Judging strangers came easily to DJ Bowman-Smith. It was fun, and it made her feel better about herself. Then a comment from her daughter left her determined to change. Here, she shares her story, along with her advice on what downward social comparison is and how to avoid being overcritical of others…
The radio was playing, the sun was out and I was in a happy mood. My daughter was home for a few days and we were on our way out to lunch. While we waited at the traffic lights, a woman and her dog crossed the road. ‘The rest of her clothes must be in the wash,’ I said. ‘And let’s hope she’s on her way to the hairdresser!’
My daughter said nothing. ‘Funny how people end up looking like their pets,’ I added. The dog was large and ugly. I glanced at my daughter. I thought she must be checking her phone since she hadn’t replied, but she was just staring ahead.
We drove on in silence and then she said, ‘I bet that dog is really friendly. The woman has probably just popped out to get some fresh bread in her gardening clothes. Nice to have such thick hair.’
My daughter didn’t call me out over my unkindness, instead she gently realigned my thoughts. With the benefit of her perspective, I saw the woman differently: no longer a scruff – but a busy gardener dashing out with her friendly dog for a loaf – and yes, what lovely hair.
Recognising your own prejudice
I realised that what I’d said was unwarranted and I should be more like my daughter, kind and accepting. The incident stayed with me and I started to notice that even when I didn’t have an audience, I thought negatively about people. When I walked behind someone in the street or watched TV, I was constantly finding fault in my head.
I’d never been aware of it before but it soon became clear that I did it all the time. But it didn’t chime at all with my self-image. I saw myself as an optimistic and upbeat person – so what was going on?
I asked both my daughters if they thought I was overcritical – and their honesty shocked me. They said I was kind about family and people I knew, but always horrible about strangers. ‘You should work on it,’ said my youngest, and I knew she was right. I did some research online and discovered the concept of ‘downward social comparison’.
What is downward social comparison?
Downward social comparison is when a person finds fault in others, often strangers, as a way of making themselves feel better. In a study led by Dustin Wood, a professor of psychology and a research fellow at the University of Alabama in the United States, students were asked to rate their peers. Those who tended to give generous ratings had kind-hearted characteristics and better mental health in general.
‘Seeing others positively reveals our positive traits,’ said Wood, and the reverse was also true. Those who looked for positive traits were perceived to possess those same qualities – and the negatively minded were similarly judged.
What causes downward social comparison?
I contacted Wood and asked him why some of us harbour a critical mindset that leads to downward social comparison. The most common reason, he said, is a learned response from our families and upbringing.
‘Our experiences with caregivers serve as a working model for the behaviour we expect of others.’ I could certainly see this in my early family life. Criticising each other and everyone else was the norm, something I have assimilated to such an extent that it has become second nature.
Wood explained that another way a person can develop a critical mindset is from a traumatic event, such as a mugging. This can have ‘a poisoning effect’, he said, by establishing mistrust of people. When this happens, acts of kindness go a long way to mending that wariness. ‘Positive experiences with others help those with a fearing and critical mindset,’ he added.
I have not suffered any trauma, but his words made me wonder whether my mother had, and passed her fears onto the rest of us. For my part, I am positive about loved ones – it is strangers of whom I am critical. But, as long as I keep my thoughts to myself, does it really matter?
Then I had a revelation. An old friend held a charity coffee morning, and I was in the company of a group of women I did not know. One of them told a cutting story about somebody she knew. She was funny and we all laughed. But, as I walked home, I decided that I didn’t like her. I thought she had the very traits she condemned in her ‘friend’. Moreover, I feared she would find fault with me as well.
In short – her judgmentalism made me cautious, and I realised my reaction to her was probably how people reacted to me. I was experiencing what Wood’s research showed – that the way we perceive others is often the way others see us. If we think the worst of them, that is how they will think of us.
I realised that the harsh way I judged strangers was actually about my fear of how they might view me. It was a deeply felt defence mechanism – a way of dealing with the unknown. This led me to another realisation – my intrinsic self-doubt. It could have been me telling that story at the coffee morning because, just for a moment, judging someone else would make me feel better about myself.
After that, it wasn’t hard to see that what I fear in myself, I criticise in others. Many of my comments focus on appearance. I will criticise the way you look before you criticise me. It’s a defensive game, and it isn’t making anyone any happier, myself included.
How to stop being so critical of others
So, how can we overcome downward social comparison and stop being so critical of others? We could try to change the way we think, but old habits are tricky and persistent. Wood’s research found that whether a person had a positive or negative attitude was a ‘highly stable trait’ – quite fixed, in other words, which made me despondent.
But he was keen to reassure me that change for the better is possible. He suggested I ‘come up with better ways of approaching people that might elicit more positive behaviour’. He also recommended spending more time with kind-hearted, non-judgmental people – like my daughters.
In addition, I turned to an old friend – Shamash Alidina’s Mindfulness For Dummies (JohnWiley & Sons, £16.99), which I have found helpful in the past. Alidina talks about the importance of developing awareness of ‘patterns of mind’. I decided to make a conscious effort to notice my first thoughts, then put them aside and replace them with kinder, less critical ones.
Challenging your critical thoughts
I practised while sitting in traffic. A woman passed by and I vocalised my first impressions, which were mean and judgmental. I forced myself to find something about her that I liked, but the process was surprisingly challenging. In fact, I was at a loss.
Then, she smiled at me, and I smiled back. ‘Friendly,’ I said. ‘Nice smile.’ I realised that this stranger had not judged me. I felt no hostility from her, just warm acceptance.
When another person passed, I smiled first, and they returned the friendly gesture. It was a strange, warm feeling – like opening a door. It’s not easy changing fixed patterns of thinking, but I kept practising. And slowly, as I got better at replacing my negative thoughts with caring ones, I felt happier. Slowly, I was becoming more open and trusting.
Alidina quoted the Dalai Lama: ‘See beyond people’s outer appearances.’ This was perfect advice for me because it is so simple. As I put aside my fear of how others will criticise me, and developed a kinder attitude, I saw beyond clothes and hair to the human being inside. A person who was imperfect (in a good way), just like me. And I felt so much better in myself.
I am far more content now that I am learning to reset my critical button. Wood said, ‘I think there is a sort of bank of trust in others that can be contributed to or depleted by how others interact with us.’ I now understand how true that is. Being nice and having kind thoughts and words is a win-win situation, for me and everyone around me.
3 steps to overcoming downward social comparison
Develop a nicer disposition by noticing critical thoughts and making way for positive ones. Follow these steps to recognise what downward social comparison is and stop it in its tracks…
1. Become aware of your thoughts
- Do a simple activity – go for a walk or visit a coffee shop– and listen to your thoughts as they arise.
- Write down any negative responses you have to people around you and anything else that comes to mind.
- Later, look at your notes and ask yourself why you may have had those thoughts.
2. Replace critical thoughts with considerate ones
- Now that you are more aware of your thoughts, it’s time to begin the shift.
- Habits take a while to break, so be gentle with yourself.
- Repeat the simple task from before but, every time a critical thought surfaces, add something considerate to it.
- This may take a little practice – but look for the positive and you will see it.
3. Persevere to break your judgmental habits
- Remember, it’s easy to find the positive when you set your mind to it.
- Watch your thoughts in everyday situations and put a kind thought on top of a negative one straight away.
- Practice will allow positivity to take over.
- Once you get control of your thoughts, your comments will become kinder and you will feel happier as a result.