Sarita Walsh on Finding Community + Comfort Online

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Everything Sarita Walsh touches is a minimalist’s dream. From black-and-white desktop backgrounds with built-in organization systems meant to help us live with intention online to pared-back posters outlining simple things we can do to take care of ourselves on a daily basis, the graphic designer’s work has been so well-received since she began sharing it online at the start of the pandemic that she recently left her advertising job to focus on it full time. “I’m creating reminders for myself in the hopes that they will serve others as well,” says the Brooklyn-based Walsh, who’s originally from Sydney, Australia.

Her Instagram account is filled with inspiring mantras (“Less time questioning, more time creating”) and straightforward explanations of self-help concepts like the Gap and the Gain Mindset, all paired with vulnerable and honest reflections on how she’s feeling at any given moment. “Instagram is sort of my visual diary,” says Walsh, who first started sharing on the platform as a way to combat her social anxiety, “so I show up and try to be as myself as possible.”

We spoke to Walsh about how a difficult childhood shaped her current outlook on life, the way her work has helped her overcome social anxiety, and the daily practices that keep her mental health in check.

A lot of your design work is themed around mental health and self-care. How did that become something you wanted to focus on in your work?

When I first started [sharing my design work on Instagram], it was actually to help me combat my severe social anxiety, which I didn't know I was experiencing for a long time. Then, through sharing it, it connected me with a community. I was going through this process of getting to know myself that was fairly new to me: I started to journal and become more self-aware and go to therapy and I think that’s why [those themes] showed up in my work. It's essentially just [a reflection of] my life. 

It's interesting because this is the first interview I’ve ever said yes to because I think people think that I know so much and that I'm so wise [based on my work] and they want me to guide them, but what they don't realize, and I try to share this as much as possible, is that I'm in the thick of it, too. I'm trying to understand myself as well. So I think to myself “I don't know if I'm worthy enough to be interviewed, I don't know if I have a lot to share.” But that’s also made me realize that that’s something I need to work on, believing in my self-worth and changing the narrative that I have about myself. 

I get that, people often follow others on Instagram and think they have all the answers and view them as quasi-therapists when they’re not but I still think that what you're doing – putting your journey out there – is inspiring to people. You're not telling them what to do, you're just creating tools that might be helpful.

I love that that comes through because I never want to tell people what to do and I’ve always felt like I could never teach or advise people. But through that struggle, I found myself a new superpower, for lack of a better word, by just sharing my story because I can't be wrong about that. This is my experience and if I share it in a way that's really authentic, and people can relate to and benefit from that, then I'm winning. It's been helpful and healing for me to share this stuff as well.

How did you overcome any anxiety you had about being so open about your life?

My mom is a chronic oversharer, which I think is a trait I inherited, so I never really struggle with sharing and I think part of it is because when I meet people, I want them to feel like they can really be themselves. I try to create a safe environment because I feel like if they can be themselves, then I can be myself too. So sharing doesn't give me anxiety, I see it as a strength. For example, I’ve spoken about my fear of public speaking. I really struggle with it, and I find it very helpful to talk about it because when people come up to me and say, “Hey, I really struggle with that, too,” I realize that I'm not alone, and it helps me to overcome the fear. By sharing, you attract people who share the same experience and build a community around that.

"11 Simple Things" by Sarita Walsh

You recently left your job, which can be a really scary transition for people. What gave you the confidence to take the plunge?

I didn't quite realize before the pandemic how introverted I am, how much I need time for myself, and how little time I was giving myself for a very long time. So during the pandemic, I suddenly had all this time to be with myself. I realized how unhappy I was at my full-time job, mainly because I was never putting my needs first. This is why I created those “11 Simple Things” posters, it was a reminder to myself like, “Sarita, these are the things that you have to make time to do. If you don't do them, you're miserable.” By having more time, I started to figure out and lean into what really brings me joy, what makes me feel whole and grounded, and I realized that the answer was having more time. It was clear that I needed to quit my job [in order to get that]. The confidence really came from knowing that that life was not for me and that my passion was elsewhere. 

Yeah, I think a lot of people went through that during covid. It was this terrible experience in many ways, but it also helped us realize that we were devoting so much of our lives to things we didn't care about and that were not actually making us feel good.

I couldn't agree more. I like to “silver line” everything, too much sometimes, but I think that's what joy, for me at least, is all about.  I feel like joy is hope and, in a lot of ways, joy can be created. Joy transforms difficult times into blessings. And I think that while it's not always good to “silver line” everything, it does help me see the opportunity that comes from difficult times. I think that the pandemic was a learning opportunity for me and I am so much more thoughtful coming out of it.

You seem to have this incredibly healthy perspective on life – have you always had that or was it a journey for you to get there? 

