Denial doesn’t just happen to the other guy. We all suffer that insidious disconnect between self-awareness and reality from time to time. Worst case, you’re a big boss who destroys a company, countless jobs and millions in shareholder value. Happens all the time, I’m afraid.

Luckily for most of us, denial isn’t quite so catastrophic. And perhaps the most forgivable form of this remarkably common dysfunction is when we’re in over our heads. While that does happen to mucky-mucks, triggering the worst case scenario, it’s far more likely to happen to your average everyday schmo like you and me.

Sadly, nobody wants to believe they’re the problem. Why that is, I don’t know. It’s simply an observation on the human condition. So rather than be honest with ourselves about what’s going on, we carry on in denial.

While realizing a problem exists is the first step to resolving it, many are unwilling to look in the mirror on the outside chance they might see an ordinary schmo instead of a superhero. To them, I say this: If you bury your head in the sand, you’ll likely suffocate.

How’s that for motivation?

For those of you who lack the self-awareness to know when you’ve bit off more than you can chew, here’s a handy list of signs.

You’re way more anxious and stressed-out than usual. On some subconscious level, you are aware that you’re not cutting it, and that disconnect between your awareness and the lie you consciously tell yourself – and others, no doubt – is causing you all sorts of anxiety and stress.

Goals you once thought were reasonable now seem insurmountable. Congratulations, you’ve fallen victim to one of the most common pitfalls in business: magical thinking. Don’t feel too bad; it’s just God’s sick little joke on overachievers. Try to remember that the next time your ego wants to write a check that reality can’t cash.

You feel depressed when you should feel fine. OK bigshot. You’ve been given a chance, an opportunity to prove yourself, maybe even a promotion. You should be on top of the world, but you’re not. On some level you wonder if maybe, just maybe, you’ve been given just enough rope to hang yourself with. And yes, that can be depressing.

Your schedule is constantly slipping. Maybe your budget, headcount, and capital requirements, too. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And your boss or customer is getting really tired of it. Every time he asks, “Is that going to do it,” you say “Absolutely.” But you really have no idea if that’s true or not. Dangerous game to play.

I can do this has turned into I’m going to do this if it kills me. It probably won’t kill you, but it might set your career back a bit, or get you fired. The point is, there’s no sense in being so driven that you push yourself to do things you’re not capable of doing or that violate the laws of physics. When you do that, nobody wins.

You can’t shut off your brain. You find yourself thinking about work at all times of the day and night: while you’re eating, sleeping, on weekends, even during sex. You work more and more hours and come home with less and less accomplished. That’s a sign alright. A sign that you’re driving yourself nuts.

You’re screwing up … and you’re not a screw up. I can remember plenty of times when I made excuses for errors in judgment that I probably wouldn’t have made if I wasn’t stretched so thin. Why did I do that? I guess I’m not the sort of guy who gives up easily. Again, there comes a point when that can actually work against you.

Once you’ve recognized that you’re in over your head, what do you do about it? Take a deep breath, be courageous, and risk that long hard look in the mirror. Put your ego and pride aside and let reality in past your defenses. You’ll find sanity there. The answers will come. And hopefully, you’ll suck it up and come clean with your stakeholders.

One more thing. Learn from the experience so it doesn’t become a regular thing. You don’t want to go through life like Sisyphus. Don’t get the reference? Google it. It will be enlightening, I’m sure.

Image credit Matt Brown via Flickr