocket slammed into her hotel room and changed her life forever. In the mayhem, she assisted dozens of colleagues who had been wounded in the attack, ignoring her fears and blood-covered pajamas. Several years after the rocket attack, she learned that she had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Luckily, she received excellent mental health care and fully recovered. This experience inspired her to explore how she could have prevented her PTSD and to develop strategies for protecting other U.S. diplomats experiencing similar traumatic events.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we connected with Beth to help encourage other women and girls to challenge and overcome adversity.

The International Women’s Day 2021 theme is #ChooseToChallenge, which highlights the importance of challenging biases and misconceptions Can you share an example of a time that you had to challenge these misconceptions?

As a brand-new U.S. diplomat, I served at the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. The Ambassador, Edward Gnehm, would often go fishing on the weekends with prominent Kuwaitis, and he would always ask one or two of my male colleagues to join him. Officers valued spending this informal time with the Ambassador since it opened the door to mentorship and other professional opportunities. Unfortunately, the Ambassador seemed to think that only the men would be interested in his weekend activities since he never asked me to join.

One day, I was at an event, and Ambassador Gnehm came over and asked the colleague I was talking to if he wanted to go fishing. I was livid, asking myself what I needed to do to get the chance to go fishing with the Ambassador. Instead of stewing, I confronted the Ambassador. I asked him point-blank, “do you ever ask women to go fishing with you?” Initially, the Ambassador was shocked since junior diplomats rarely confront senior leaders. After a few seconds, he broke into a broad grin and said, “Beth, do you want to go fishing this weekend?” I did, and Ambassador Gnehm became an important mentor who helped me succeed in my career.

I learned from this incident how important it is to speak up. Ambassador Gnehm didn’t realize that he was excluding women from these meaningful informal opportunities. Once he recognized what he was doing, he made sure to include and mentor women ever since.

You underwent a life changing and traumatic event when your consulate was bombed in Iraq in 2003. What advice do you have for women suffering trauma but may be unaware – how do we help these women identify and resolve trauma in their lives?

Many women striving to succeed in their workplaces are reluctant to show vulnerability and weakness. They worry they will be viewed as “damaged goods” if they seek mental health care for the trauma they’ve experienced. I had several senior women State Department officials tell me how worried they were that colleagues would discover that they’d sought therapy. This fear is valid. Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, our Ambassador to Kenya when al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. Embassy in 1998, believes she was barred from consideration for a powerful job in the State Department because she “had health issues” due to the trauma she experienced during and after the bombing.

Unfortunately, the fear of being stigmatized often results in women “sucking it up,” leaving the impact of the trauma unresolved. In this case, our symptoms usually worsen and make it harder to succeed professionally. It also takes a toll on our personal lives.

The best thing we can all do is speak openly about seeking mental health care. We can normalize mental health care by talking about our own experiences with therapy. When seeing a therapist becomes as normal as seeing an internist, women will be more motivated to seek care when needed.

Baghdad, Iraq: Beth Payne, U.S. consular officer in Baghdad, assists American citizens in Iraq. June 2003. State Dept photo.

Do you have any advice for women struggling in their career or personal life due to the ongoing pandemic? Any insights for building resilience to overcome ongoing adversity?

Women from all backgrounds, races, religions, and political persuasions, need to come together and support each other. We need to demand gender equity and insist on changes in structures that are inherently biased against women. Senior leaders need to mentor and champion women in the workplace, helping them overcome inherent biases and discrimination.

If you’re struggling, it’s critically important to ask for help. Reach out to potential mentors and ask for guidance. Build a peer support network and help each other work through challenges. Don’t try to get through hard times alone.

We also need to take care of ourselves. Women are often socialized to be the caregiver and encouraged to sacrifice their well-being to ensure others are okay. We need to change that narrative. Instead, we must remember that we cannot take care of others if we do not care for ourselves. It is not selfish to carve out time for hobbies and relaxation. It is okay to expect other people in our households to take responsibility for chores without being directed or asked to do so.

How can we best support a friend/daughter/colleague who is struggling to manage in their professional or personal life due to COVID-19 pandemic?

The best way to support women right now is to genuinely care about them and listen when they need to talk. Ask open-ended questions about how they are doing and then listen to the answers. Don’t try to solve their problems; be a sounding board and supportive presence. Ask questions that help them process what is happening and find their way forward. Let them know that you care and empathize. Help them see that they are normal human beings having normal responses to an abnormal situation.