Take small steps for a more meaningful life says Cork psychologist

A psychologist from East Cork has penned a new book with her wife on how to take small, manageable steps to change your life, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Take small steps for a more meaningful life says Cork psychologist
At Waterstones, Cork for the launch of The Power of Small, was co author Aisling Leonard Curtin. Picture Dan Linehan

WE are at that time of the New Year when we have perhaps failed to stick to our resolutions, which were all about getting fit, healthy and slim through working out in the gym and adopting a Spartan diet.

But two psychologists, who are married to each other, have co-written a newly published book, The Power of Small, which is all about making “tiny but powerful changes when everything feels too much”.

Rather than waiting for the perfect moment (which usually never occurs), the book shows you how to take manageable steps to change your life, one decision at a time.

The emphasis is on self-compassion as a means to gently expand your comfort zone and open up new horizons.

Aisling Leonard-Curtin, originally of Castlemartyr, works with her wife and colleague, Trish Leonard-Curtin, at their practice, Act Now Purposeful Living, in Dublin.

Their book, launched in Cork recently, has a foreword by broadcaster, Olivia O’Leary. She quotes US jurist, Oliver Wendall Holmes, who said “most people die with their music still inside them”.

Aisling, who has struggled with anxiety in her own life, is familiar with the feeling of being overwhelmed at the prospect of breaking out of a comfort zone.

Co authors Aisling and Trish Leonard Curtin. Picture Dan Linehan
Co authors Aisling and Trish Leonard Curtin. Picture Dan Linehan

“A lot of us are afraid of failing,” she says. “We’re afraid of getting things wrong and being rejected. Sometimes, we think we’re going to have an infinite amount of time and that we’ll always be able to do things later. But sometimes, the time runs out on us.

“One of the biggest things we try to do as psychologists is to help people to have the courage to live the life they want today, in small ways rather than waiting for some time in the future when everything is perfect. Nothing is ever perfect.”

With her hobbies of writing and performing improvisational comedy, Aisling is all too aware of the need for a creative outlet as a means of leading a fulfilling life.

“Creativity comes up in different ways for different people. For some, it might be writing. My wife does mandala stone painting, something that I could never do. I think we all have something.

“Suppressing our creativity can mean that we struggle psychologically. For some people, creativity is absolutely their life purpose. For others, it might be a sideline.”

Either way, self-expression is important.

When it comes to resolutions for 2019, Aisling says that instead of, for example, going to the gym five days a week, “people should go to the gym a couple of times a week for thirty minutes, building it up”.

She adds: “If you’re looking to be creative, you might take ten minutes a day to write or draw or whatever, rather than waiting for that time when the children will be away and there’ll be no distractions.

“A lot of people want to write books but they have this idealised view. They think they’ll write when they get those two months in Italy. But for most people, that isn’t going to happen. It’s more about what are the small ways you can integrate writing into your daily life.”

Aisling emphasises the need to stretch outside our comfort zone “yet remaining within our self-care zone so that it feels manageable — if you do that, your comfort zone gets bigger and bigger, gradually and cumulatively, so you get to where you want to go.

Psychologists, Aisling and Trish Leonard-Curtin, authors of The Power of Small. Photo credit: Aoife Herrity
Psychologists, Aisling and Trish Leonard-Curtin, authors of The Power of Small. Photo credit: Aoife Herrity

“It’s all about integrating elements of self-care into our daily life. If you have a car, you wouldn’t expect it to go without fuel. But frequently, we expect ourselves to go without fuel. Self-care is putting fuel into our ‘tank’ so we’ll be able to do what we want to do. Fuel can be a support network.

“Also, if we’re running around, doing lots of things but not eating properly and not getting enough sleep, and not making time for creativity or hobbies, then we’re not putting fuel in our own tanks.”

Doing something small like planning a healthy meal or going for a walk, making time for creativity or calling a friend, is important, says Aisling. She tries to practise what she preaches.

“Like everybody, I’m not perfect, so I don’t do all the things I advise all the time. I have to say that when I do practise my own advice, that’s when my life works more meaningfully.