It's definitely been a journey. I think I emphasize finding joy so much because my childhood was not easy. I cut myself when I was younger which, I realize now, was me trying to send a message to the world, I just wanted to be heard. Because I really was just miserable with my life and the situation I was in. Through learning how to cope with it, and getting out of that situation and creating my own joyful life, I learned that it was possible to do that, to create the life I wanted to create. 

How did you identify which sources of joy are actually beneficial to you? Something that I struggle with, for example, is thinking that certain things should bring me joy, even though they don't.

For me it’s things that leave me in a flow state – I think that's joy taking over you because you are just so focused and not thinking about anything else. When you catch yourself in a moment of flow, take a moment to write that down and start collecting a list of things that bring you that joy, and then do more of those things. The “11 Simple Things” are really those that allow me to show up like my best self so I'm not pouring out of an empty cup. It's really simple but we often don't do it – I used to roll my eyes at tools that seemed so simple and obvious. I think that when the information is not coming at the right time for you or from the right person, you just don't want it. When my therapist gave me this breathing technique (where you breathe in for five seconds, hold, and then breathe out for five seconds, and hold) I was skeptical, but I kept doing it and now I find it to be really powerful.

Flow Session Paintings by Sarita Walsh

You’ve talked about painting as one of your tools for getting into that flow state, which you call “flow sessions.” Can you talk a little bit about what those sessions look like?

When I did those paintings, I was still coming out of a full-time job and was thinking about becoming an artist as a way to make money, so I looked into painting more and tried to find my signature. But when you have an expectation for whatever comes out of your painting, or any creative practice, you can be disappointed by it. I realized that having an expectation really wasn’t allowing me to fully engage with the process itself, which was being in the flow and just enjoying it. When I was younger and painting, I didn't expect anything from it. So now, when I paint, I light incense and play some music, and just really lean into how I'm feeling that day. I just start making marks without expecting anything and it’s really therapeutic. It’s just so wonderful to make space for myself to be present. 

You can do something similar with writing as well, by just writing your stream of consciousness thoughts and not judging what you're saying.

Exactly, I bullet journal as well. I love it, it changed my life. For a long time, I didn't journal unless it was for productivity purposes. When I first started journaling, it was so clear that I was using the blank page as a way to perform and I was trying to almost perfect my writing, which was not serving me at all. The goal is not to show up as the version of me that I want to be, but to just explore who I am. When you lean into that, it’s really powerful.

It’s a similar practice to the “Declutter, Organize, Prioritize” guide you recently created to help people overcome “task paralysis.” What inspired you to create that?

I have a lot of people who write to me and tell me that they’re overwhelmed. I get it, I feel that weekly, and I know that when I get to that point, it’s really helpful for me to just sit down and brain dump. I'll just spend a little time writing out everything that I need to do that’s bouncing around my head, even if it's for next week or next year. Then, when I have time, I sort through it all and make a plan for getting things done so that I don't have to worry about it. It allows me to be present and not feel anxious. When I shared the process on Instagram, so many people were interested, so I created a template that's a little bit prettier and easier to follow. 

Intentional Desktops by Sarita Walsh

You’ve also created desktop backgrounds that people can download to simplify what's going on on their screen. How do you think all of this digital clutter impacts our well-being?

Because I'm a designer who struggles with ADHD, I get distracted very easily by my surroundings and it's the same with my desktop. My desktop is kind of like my room, I see it the same way. When it's not tidy, it's a reminder for me to take care of myself. It's like if your room is really dirty or there are a ton of unwashed dishes – clearly, you’re not taking enough time to take care of yourself. I think it's really important to practice digital hygiene as well. I realized during the pandemic, when we were spending so much time on our screens, that we tend to forget to do that, so I created a fun way to [resolve that].

What’s coming up next for you?

When I quit my job, it was hard for me to know what was next because I wasn't allowing myself to really embrace the exploration phase. I was worried about money, but I basically told myself to spend one month just exploring, without worrying about it. I had saved enough that I knew I could take care of myself for a month. So then that month, I leaned into everything that was bringing me joy, and it was wonderful. By the time I sort of found a direction, I met someone who shares the same values as me and we decided to start a company together. We’re still working through what it will be but we know that we want to help people live a more meaningful and joyful life that they love and create a sense of community. I never realized how important community was before, I always say “connection” is one of my values, but I never thought about community and I think that’s because I'm an introvert who has social anxiety. The idea of lots of people just freaks me out. But now I have this community online that I speak to and love connecting with. I’ve realized that I can actually bring people together in a way that is safe and supportive. When I was young, I didn't have an environment where I could show up as myself and really be embraced, so to experience being in a space where people really just accept me, it's so incredible, and I want to create more of those spaces for people.

Keep the conversation going by commenting on this story below. You can also connect with us about whatever’s on your mind by texting The Local Optimist Hotline at 310.299.9414

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