Women In Wellness: Lauren Messina Of Work In Progress Therapy and Wellness On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Women In Wellness: Lauren Messina Of Work In Progress Therapy and Wellness On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Self-care does not need to be enjoyable or leisurely. It’s not selfish, it’s a necessity. I wish someone modeled to me the importance of taking care of myself and what that looked like.

Today, more than ever, wellness is at the forefront of societal discussions. From mental health to physical well-being, women are making significant strides in bringing about change, introducing innovative solutions, and setting new standards. Despite facing unique challenges, they break barriers, inspire communities, and are reshaping the very definition of health and wellness. In this series called women in wellness we are talking to women doctors, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, fitness trainers, researchers, health experts, coaches, and other wellness professionals to share their stories and insights. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Messina.

Lauren Messina (she/her) is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Licensed Professional Art Therapist, and Board-Certified Art Therapist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She is a creative, anti-oppressive, and compassionate therapist who specializes in art and trauma therapy with adults who want to connect their healing journey to breaking cycles of oppression; and explore their identities and life experiences to find individual and collective growth. Lauren is the owner of Work In Progress Therapy and Wellness LLC and has been working in the field of mental health for over ten years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Iwould love to! Before I share my backstory, I want to acknowledge the identities and values I hold. I’m a white, cis, straight, able-bodied woman in a heterosexual, monogamous marriage living on unceded, stolen Lenni-Lenape territory. I’m also a painter, mom of a 5- and 2-year-old, wife, daughter, sister, granddaughter, business owner, and friend. I value family both birth and chosen, laughing, play, nature, and creativity. I’m a lover of all things Marvel and enjoy eating good vegetarian food. Through playing with and parenting my children, I’m healing my inner child and continuing the path of breaking generational cycles. I’m committed to unlearning anti-Blackness, supporting the LGBTQIA+ community, and de-centering whiteness to live an anti-oppressive life for collective liberation.

There are a lot of things that led me to becoming a therapist. I like to say I just combined my parents as my mother worked as a speech therapist and my father is a musician, so I became an art therapist, but there’s much more to it. One important part of my story is that at a very young age I was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, which means it was difficult to speak. Feeling frustrated with my lack of voice, and quickly realizing that my needs could not be met, I turned to art. Art became my voice. The canvas was the space that could understand and hold my needs and feelings. Through painting and drawing, I was able to connect with others. Growing up, I was labeled the overly emotional and sensitive kid. It felt like my feelings and longing for deep connection was overwhelming to the people around me.

There are two other crucial experiences that are important to share. The first was the death of my grandmother when I was in the sixth grade. Then, throughout my adolescence I witnessed people I loved experience abuses and I remember feeling helpless. During this time, my relationship to art was strengthened and my beliefs that my feelings were too much and that my sense of self as a helper was reinforced. I quieted myself for what I thought was to the benefit of others. I valued helping others at the sacrifice of my own needs. And of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum. At the same time, I was being raised and socialized as a privileged young white girl, in a white supremacist and patriarchal society that purposely shielded me from truths and confirmed my internal beliefs of not having a voice, being helpless, and that my worth was tied to being a sacrificial caregiver. Simultaneously, whiteness was being centered in all that I was learning about the world. I was participating in upholding oppressive systems by disconnecting from my own humanity. This is by design.

This led me to attending University of the Arts for my Bachelors in Fine Arts in painting/drawing with a concentration in art therapy, followed by my Master’s Degree in Art Therapy and Counseling from Drexel University. I’ve worked in inpatient psychiatric hospitals, outpatient facilities, hospitals, non-profit agencies, community mental health programs, and currently, in my own private practice.

Today, I support others in connecting with their innate creativity to amplify their voice and integrate anti-racism and anti-oppression work within the therapy space.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I had just started a new job working at a community mental health program and I was setting up my art therapy room. A client of mine, who experienced visual and auditory hallucinations, walked into my room as I was waving my arms in the air and talking out loud to myself. I informed them that there was a fly. They assured me that they also see things that aren’t there and that it was okay before they walked away. My takeaway from this moment is the importance of humor and connection.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A mistake I made as a young therapist was something that happened gradually over time and almost broke me. I gave my all. I worked beyond my scheduled hours and assigned responsibilities. I brought my work home with me, both emotionally and physically. I volunteered for everything. I was the first on the scene during a crisis and declined assistance. I thought this made me a “good therapist.” Until, I wasn’t. Until I wasn’t a person outside of being a therapist. Until I wasn’t able to feel anything. Until I wasn’t able to show up in my relationships. Burnout and vicarious trauma are well discussed topics among mental health professionals. What I learned from it came from being curious about the why. Beyond just self-care and setting boundaries, I became the emotional detective about what led me to this form of self-harming and self-sacrificing in the name of “helping”.

