Whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re always either reinforcing or changing behavioral patterns. This is true of our own attitudes and actions as well as those of others. Being aware of this dynamic is crucial to shaping the behaviors we wish to have.

My thoughts on this subject stem from a conversation I had with a client about how to raise her sons effectively. She said that whenever she interacted with them, at least one of the things she attempted to get across was that she loved them. I then suggested that she might also consider how her words or actions were either reinforcing their old, unwanted habits or changing them. We moved on to talk about how she could apply this principle to transforming her eating and improving her relationship with her spouse.

Think about it: Whatever you choose to think or do shapes your future thoughts and actions and either supports the status quo or propels you in another direction. If you want your children to listen to you and they don’t, even when you scream at them, whatever you’re doing is maintaining the status quo. However, if you were to not scream but whisper, you would be changing the dynamics between you. Same goes for if your mother always comments on your weight and you always getting defensive. Your reaction promotes more of this same interaction in the future. If, however, you were to say nothing, change the subject, or leave the room, you would be shifting the dynamics.

An essential question to ask yourself whenever you are about to act—which includes choosing thoughts to attach or not attach to—is the effect that what you’re doing has on keeping things the same or making them different. When you say, “I don’t care” because you want to finish the chips you weren’t hungry for in the first place, you are all but guaranteeing that this impulse will win out again and again. By responding to, “I don’t care,” with “Oh, but I do care about myself,” and putting away the chips, you are paving the way for a future of less impulsivity around food. Every time you allow someone to mistreat you, you are giving them the message that their actions are okay and that, therefore, they have no reason to stop hurting you. Though you may act like a victim, you are not and, instead, are inviting people to treat you poorly. Every time you speak up and tell them how you feel or walk away, you are giving them the message that you expect their behavior to change.

In all these examples, you are giving a larger message than you mean by your words or behavior. You’re shaping your interactions with the world for better or worse.