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Meet Trailblazer Laura Lee Townsend

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laura Lee Townsend.

Laura, before we jump into specific questions, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story..
I’ve always been a curious, open person who loves talking with people and hearing their stories. That’s what started me as a double major in psychology and journalism as an undergrad at Ohio University.

Journalism won. My first job out of college brought me to Southern California in 2005. I worked in the publishing industry as a writer and editor for about seven years, slowly gravitating to health journalism. I climbed my way to a senior writer position at a health care advertising agency. While I was there, I finished my training as a certified holistic health coach on the side. I was becoming aware that I wanted to work for myself eventually rather than for someone else.

When my move into the advertising industry didn’t go as planned, I took it as a personal failure. It shattered my confidence. I left the job and decided to pursue health coaching more. When I didn’t “make it” as a solo practitioner right away, I became even more discouraged and took it as further evidence of my ineptitude. I needed to help pay the bills, so I accepted a job working as the nutritionist and general manager for a boutique gym franchise in San Clemente and Dana Point. Although I was surrounded by health, wellness, and positivity, I was miserable. I was working so much that the important relationships in my life withered, and I felt unappreciated, resentful, and anxious at work.

And then my dad died suddenly. I hit a new low. Enter therapy. I was fortunate to find a wonderful psychologist who supported me during this dark time. She helped me work through my complicated grief and supported me as I started a new position as a clinical nutritionist at a functional medicine clinic. She gave me the space to question, reflect, and develop a much more authentic relationship with myself.

Over time, I saw how in every “misstep” there was a valuable lesson; how when I lost my dad, I gained an emboldened approach to life. Even though my work-life balance was much better, and I enjoyed the work and learning opportunities I received as a clinical nutritionist, I knew I still wasn’t quite where I was meant to be.

It was in my psychologist’s office that I granted myself permission to circle back and go for my master’s degree to become a therapist. I applied to Pepperdine University’s Clinical Psychology program to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.

I started that journey in 2015. I graduated summa cum laude in 2018 while having my daughter in the middle of my schooling, plus working part-time and earning licensure hours. I could never have pulled all that off without the help and support of my partner/husband Adam. I look back at that time also as a testament to what you can accomplish when you love what you do and it fills you with energy rather than drains you.

Even though I have a master’s degree, I am still working toward licensure. I must earn 3,000 of experience, take a law and ethics exam (already done and passed), and finally pass my state board exams before I can be a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I have just under 600 hours left to go, so I’m in the home stretch!

I am also earning hours to become a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor because that’s what therapists are in many other states. I wanted to have that just in case we ever move. (I like to cover all my bases.) With that journey, I have about 1,200 hours left to go. It feels like what I would imagine mile 19 feels like when you’re running a marathon. If all goes according to my plans, I should be dually licensed by the end of this year.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Ha! No, it has been a bumpy ride on and off the struggle bus for sure! Not only was it a struggle just to find the work that fed my soul, there were the everyday life struggles of paying the bills, adjusting to motherhood, maintaining a marriage, and finding time for friendships and myself.

The difference now is in how I look at and perceive “struggle.” Our struggles are where we learn and grow if we allow them to be teaching opportunities. So I’m grateful now for obstacles. That doesn’t mean I don’t get upset and frustrated in the moment, but I try to consciously step back and ask, “What is the lesson here?”

For example, I grew up with a major scarcity mentality around money. Money caused fights and there never seemed to be enough of it even though we had plenty of stuff. It was a big, mysterious, evil entity. This mindset is what started me working at 14 and I never stopped until I had my daughter at 32. Those six months without working and having to fully depend on Adam were extremely challenging for me. We talked about that struggle a lot, and I’m grateful that he came from such a healthy mindset around money.

As another example, the process of gathering all these hours has taken me on twists and turns I never expected. When I started school, I thought I wanted to be a couples’ counselor with a focus on sexuality and intimacy issues. But there weren’t openings at my first or second choices for internship sites.

