Jen Labanowski and Shelly Smith: “Priorities are shifting”

Priorities are shifting. When faced with the reality of a pandemic, our priorities become apparent. Safety for ourselves and loved ones is essential and an obvious priority, after that we begin to consider the additional considerations. We start to think more about our mental health, friends and colleagues who we care about, and how we […]

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Priorities are shifting. When faced with the reality of a pandemic, our priorities become apparent. Safety for ourselves and loved ones is essential and an obvious priority, after that we begin to consider the additional considerations. We start to think more about our mental health, friends and colleagues who we care about, and how we might ‘design’ our lives if we had the opportunity. So many people seem to be “taking stock” of their lives regarding what’s truly important. In our experiences as therapists, we see this play out in ways that allow for positive change to happen in people’s lives. We’re hopeful this will happen on a larger scale.

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 busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shelly Smith and Jen Labanowski.

Shelly Smith, LMFT and Jen Labanowski, LMFT are licensed therapists and the co-founders of United Counseling & Wellness, LLC (, an organization that creates tailored wellness solutions for individuals, couples, and teams. They are passionate about removing stigma around therapy and they aim to make therapy approachable, accessible and flexible. Each day, Shelly and Jen strive for balance — taking care of their families, their clients, their team, their business — oh yes, and themselves!

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?

Shelly: My first career was as a teacher, which I loved, but ultimately I looked to therapy as a way to help on a different level. I had an internal motivation to help as many people as possible and do it on a large scale. As a therapist, I’m able to help my clients within sessions, and as a business owner, I work with my partner to bring exceptional therapy services to as many people as possible.

Jen: I’ve always loved problem-solving and helping people, and I knew that I would be most fulfilled in a career that gave me ample opportunities to do both. When I began my training as a systemic therapist, I knew that I had found the right path. I feel so fortunate to be invited into people’s lives and given the opportunity to zoom in on complex situations and dynamics. While I love “zooming in”, I quickly realized that I also have a passion for zooming way out and doing more “big picture” problem-solving. When Shelly and I met, we realized that we had very similar goals, values, and clinical approaches. Ultimately, UCW grew out of our strong working partnership and our passion for changing the way that people think about therapy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

Shelly: Jen and I met in Peoria, Illinois. We had both recently moved there for our spouses careers, but we knew that our families wouldn’t be settling in Peoria long term. Since Jen and I both wanted to be in private practice but knew that we wouldn’t be spending our careers in Illinois, we decided to split the work of opening a tiny little therapy practice together. Best decision ever. We realized how much we loved working together, and we began to dread the day when we would have to close down our little practice and stop being business partners. We called our little practice United Counseling & Wellness — UCW for short.

Jen: Building that practice showed us how much our goals and values really aligned. We had two locations (one in the city and one in a smaller town nearby) and we put so much work into making the offices feel warm and inviting because we wanted our clients to feel calm and comfortable when they came to see us. And we would sometimes drive back and forth from office to office multiple times in a day depending on the schedules of our clients. It was a little crazy, but we didn’t mind because we wanted to make therapy accessible and flexible. After a few years of running our sweet little practice, we both got word (right around the same time, actually) that we would be relocating. I was moving to Minneapolis, and Shelly was moving to Milwaukee. We started to talk about shutting down the practice. but we both knew that it didn’t feel like the right move.

Shelly: After a lot of talking and planning, we set out to expand our practice rather than close it. We stayed close to our values of making therapy approachable, comfortable, accessible and flexible. We started offering online therapy via secure video chat and paired it with in-person offerings in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. At first, our families and friends thought we were taking on too much by trying to build a business that had no real precedent in the field, while also relocating our families to different states, but Jen and I had a vision.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Jen: Always! We’re regularly checking in on what our clients need and trying to adapt UCW to provide support in new and different ways.

Shelly: Recently, we’ve seen the need for check-in support for people who might not be seeking therapy. We’ve created “self-care sessions” and “relationship health checks” for individuals and couples who are looking for a little help with finding resources or honing their communication and coping strategies. We’ve been really excited about these offerings, especially because they’ve helped us create another opportunity to give back. Since this past spring, we’ve been offering free “self-care sessions” to heroes on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. We feel so grateful for the strength and bravery of individuals in the medical community, and we want to do whatever we can to take care of the people who devote their lives to taking care of everyone else.

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?

Jen: That’s an easy one. My husband is an incredible human being and I could not be more grateful. He’s made so many sacrifices for our family, and he has always stepped up to provide our family with stability and security. When COVID hit and my working hours went from crazy to insane, he took over on EVERYTHING. In addition to becoming a full-time kindergarten teacher for our daughter, he built me a soundproof home office and made it so that all I had to do was work, spend time with our family, and sleep. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t think that I washed a single dish or folded one piece of laundry from about March to July. He’s the kind of person that you want in your corner, and I’m so grateful to have him.