I began to learn about the white savior complex and how I fell into the trope of wanting to be a good white person. Here I was a white woman from New Jersey now working in Philadelphia in the community with primarily Black folks without this ever being named before. Then learning about the non-profit industrial complex. Exploiting myself kept me from actually showing up for the people I was holding space for as well as committing to supporting the true causes and making meaningful change outside of the therapy office. This was a huge shift in my identity, and changed how I learned and engaged as a therapist. This was the beginning of my unlearning.

Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

We must connect with and honor our own humanity in order to witness and honor the humanity in others. My hope is that by creating a therapy space that uses creative and anti-oppressive healing, one can reconnect to their own and to the global humanity. Through supporting individuals in showing up for themselves to address their own mental health, trauma, and needs that also includes unlearning white supremacy culture and our connection to oppressive systems, they will begin to make intentional shifts with learned tools that allow for increased energy and motivation to heal and fight for collective change. Since we’re all connected, so is our healing.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

1 . Connect with nature. Pick a place in or near nature that you can visit consistently in order to build relationship with and develop a routine. Can you let nature guide you? Allow yourself to slow down and listen to whatever messages come to you. You’re not alone in this spot. Connect with how your body feels with the ground supporting you and the air touching your skin.

2 . Make art. Any type of art. Care less about what the end product is and focus more on the process of making. You do not have to be good at something in order for it to bring you joy. Creativity is a form of empowerment, expression, resistance, connection, and transformation. You’re allowed to play, make mistakes, and experiment. The world needs your art.

3 . We don’t heal alone. We need each other. Create community where there is mutual support and accountability. Ask for help. Be held deeply by another and be truly heard. Deeply hold and hear others. Western culture fixates and boast individualism as the cure. Black and Indigenous healers have known and continue to know that the medicine is in connection and the collective.

4 . We must shift our mindset from wellness being an individual problem to a collective problem. Our wellness is determined by and beholden to each other. We must care about each other and work towards ending harm and injustices so that we can all experience peace and joy. Our wellness is impacted by the systems we live in and you can’t spa your way out of late-stage capitalism. Understanding how oppressive systems affect your relationships, identity, mood, and overall wellbeing and disrupting these systems is necessary to move forward in your healing.

5 . Feel your feelings. All feelings are okay. I feel like this is the most therapist-y thing I can say. So many of us did not have a role model in what that looks like or had the safe space to do so. You can do this through movement, crying, journaling, music, cooking, or art making, etc. Behaviors may not be okay but how you’re feeling is valid and welcomed. Allow yourself compassion and curiosity during this process.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Art. I believe art can change the world. Art is how we express new ideas, connect with each other, and disrupts norms. It brings voices that can be typically unheard, loud and center. We need to be able imagine and create a new way of being. Art is how we do that.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. Rest. The beliefs around productivity and self-sacrificing are hard wired in us. In the non-profit and social services world, fighting against rest is the norm. Even as a child, I don’t believe I ever saw my mother rest. It would have been so powerful and beautiful to witness this as a practice of self-love and not just a basic need. I wish I was introduced earlier to the work of Tricia Hersey, founder of The Nap Ministry.
  2. There is no such thing as being a blank slate. As a new therapist, this was the mindset that was taught to me. I get to be a full person with beliefs, humor, personality, and interests. This does not get in the way of me being an effective therapist, it does just the opposite. My humanness is what is going to connect me with my clients. Also, therapy is political.
  3. Self-care does not need to be enjoyable or leisurely. It’s not selfish, it’s a necessity. I wish someone modeled to me the importance of taking care of myself and what that looked like.
  4. Question everything. I now know to question who I’m learning from, who they’re talking about, and what the motivation was. My graduate education was very whitewashed, meaning deeply connected to racist origins and colonial thought and practices. First, I had to gain awareness of how what I loved doing was actually harmful to the people I had the honor of serving. It’s an ongoing process to make active changes in response to what I now know. Traditional therapy practices, which are stolen, empty, and badly reproduced Indigenous practices, uphold values and systems that I don’t align with when used unquestioned and unaltered. I’m intentional with who I learn from now.
  5. Becoming a therapist would change me. I thought I would become a therapist through the trainings I took and books I read. This is partly true. But it really was the deep journey of knowing and healing myself that created the therapist I am today. I changed as a person when I became a therapist, and in other words started to heal, which then changed my relationships and how I viewed the world.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

I believe all these causes are interconnected but, because of my own experiences with depression and grief as well as my complicated relationship with expressing my feelings and needs, mental health is the cause closest to me. I have dedicated my entire adult life to learning about and supporting others’ mental health, and I will continue to do so.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

The best way to connect with me is through my website or you can email me at lauren@workinprogresstherapyandwellness.com. I’m currently accepting new therapy clients in NJ and PA. I also offer clinical supervision. You can follow me on Instagram @work_in_progress_therapy or on Facebook as Work In Progress Therapy and Wellness.

Thank you for these fantastic insights! We wish you continued success and good health.

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.

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