So I accepted a position with Grandma’s House of Hope in Garden Grove, where I worked with mostly men and some women transitioning out of prison and homelessness. I’m beyond grateful for that unexpected turn. I listened to countless tragic stories steeped in poverty, injustice, and racial discrimination. After all, it’s hard to have strong mental health and a positive attitude when society views you as a problem or a parasite and you are stripped of basic human dignity.

It was at Grandma’s House of Hope, where I witnessed what true humility, grit, discipline, and determination looked like from working with these men and women. Sure, many fell back into their old ways, but for the ones who wanted something different, their transformations were incredibly inspiring to me. I was honored to be on their journey to a new way of being and interacting with society.

When my plans fell through and I was hunting for new internship sites, I stumbled into the Laguna Beach Senior Center at the Susi Q. I had never considered working with seniors as a specific population, but what a fortuitous position it has become. I enjoy the symbiosis of working with seniors. They get emotional healing and mental support while I benefit from their life’s wisdom and experience. I’m learning how growing older is full of grief and letting go, as well as discovering new joys, delighting in simple pleasures, and forging new connections. We are always learning, growing, and changing up to our last breath. My senior clients inspire me to live according to my own values and moral code and to treasure this healthy and vivacious season of my life.

After graduation, when the initial private practice I was under wasn’t growing, my scarcity money mindset was activated. That led me to take a job working at a luxury drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. I thought I would never work in the recovery industry. From the outside, it seemed too depressing because the relapse rates are so high. What I didn’t understand then – and what I think a lot of people misunderstand about addiction and recovery – is that relapse is just part of the process. When we learn any new skill, very few of us get it “right” on the first try. We fall. We stumble. And we keep working at it. It’s the same with recovery.

In the rehabilitation center, I met clients (and their families) in their most raw, terrified, and vulnerable states. I gently guided people as they looked beneath their addictions to see what drove them in the first place. That was where I learned just how deep the damage of trauma runs, how cycles of trauma repeat, and how mindfulness, connection, and compassion help us heal. So through this “obstacle,” I learned I actually loved working with people in recovery and it totally changed the way I look at addiction.

I was thrown another curveball when the recovery center went out of business and I was left with a meager income from my fledgling private practice and a volunteer stipend from the Laguna Beach Senior Center at the Susi Q. Since I needed training hours with children, family, and couples, I decided this would be a good time to face my fears of working with children.

I’m not sure what it says about me that I was more scared to work with children than formerly incarcerated men. Despite having my own child, I still consider myself not a “kid person.” I felt awkward trying to relate to children. But I wanted to stretch myself, so I accepted a position with the GUIDE program as the guidance counselor at three different elementary schools in Carlsbad.

Again, I was surprised. The children seem to like me and I enjoy them. Their resiliency and creativity is remarkable. Their ability to progress, change, and heal so quickly astounds me. I have also learned just how truly valuable it is for a child when you are simply present and curious about them. It continues to be a visceral reminder of how we all just want to be seen, heard, supported, and loved.

In January of this year, I made the leap to a new private practice at Laguna Beach Counseling, where I work under the supervision of Kathleen Wenger, LMFT, LPCC. I also get to work alongside my friend, colleague and fellow Pepperdine University alumnae. This means so much to me because back when I started graduate school and envisioned having my own private practice, I wanted it to be in Laguna Beach.

So really, in all this, every “struggle,” obstacle, twist, and turn has served a purpose and provided a lesson. There are no “wrong” turns. That’s one major piece of advice I would pass on to younger women. I encourage young women to cultivate a strong relationship with themselves and to learn and set firm boundaries. That has taken me years, and I wish I would have learned the value of that sooner. I would also remind young women maintaining self-love and boundaries is an ongoing practice. So be kind to yourself when you backslide on a boundary; you’re human, not a robot.

