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Overcoming Mindtraps: The Hidden Psychological Blocks Limiting Leaders

Executive Leadership Coach Hortense le Gentil shares insights on identifying — and banishing — the traps that stand between us and our most important goals. And why they’re sometimes hidden in plain sight.

As an executive coach, I often work with highly accomplished leaders who remain unconsciously limited by deep-seated behavioral patterns and beliefs I call “mindtraps.” In many cases, mindtraps are the result of past traumatic experiences — both “Big T” and “little t” trauma — that became psychologically encoded, covertly shaping thoughts, behaviors, and decisions in counterproductive ways long after the initial events occurred.

To illustrate, I’ll share the experience of “Andrew,” a top executive in a large industrial group who was in the running for his company’s CEO position at a relatively young age. His chances looked excellent: he had climbed at record speed through the company’s ranks thanks to his good performance, and he was the departing CEO’s first choice. He was a bit surprised to be considered for the job, being much younger than other candidates. At the same time, he’d so far seemed confident in his own abilities. Then the decision was announced: to everyone’s surprise, the board had chosen another, older candidate as the company’s next CEO.

What had happened? Andrew was aware that his meeting with the board had not gone as well as it could, and he asked the executive search company in charge of the process for feedback. He was told that, during the meeting, he’d seemed like a completely different person from the calm and confident executive they knew. He’d spoken fast and incessantly, leaving little or no space for board members to interject and even interrupting whenever they could ask follow-up questions. He kept veering off on tangents that were irrelevant to what the board members wanted to know. Andrew was perplexed, unsure what this was all about. When he asked what he could do to avoid making the same mistake in the future, the recruitment partner advised him to seek coaching.

When I began coaching Andrew, he was understandably perplexed by his uncharacteristic conduct. But as we excavated deeper, a long-suppressed memory resurfaced. He recounted a traumatic incident from business school when a professor had aggressively undermined his poise during an oral exam, publicly stating he lacked the qualities to ever become a CEO.

Though he had graduated and consciously moved on, that wounding experience had calcified into a mindtrap. The high-stakes board interview retriggered those same feelings of insecurity. To prevent being similarly destabilized, unconsciously, Andrew’s mindtrap drove him to frenetically dominate the conversation and shut others out — the very demeanor that sabotaged his career ambitions.

This is how mindtraps operate. An event that radically violates our sense of safety, triggering overwhelming fear, shame, or powerlessness, becomes encoded in the brain almost like a psychological wound that doesn’t heal. The immense emotional impact prevents the memory from being properly “filed away.” Our brain is unable to shelve traumas the way it does other memories, so they keep casting a long shadow over how we think and behave long after the event or the series of events that triggered the trauma is over.

Imagine our brain as a house with distinct rooms. Regular memories are like pieces of furniture that get placed in the proper room: the sofa goes into the living room, the dishwasher in the kitchen, and so on. Now imagine that your car, instead of being parked in the garage, ends up in your living room. So every time you step in to watch TV or sit with your friends, here is your car getting in the way, utterly out of place and impossible to ignore. A traumatic memory is like that car. Until you’re able to park it in its proper place, it will at best narrow your perspective, and at worst, make your life difficult.

For trauma victims, like soldiers with PTSD, any slight cue can involuntarily retrigger their brains into a fight-or-flight survival mode, overwhelming their ability to respond certain circumstances. For Andrew, his mindtrap was inadvertently activated by the board interview’s high stakes paralleling his school exam.

Crucially, these patterns often originate from experiences that may seem relatively minor from the outside. But psychologically, trauma is defined by the emotional experience, not the external situation. An event that shattered one person’s equilibrium could be innocuous for another. The effects can also manifest in delayed or unpredictable ways — lying dormant until the right trigger arises.

That’s what makes mindtraps so invidious. Without conscious insight into the root experience driving our behavior, we stay trapped in the same cyclical pattern, defaulting to familiar responses that no longer serve us. Fortunately, mindtraps can be overcome and their grip broken by uncovering the unconscious voices and traumas behind them and letting go. By resolving the root psychological wound, we reclaim our ability to show up with full authentic presence, harnessing our true leadership capabilities.

As a coach, I help executives to identify and overcome the unseen forces that had subverted their ability to operate as the inspiring, human leaders they aspire to become. The potential you can unlock by uncovering and letting go of your mindtraps is limitless. It can empower people to transcend fears and self-sabotaging behaviors that had long constrained their growth.

When I ask people who’ve embarked on the journey to overcome their mindtraps and become human leaders what difference it has made in their lives, they echo similar sentiments: “It’s life changing!” or “It’s a revolution!” I see them energized and lighter, an invisible weight lifted from their shoulders. The ripples extend even further. Addressing today’s challenges, from economic crisis and social fractures to health and environmental threats, requires a different kind of leadership. It is what separates yesterday’s leaders from those who can successfully navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow.

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