Tolstoy's Ilyich: Disguised anxiety

Literature has this unique feature of offering us a safe space to experience emotions and to identify with the characters we read about. In this article, we are going to explore Ivan Ilyich – the main character of Tolstoy’s novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. The novel is considered one of the finest examples of existential literature. The analysis aims to shed some light on how we use different behaviours (called defence mechanisms) to 'guard' and 'protect' ourselves against the feeling of anxiety. We will explore how counselling can help us understand and better deal with anxiety and how our perception of anxiety can shift – from perceiving it as an enemy to perceiving it as an ally in our endeavour to improve our lives. 


Ivan is the symbol of the moderately successful individual who “has his ducks in a row” and whose identity has been shaped by the expectations of others. He displays pragmatic behaviour that is not offensive to anyone, especially those in power.

When anxiety shapes the identity – Defending against anxiety

When becoming acquainted with Ivan’s life account, we find out that “Ivan (…) considered his duty all that was so considered by highly placed people. He was not ingratiating, either as a boy or later as an adult, but, from the earliest age he had this quality of being drawn, as a fly is to light, to the most highly placed people in society, of adopting their manners, their views of life, and of establishing friendly relations with them. All the passions of childhood and youth went by without leaving big traces on him.”

Throughout his career, his decisions are guided by what he believes will bring him appreciation. The same applies to his romantic life: “To say that Ivan married because he loved his bride and found her sympathetic to his view of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married because people of his society approved of his match. Ivan married out of both considerations: he did something pleasant for himself in acquiring such a wife, and at the same time he did what highly placed people considered right”. His striving to gain approval from “highly placed people” carves his life. When faced with problems in his conjugal relation, there is no expression of any authentic feelings and pragmatism is his religion: “to lead a decent life approved of by society, one had to work out a certain attitude, as one did to one’s work. And Ivan did work out such an attitude to marital life”. 

One would believe that Ivan has mastered self-control and pragmatism, that he is the embodiment of a modern calculator, weighing everything and going for the best solution, a master of diplomacy. The force driving his behaviour seems to be a deep desire to be approved and appreciated by “significant others”. Going a step further will allow us to see that this desire to be approved is a cover-up for an underlying fear of not being enough and ultimately being rejected. Therefore, pragmatism is a cover-up behaviour for dealing with the anxiety of being rejected. 

He builds his identity on successfully meeting others’ expectations since this offers him “protection” against being rejected, and anything below others’ appreciation triggers rejection anxiety in him. As a child, “Ivan was the pride of the family. He was not cold and meticulous as the elder and not as desperate as the younger. He was between the two – an intelligent, lively, pleasant, and decent man”.

A young Ivan unconsciously concluded that to be loved and in a one-up position means needing to meet the expectations laid upon him by significant others. He also intuitively understood that having a powerful, attention-drawing personality might be dangerous.

This anxiety of being rejected by “significant others” shapes and guides what is called the being-in-the-world, his behaviour in all areas of life: career, family, entertainment, etc. For him, meeting expectations and being approved has a survival and protective value, therefore he will sacrifice everything to make it happen. It is important to mention that this process takes place out of awareness, and it can remain unconscious even for the whole life if the person is not interested in exploring it. 

Let’s recap the psychological process:

In his childhood, Ivan inferred that if he did not meet the expectations of significant others, he would be rejected and unwanted. This is a dangerous thought and triggers anxiety in him. To protect himself from anxiety, he complies and aligns to what he believes to be the commendable way of living.

To justify his behaviour to himself, he will come up with an explanation that seems rational for the external observer. This is called rationalisation – a defence mechanism against anxiety, where decisions and choices that were driven by anxiety get depicted in a way that resembles the result of a thorough analysis. It is important to underline again that he does that unconsciously – Ivan is not aware of his fear of rejection dictating his movement in life. 

All of us experience anxiety, it is a given of life, and we have instances when we understand something is not right, but it is our reaction that makes the difference. Ivan ignores that awareness and pushes the anxiety away. We get the chance to observe two additional defence mechanisms at play:

  • Avoidance – the individual experiences the anxiety but rather than looking into it and dealing with it, they prefer to brush it off. 
  • Rigid thinking – the individual rejects any information that does not fit with their worldview. 

When faced with the fact that his family life was not the way he expected it, rather than dealing with it, he focuses on avoiding unpleasant confrontations and saving face: “His goal consisted in freeing himself more and more from this unpleasantness and in giving them a character of harmlessness and decency, and he achieved it by spending less and less time with his family, and when he was forced to do so, he tried to secure his position by the presence of outsiders”. 

Towards the end of the story, when he understands he is about to die, he employs the same mechanism: “Maybe I did not live as I should have?” would suddenly come into his head. “But how not, if I did everything one ought to?” he would say to himself and at once drive this sole solution to the whole riddle of life and death away from him as something completely impossible”. Later, the same pattern is displayed “And when it occurred to him, as it often did, that it was all happening because he had not lived right, he at once recalled all the correctness of his life and drove this strange thought away”.

The avoidance and rigid thinking have the purpose of protecting him from experiencing anxiety about potentially getting things wrong. Rather than dealing with the anxiety generated in him by the possibility of having lived a meaningless life, he dismissed the thought and reinforced what he knew as “the right way of living life”. 

How can counselling help?

Anxiety has a purpose and a role

Anxiety plays the role of indicating internal experiences or conflicts that need to be dealt with. Initially, people perceive anxiety as their enemy, something they must get rid of. Think about the following metaphor for anxiety: a soldier is sitting on an ancient city wall and is sounding the alarm about the enemy approaching from afar. It is uncomfortable news for the population, but would they prefer the soldier not doing his job just because it is uncomfortable to hear him? As you might have guessed, the soldier is the symbol of what anxiety does for us. In my private practice, I provide the space for exploring the different sides of the internal conflict underlying the anxiety – the origins and its meaning.

Clarifying the origins and meaning of anxiety will enable you to get a better understanding of yourself. Normal levels of anxiety are a constant in our lives so in the future, when anxiety arises, rather than struggling you’ll be better equipped to deal with it. Through our work together you will learn to treat anxiety, initially seen as your enemy, as your servant and ally.

The journey is not a walk in the park but it is worth it

Let’s be honest, dealing with anxiety is painful and that is why so many avoid it and look the other way. However, whatever underlies beneath anxiety will not go away just because it is avoided, but things will only get worse in the long term and opportunities will be missed. In counselling, you will have the support you need to process what is happening for you and will be invited to progress in this journey at your own pace. Undertaking this journey alongside a counsellor will prove helpful, especially when you’ll be attracted to get back to the old habits of avoiding and distracting yourself rather than dealing with the pain. 

If you struggle with anxiety at work, at home, or anywhere in between, get in touch to book an introductory call. I would love to talk more about how we can work together and help you overcome anxiety. 

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Surbiton KT6 & Central London EC4Y
Written by Robert Preda, BSc. Psychology, MNCPS Accred, ACC, BPS | Counsellor
Surbiton KT6 & Central London EC4Y

Robert Preda is a Transactional Analysis Counsellor, based in London.
The series entitled "Literature, Life and Therapy" aims to draw parallels between the inner world of fictional characters and our everyday experiences. Learn about them and you'll learn about yourself!
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