I think this is particularly hard for a lot of women because we learn from a young age the importance of thinking about and caring for others. You have one source harping on you to be the kind, polite, dutiful daughter/girlfriend/worker/friend/mother/sister while simultaneously hearing the importance of putting yourself first so you can show up better for those roles.

The challenge and conflict with managing that battle is real. Unless you have established a strong sense of self-love and compassion, you’re an easy target for guilt, shame, anxiety, and/or depression. You are so much more than your work or your identity as a mother, daughter, significant other, etc. Be cautious about putting too much emphasis on any one role in particular because, in my experience, when/if that goes away, it can really mess with your sense of self.

Speaking of sense of self, I also encourage women (and people in general) to remember there are often more options than just this or that. I love that we live in a time and place where people are accepting there is a wide spectrum when it comes to gender and sexuality and the fluidity that lies within those spaces. Explore what feels right for you.

Similarly, it’s wonderful that we don’t have to be “just moms” or “only career women.” We can be both or we can choose different roles at different times to fit our needs. I often share with clients that I am a big fan of the “and/both” approach to life rather than an “either/or” model. There are often so many more creative options than the standard choices we’re presented with at first glance. That was a particularly freeing and empowering lesson for me.

Finally, and maybe most important, listen to your inner voice and don’t be afraid to keep searching for work or a relationship(s) that light you up when you talk about them. There were so many times I felt depressed and discouraged because I knew I wasn’t in a good place professionally, or I felt like I was crazy for wanting something more than the standard model. But I kept searching, and I’m so glad I didn’t give up on that little voice inside. Keep going, and seek support because it’s so worth all the effort when you find the people and passions you love.

Please tell us more about your work. What do you do? What do you specialize in? What sets you apart from competition?
While I am grateful for my training and experience as a therapist in a wide variety of settings and populations, I specialize in trauma recovery. I especially love employing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy with my private practice clients at Laguna Beach Counseling, where I work under the supervision of Kathleen Wenger, LMFT, LPCC.

EMDR therapy is specialized training that was originally designed to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) survivors. Plenty of research supports its effectiveness in working with severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sexual abuse, eating disorders, phobias, and more.

I was attracted to EMDR therapy right away because of its integrative approach between the mind and body, as I am already holistic-minded. However, after I experienced first-hand its ability to help me revisit and process through some early childhood trauma, I knew I wanted to share it with others.

I’m excited about an upcoming training I’ll be attending that works with EMDR for peak performance, like in working with professional athletes or performers struggling with creative blocks. I feel so honored to accompany clients on their healing journey and transformational breakthroughs. EMDR therapy utilizes the brain’s innate ability to heal itself; I just guide the way. It’s such a fascinating experience, I wish everyone would do it!

Which women have inspired you in your life?
So many women have inspired me! Where to begin? I guess if I start from a macro level of women in my field, Esther Perel, Brené Brown, Dr. Francine Shapiro, Dr. Sue Johnson, have been enormous influences on me and how I show up personally and professionally.

As for inspiring women I know personally, I am so grateful for my wonderful supervisors and consultants who are helping me to grow and hone my skills as a therapist. Kathleen Wenger, LMFT, LPCC and Elizabeth Cappelletti, LMFT have shown me what it takes to run a private practice with heart, humor, and business acumen. These wonderful women supported me through personal and professional tough times.

Dr. Michelle Gottlieb, Dr. Charlotte Winters, and Dr. Deb Silveria are EMDR masters, and I’m so grateful for their expertise in helping me to become the best EMDR clinician I can be.

Penny Velazquez and Lynda Lennox took a chance on me to work with children and support me when I feel like I’m going in circles. I am eternally grateful for my phenomenal colleagues there who share endless resources and interventions for working with children. Their support gave me the courage and confidence to work with this new population that seemed so daunting initially.

And I am always inspired my girlfriends and the women in my family who are all doing amazing work from starting their own businesses and writing books, to raising children, to volunteering, and everything in between with grace and wit. I could never be where I am or the person I am without these fabulous women.

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Image Credit:
Laura Lee Townsend

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