Shelly: So Jen just stole my answer! Like she said, the sheer number of work hours we’ve put in during this pandemic are insane, and it’s been possible due to the incredible support of our spouses. I’m so grateful for my husband’s response to all of this. He stepped up to take care of the household, took the lead on homeschooling our teen and pre-teen, and went above and beyond to make sure I had what I needed in order to keep going. We have a running joke that I may no longer be able to meal prep, because I’m used to food just magically showing up when I need it. He’s always been incredibly supportive, loving, and generous — but he has been beyond amazing during this time. He’s definitely the glue holding our family together.

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 business leader during this pandemic?

Jen: I would say that my biggest family related challenge right now is honestly just immense guilt. Shelly and I have always tried to maintain a healthy work-life balance, but it’s gotten a lot harder lately. We know that our spouses and children need us, but we also know that there are a lot of people that need UCW — especially right now. Sometimes when I’m with my family, my mind is on work and often when I’m working, I’m missing my family. It’s hard not to feel like you’re always letting someone down.

Shelly: I feel that way too. The other struggle I’ve encountered is trying to hold onto hope for the kids (and myself) while also being real about the emotional roller coaster that we’re all riding. There is so much loss and disappointment right now, and we need to be honest with ourselves and our families about the fact that we’re all experiencing grief right now. It can be hard to stay emotionally present and not get overwhelmed while trying to support our kids and their emotions.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Jen: When the guilt starts to build, I remind myself that I’m doing my best and my best is actually pretty good. Talking about it helps a lot too. I feel so fortunate to have a business partner that has so many of the same challenges, because we’re able to support each other in a really impactful way. Fairly often, one of us will share that we’re struggling with something at home and the other one will respond, “Go. I’ve got this.” And that’s all that needs to be said. That’s a partnership at its finest, I think.

Shelly: Absolutely. The emotional roller coaster has been rough on all of us this year. Being honest with ourselves about it is a good starting point, and it can help to have those regular “check ins” with trusted people in our lives. Jen and I do that with each other, which I’m so thankful for. I’ve also started meeting with a few close friends on a video chat each week. We check in about how each of us is really doing, how we’re relating to our families, and how the pandemic is affecting us in various ways. It helps to be honest about the struggles (and the joys) that can be found during challenging times. Doing my own internal emotional work allows me to be more present with my spouse and children when they’re expressing their own struggles.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Shelly: Trying to “balance it all” is really tough to do these days. We thought it was tricky before the pandemic, but now it’s risen to a different level altogether. We’re in a high-demand field that’s rapidly changing, so the demands of our practice have recently risen alongside the needs of our families.

Jen: Shelly and I have a responsibility to look out for a lot of people — our clients, our team, our families, and ourselves. The pandemic has significantly increased the number of people on that list, and the needs of each person on that list have also increased significantly. It feels like there’s never enough time or energy to take care of everyone on the list these days, and that becomes a very big problem when we’ve put ourselves at the very bottom of the list.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Shelly: Like most business owners, we go through periods where work is a heavy focus, then we have times where family is a heavy focus. The balance between the two doesn’t equal out perfectly hour-by-hour, but we have to continually recalculate and re-rank our priorities based on what’s going on that week, that day, or that moment. Family and business will always be important, so we each do our best to prioritize both realms however we can.

Jen: I’ve had to be reminded (more than once) that I need to put myself higher on the list. It’s a struggle though, even with a prompt. It sometimes feels like the right choice to just put my head down and keep moving forward, but I know that I can’t do that too much or I’ll start to check out mentally and emotionally. It’s really helpful to have people that can step in and tell you when you’re doing too much.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

Jen: This will sound ridiculous, but I tell my daughter that I’m “trying my best to keep my head connected to my body”. This is how I try to show her what it looks like when I’m emotionally “present” and what it looks like when I’m not. On many occasions, at the end of a pandemic workday, I’ve shut my laptop and walked over to the dinner table. While eating dinner, my daughter will ask, “Mommy, are you mad?”, catching me completely by surprise because I’m definitely not feeling anything remotely close to anger. And then I’ll realize that my brow is all scrunched up because I’m lost in thought, still processing the workday. I explain to her that my body has arrived at the dinner table but my head is still in my office — but it’ll be here soon. In a pre-pandemic world, I had a beautiful, wonderful, blissful commute where I would finish processing the workday, and I would arrive at home intact. Now, I have to be intentional about keeping my head connected to my body. Sometimes, I take a walk at the end of the day to clear my mind, or I share a virtual glass of wine with a friend and sometimes, I just tell my family that my head will be arriving soon, and we all do our best to wait patiently!

Shelly: This is a tough one! Let’s be real — it’s hard to do and there’s never enough time or energy to give equally everywhere. I try to time block as much as possible in order to structure my days. It’s not always smooth sailing, but when I break down my days into smaller chunks of time, I feel like I can handle it all a little easier. This way I have built-in breaks, and my family knows when I’m unavailable and when they have my attention. I also make sure to laugh as frequently as possible (even if it’s just at the absurdity of it all)! My kids know this, so they’ve started telling me dumb jokes when I least expect it. When we can laugh together it makes the stressful times less tense. Laughter can help with so much, but I often forget throughout the day with so much on my mind.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Shelly: I try to find time to be alone (even if it involves hiding out for just a few minutes), exercise, practice mindfulness, reach out to friends, and get a sufficient amount of sleep. Sleep is an especially important coping strategy, and its positive impacts are often underestimated. On the days when all of these aren’t realistic, I make sure that sleep is my priority. I know this sounds like a list of lofty ideas — but there are often brief, creative ways to fit them in. And I’ve become more strategic about it, because it’s essential for me to be in the best possible head space.

