Before and After: Use Self-Observation to See What the Triggers Are.

I’m writing my next book, Before and After, about how we make and break habits–an issue  very relevant to happiness. Each week, I’ll post a before-and-after story submitted by a reader, about how he or she successfully changed a habit. We can all learn from each other. If you’d like to share your story, contact me here. To be notified when the book is available for pre-order, sign up here.

This week’s story comes from Kelly Pietrangeli.

I used to have a very bad habit of shouting at my kids. (The irony of shouting at my kids to “stop shouting” was not lost on me.) I knew I needed to stop, but counting to 10 and taking deep breaths never worked for me. I needed to find some kind of strategy that would actually work.


I decided the first step was to talk to my kids and tell them I wanted to change this habit. I promised them that if I ever shouted I’d have to apologise. I don’t like to apologise so this was a real biggie for me.


Next I went into self-observation mode for a few days to see what my typical triggers were. I noticed I’m short fused when I’m tired first thing in the morning and at end of the day and that being on time for school or activities made me edgy and more prone to outbursts. Knowing that I have more patience at some times than others made me see that often it wasn’t their behaviour that ’caused’ me to lose my rag, but it was my own problem.


I don’t tolerate winging, complaining or being uncooperative, but I created a mantra: “My child is not BEING a problem, my child is HAVING a problem.” This helped me to reframe the situation and come at it from a better angle.


I then read Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham.


Dr. Markham tells us that if we really want to stop yelling, it’s completely possible – no matter how ingrained it is. It’s not rocket science and takes about 3 months once you’ve made the commitment.


This is the best book I’ve ever read for helping me understand myself and my children better.


Becoming a former Shout-a-holic was not an easy process for me and I slipped up a lot in the beginning, but I chose to persevere. I still have my occasional shouty moments, but they happen rarely now instead of daily. (Hourly!)


It really came down to self-awareness and a deep determination to change. I am incredibly proud of the new me!

In Before and After, I call this the Strategy of Foundation. We do a lot better job sticking to our good habits, I believe, when our foundation is strong. That means making sure we get enough sleep, that we’re not too hungry, that we’re not rushed or overwhelmed by dealing with clutter or lost items.

I also write a lot about this kind of issue in Happier at Home: when I’m happier, my family is happier, so I need to take the steps that help me to stay calm, attentive, and tender-hearted.

How about you? Have you worked on your foundation, and found that it helped your habits?

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  • Awesome! I’m pretty new to The Happiness Project and hadn’t seen your mention of Before and After before. I’m in the midst of a before/after transformation myself and can’t wait to read your next book! I just ordered Happier at Home on Audible and it’s next on my reading (err… listening) list!

    In 2013, I turned a corner. Probably the most important corner I’ve turned in my life. I moved back home to MA from the NYC area and implemented a plan to transition to a new job that will let be me present and “more present” with the people who matter most to me. I read more books in 2013 than I had read in the prior 10 years combined. I grew. A lot.

    I broke myself down to the tiniest of pieces, discovered who I am and who I want to be, and started building myself back again, this time in my vision of success.

    I’m totally a believer in working on your foundation. It’s been a life changer for me!

    • Val

      I absolutely love your comment “I broke myself down to the tiniest of pieces” that struck a huge chord with me. Any advice how to do so? Were
      you able to self reflect in the midst of moving, work, family, etc…? Or did you take time off? Just wondering how you started to build yourself up again…

      • Thank you, Val! What a question!

        I’m still very much in the process of building and breaking down, building and breaking down. In fact, it seems like every time I build in a particular area of my life there’s another feeling, emotion, action or reaction that I feel compelled to break down and explore further. Hence, my vision of tiniest pieces. I found that even when I thought I broke down an emotion, action or reaction down to its smallest component to determine “why” I act, say, or feel a certain way, there were often a few more layers. I’m documenting the process and exploring the emotions behind it (I have over 30,000 words on it already!).