“When we were asked by the publishers of our book to write it, we were really fortunate. I had written an article for the Irish Times and on the back of that, two publishers reached out to us to write a book. It was incredible and a bit mad. It was January, 2017, and we were getting married that June.

“We felt the time wasn’t right but it was such a golden opportunity, we decided to take time off to write. We had a month where we were totally away from our clients. We worked on the book quite extensively during that time but interestingly, a lot of that work wasn’t our best work.

The writing that really stuck was what we wrote when we had all our regular commitments. We were writing a bit every single day.”

The book was originally supposed to be published in January, 2018.

“We took longer to write it and I think it’s a better book for that. We are kind of walking the walk. I don’t always do that and when I don’t, I pay for it.”

Aisling and Trish have a fulfilling personal life as well as a professional one and getting married was a positive step.

“We were one of the first couples to marry within the first two years (of marriage equality legislation.) It was still pretty novel when we married. The best thing that ever happened to us was the ‘yes’ vote. It was a real marker of support for our relationship and for many others. We got so much support from our families.”

However, Aisling admits working together and living together “is challenging at times. “Most people say they could never do it. But ultimately, we feel the book is much better because we worked on it together.”

The Power of Small by Aisling and Trish Leonard-Curtin is published on Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland, €16.99
The Power of Small by Aisling and Trish Leonard-Curtin is published on Trade Paperback by Hachette Ireland, €16.99

When it comes to their different strengths, Aisling says she is good at getting a job done.

“Trish’s real strength is that she is a lot more detail-oriented than me and is a lot more aware of organisation and structure. She’s good at seeing the big picture. We complement each other.”

Ideally, throughout our lives, our values should be our guides, says Aisling.

“But a lot of the time, people say to me, ‘what are my values?’ I do a lot of work in adult psychiatry.

“I see people in their sixties and seventies who say they’ve been in and out of hospital for years and nobody has asked them what their values are and they don’t really know what they are.”

Many of us flounder through life without always being attuned to values.

“We should stop to ask ourselves, what is really important to me? How do I want to be remembered? What words would I like to be used to describe myself?”

Aisling says that people might say compassion and connection are important to them but they are so driven to try and achieve promotion at work, for example, that other values are neglected.

“A lot of our book is about recognising that all of the actions we do are like small building blocks.

“We should take time to connect to our values and allow most of our actions to be in line with them. It will make for a richer, fuller and more meaningful life.

“There is research to indicate that the more you live by your values, the less likely you are to struggle with depression, anxiety and addiction.”

The Power Of Small aims to give people the tools to live more meaningfully. At the start of the New Year, it’s just what the doctor would order.

The Power Of Small by Aisling and Trish Leonard-Curtin is published by Hachette.

MORE ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Aisling Leonard-Curtin

Aisling is a chartered psychologist, international speaker, trainer and author.

She is a peer-reviewed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer and a functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP) trainer.

Aisling is the co-director of Act Now Purposeful Living. She has been at the forefront of spreading evidence-based skills to the general public and those within mental health settings in Ireland over the past 10 years.

Her passion is making complex concepts easy to understand and apply.

Having struggled with anxiety in her own life, she is only too familiar with feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of breaking out of her comfort zone.

Aisling writes fiction and performs improvisational comedy as her hobbies. She is always looking for new ways to break out of her comfort zone and help others to do the same.

Dr Trish Leonard-Curtin

Dr Trish is a psychologist, trainer and lecturer. Having struggled with mental health challenges in her own life, including in-patient admissions in psychiatric care, Trish re-trained as a psychologist.

She is co-director of Act Now Purposeful Living. Trish has extensive experience of working with trauma and psychological distress in adolescents and adults across a broad range of settings.

Trish values the role of mindfulness in daily life and her therapeutic work.

She is currently training to be a Tai Chi teacher and is interested in how Tai Chi can augment traditional psychological approaches.

Trish’s passion is reaching underserved populations who often do not get adequate access to psychological supports for mental health challenges.

She is keen to destigmatise speaking up about mental health and promote an environment where we can be a lot more open and accepting about our struggles.

Trish and Aisling are married and live in Dublin.

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