Jen: I try really hard to have a high tolerance for uncertainty, and stay flexible in my thoughts, plans, and expectations. I also do my best to stay connected to my friends and family. I’m regularly chatting with them throughout the day, because it helps expand my world beyond the walls of our house. I try to spend a lot of time outdoors with my husband and daughter, and we like to work on projects together. This helps to bring me closer to the people that I love, and it temporarily shifts my focus off the countless current stressors.

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.

Jen & Shelly: Our 5 reasons to be hopeful

  1. Change happens. As therapists we know that life is always changing and challenging circumstances happen often. Our response in times like these is to gather our courage, process our emotions, and navigate our way through the challenge. Like all tough times this will eventually be in the past. It’s just hard to see that when we’re in the midst of a challenge.
  2. Hope creates resilience. Right now, we’re spending so much time trying to get through this, especially with an indefinite timeline and regularly changing information. The longer stressful situations continue, the harder it is to hold onto the idea that things will be better or different in the future and the more important hope becomes. Hope is an essential element to getting through tough times, because it gives us a reason to keep going.
  3. People are uniting. Even while it seems that this pandemic is dividing people in extreme ways, we also see how it’s bringing people together in unique and positive ways. We’ve heard of friends reconnecting for virtual meetups after not talking for years. We’ve heard so many stories of couples and families spending more time together, opening up more, and developing new joint hobbies.
  4. Support and self-care are on the rise. As stress and anxiety are on the rise so is the growth of better self-care and coping strategies. In both our personal and professional worlds, more people are reaching out to us asking for ideas about stress-relief, relationship healing, and ways to cope better. We see this as a definite sign of hope! More people accessing support and learning new coping strategies often means that they’re learning to be aware of what they need, respecting their boundaries, and building a more supportive “toolkit” for the future. It means that we’re all better able to take care of and support ourselves.
  5. Priorities are shifting. When faced with the reality of a pandemic, our priorities become apparent. Safety for ourselves and loved ones is essential and an obvious priority, after that we begin to consider the additional considerations. We start to think more about our mental health, friends and colleagues who we care about, and how we might ‘design’ our lives if we had the opportunity. So many people seem to be “taking stock” of their lives regarding what’s truly important. In our experiences as therapists, we see this play out in ways that allow for positive change to happen in people’s lives. We’re hopeful this will happen on a larger scale.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Shelly: Anxiety is a beast and it is affecting all of us right now. It’s especially hard to watch someone we care about when they’re hurting. Providing empathy and support when possible is generally the best strategy. Having empathy means that we will feel alongside someone else and validate their experience, so they feel less alone. This can often help diffuse additional tension or anxiety as well.

Jen: We know there are strategies to help reduce anxiety such as exercise, mindfulness, creative activities, sleep, and therapy, but your loved one will likely respond best if they feel supported through empathy, as Shelly mentioned. If it’s appropriate (and that completely depends on the person/situation) you can consider sharing a mindfulness app, a self-compassion exercise, or a therapy resource, but this should be done in a loving, supportive way, with lots of empathy. Providing unsolicited advice or just throwing out the suggestion, “Go get help,” rarely goes over well when someone’s struggling and it can be truly invalidating. Instead of telling someone what they should do, it’s often better to say something like, “How can we make this better?” and offer to approach the problem as a team.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Jen: I think I have to go with a life lesson from John Lennon, “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.” I’ve put a lot of work into learning how to tell if I’m acting out of love or out of fear. At first, they both feel like a gut instinct — something that comes from deep inside. But choices that are motivated by fear lead us in very different directions than choices motivated by love. It’s a big part of my job to help other people learn to differentiate true gut instincts from fear that is masquerading as “gut”.

Shelly: I’m an admirer of Maya Angelou and find so much guidance and inspiration in her words. One of her quotes resonates with me and feels particularly appropriate for these times is, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” It reminds me that I have power and agency in how I respond to any situation, and I can choose to pause, reflect, and become more self-aware. This allows me to move forward from a proactive stance rather than a reactive or defensive one. It also reminds me that I am resilient and have overcome many difficulties in life and learned from them, and I can do so again.

How can our readers follow you online?

Shelly: You can find us in a couple of places. The first is at the UCW website: In addition to accessing great therapists across the country, you can read articles written by therapists in our blog, the Wellness Journal, or you can sign up to receive helpful insights and resources through our email newsletter.

Jen: Shelly and I also have a shared Instagram account (@goodhumanwork) where we post about things that have been helpful to us and helpful to our clients.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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