        The short answer is that I questioned everything that I knew (or thought I knew) about myself. I started waking up at 5am or earlier to reflect on events, conversations, emotions, actions, reactions, inactions – everything I could think of. I’d ask myself what went well or didn’t go well. And I asked a lot of “why” questions. What did I do that? Why did I say that? And a lot of “feeling” questions: What was I feeling when I said that? What was I feeling when I did or didn’t do that? I’d also ask myself what I could have done differently or better. Finally, I asked myself what would be “one thing” I wanted my wife to be able to say at my funeral if I died that day.

        So I opened a blank doc and wrote what seemed like 1,000 sentences. They all reflected admirable qualities, but none of them hit home enough to be the “one thing” until I pictured her saying “No matter what was happening with or around us, I always felt and knew that he loved me.” It hit me so hard because I knew I wasn’t living my life in a way that she could honestly say that. I fought back tears upon that realization – feeling quite a bit of shame and embarrassment. So I committed to living my life such a way that she could.

        And every day since then I have woken up early, reading, writing, or just sitting in silence, continuing to question everything about me, what I did, and what I didn’t do, and preparing myself to live each day in a way consistent with how I want to be remembered, and keeping pretty detailed notes that turned into the book project.

        So much for a “short answer” – ha! I hope that helps! I guess the short answer would be: Question everything you know about you, what you do and why you do it. Ask yourself what’s really important to you and whether your actions and inactions are leading you closer to that. And focus on your side of the equation – personal responsibility – and not what others do or don’t do. You can only control yourself. Accept that and take charge of your side. It helps to write it out.

      • As for the second part – was I able to self reflect – yes. It was and remains tough. But it was (and remains) too important to me to give up. It’s become quite the habit.

  • I love that she simply observed herself, *without judgement*, for a while. I have done that recently to try to quit a bad habit (chewing the inside of my cheek). Just being mindful of when I’m doing it is extremely helpful, because I can then process the emotion (usually, anxiety) and let go without bloodying the inside of my face.

    • johanna Knaus

      When will your new book come out, gretchen? Why is it so difficult to change? I am inspired by people’s desire( and success ) to change for the better. I need to find that strong foundation that i am reading about, however not sure how to begin.

  • peninith1

    Oh that is so touching and inspiring. As a parent with grown children, who remembers years of feeling like I was forever saying “NO!” in a hard voice, or shouting, this post makes me so happy for Kelly, yet more than a little sad when I think I never figured this out, nor did I have much around in the way of ‘helps’ to give me the guidance I needed to get away from a habit of being harsh, when I truly didn’t want to be, and hated myself for acting that way.

    Good for you–and how lucky your kids are to have such a caring, focused Mom, Kelly!

  • Freda

    I just substituted ‘My husband isn’t being a problem, my husband is having a problem’ ! Re-framing this way does help. I sense a slight shift.

  • Judi

    I think too admitting you have faults is the first step. I have a co-worker who has no sense of self awareness what so ever (hence I purchased Gretchen’s How to Deal With Difficult People course). She complains around the clock about other people yet the people she complains about could be her–those traits. Great story from the reader.

  • Allison

    Dang! Wish I could’ve read this about ten years ago when me yelling at my teenagers was as common as the sunrise! It’s good advice though for helping to break many habits, so thank you and Kelly for sharing.

  • Diane

    Oh, this could be me; the ‘before’ part, sadly. I have 2 young children and hate the way that I yell at them. When I had only one child I was much more calm and loving, but adding another child created a lot more stress than I had expected. And my boys are actually really very well-behaved compared to many!
    Like Kelly, getting out the door in the morning is a huge trigger for me. People say ‘get up earlier’, but lack of time is not the problem. My son has plenty of time to get ready, but simply doesn’t. But I can also see that things which would hardly bother me at other times of the day lead me to yell and shout when we’re watching the clock so it is indeed my problem.
    Since I relate so well to this, I think that I must check out Dr Markham’s book. Although I am very open to help on this, I also feel sad that I have to read a book to learn how not to shout at my lovely children….

  • Julie Doolittle

    I turned 60 this past November. I have had my own business for 30 years and been able to enjoy successful in life. I come from a well-educated family, but when it was time for me to get a college education I wanted to get out into the world and work. I loved working and learning hands on. I did not enjoy the classroom, basically because I had a mind-block when it came to tests. I would become so anxious and worked up about being tested that I set myself up for failure.

