It can be good to be self-critical when the conscious motivation is personal growth and change. However, we may believe that this criticism needs to be harsh in order to be effective. Words like “stupid,” “pathetic,” “piece of shit” may be common in our internal dialogue, and yet we would never speak to another person that way. We know we can’t motivate change in someone else by speaking to them in a cruel, disrespectful, shaming manner—so why do we think it will work on ourselves?

The trick is, maybe on some level we know it won’t work, and harsh criticism is an unconscious effort to prevent change. We may be afraid to develop as people, and the actual goal of our critique may be to punish ourselves, to prove we don’t deserve things, or to frighten ourselves into inaction. This idea of secret, unconscious motivations may seem strange, but the mind really just does one thing over and over: it tries to solve problems. If deep down you are frightened of change, a shaming self-critique can be very effective at holding you in place.

So if you really want to change, offer yourself the same empathy and encouragement you would to anyone else—some version of “It’s hard, but you can do it.” And give yourself time and space to try to understand what makes personal growth so frightening—why might you be afraid to change? You’re more likely to answer this question with kindness and curiosity than cruelty and shame.