    In junior high school one test day I experienced something that opened up my eyes to my level of testing comfort. The teacher told us, as she began to hand out the final test on Shakespeare, that there was to be no talking. I was sitting in the front row and turned around to pass the blank tests to the girl behind me. She expressed, in a short sentence, her concern about this particular test. I nodded my head agreeing and the next thing I knew we were being called up to the front of the classroom. The teacher ripped up both of our tests and threw them away in front of the class and dismissed us for talking. I was in shock. This test was a major score for our class grade, and I had studied hard to get the best grade possible. I returned later in the day to speak with the teacher. I explained the situation and asked her to give me a second chance to take the test. She finally agreed, but with the understanding that it would be an oral test. Not only would it be a more comprehensive test, but I would be marked down a grade automatically, due to the circumstances. I ended up with a perfect score, which recorded as a B+ for the final. I remember thinking, as I walked away, had I taken the written test I would never have been able to do as well as I did because of my difficulty with testing.

    I was always disappointed in myself for not completing my education and started taking some classes as an adult a couple of times. Still struggling with the mind block I was unsuccessful in my attempts. I finally decided that it was not worth it to me to return to school. That changed just three weeks ago. Our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, recently implemented a new program to provide an economical way to help church members complete their education. During the economic downturn the Church was looking for new ways to help members be better equipped to provide for their families. As seen on a stone wall when entering the BYU campus, “The Glory of God is Intelligence.” Education both spiritually and academically is a focal point of our beliefs. This new academic program, The Pathways Program, is a completely accredited on-line program through BYU-I. It is a different on-line program that is set up just perfectly for someone like myself, gradually getting you back into academic learning. With an inspired Learning Model that brings together spiritual and academic learning. There is a tremendous support group. We all take the same classes for the first two semesters so that we can also meet each Thursday night to learn from each other the lessons for the week. These classes are going on throughout the world. The students range from 18 to 65+ and just in our area of Northern VA, 150 students have taken on this new program this current semester.

    It may seem odd to you and your readers why I would share this information on your blog, but there is a reason. In my religion class we have a Practicum assignment due at the end of the week. We were asked to choose a gospel-centered principle that we would like to improve in our individual life. At the end of this week the following assignments are due; making the selection of principle, writing a paragraph identifying our choice, researching and writing a short paper on the importance of the principle.

    A couple of weeks ago during a church meeting I knew what my Practicum principle would be when I listened to a young mother give a talk on prayer. As you may be aware, we do not have paid ministry in our faith. Each week during our Sacrament Meeting members of the congregation are asked to speak on a particular gospel principle. Usually, three talks are given during each Sacrament Meeting. This particular Sunday this young mother introduced her talk by stating that we may have heard of the book, The Happiness Project. She then went onto to say that as she thought about that book she decided that she and her family needed to start A Prayer Project. She proceeded to give a wonderful talk on the 3 T’s of her Prayer Project. It hit me at that moment that the principle of prayer would be what I needed to implement more completely in my life. Although I have always been one to pray, so often prayer has been repetitive or lacking any depth. I often wondered if my prayers might just be bouncing off the ceiling instead of actually communicating with God.

    I thought that I might enjoy your book, and it might give me some insight regarding my assignment. I went to Amazon and downloaded the Kindle version. I have just started my paper, but I wanted to let you know that even just your introduction to the book made me feel as though we were the same person in mind and heart. What you shared, even the conversation with your husband is exactly the conversation that my husband and I would have. Glancing over your blog, your current writing about habits made me smile because again I was seeing myself in what you were writing. Obviously with your success you have learned that what you have to share is indeed worthy of reading, but I want to tell you that from my personal standpoint it is right on. I am the person that you are describing, I am the person that learns and lives life as so many of your stories indicate, and I am the person that that feels your talent for writing and insights right square in the heart!

    Thank you for sharing your amazing talent for writing with the world.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m so happy to hear that my work strikes a chord with you. Good luck with YOUR happiness project!