Tolstoy's Ilyich: Disguised anxiety and compulsive busyness

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 literature dealing with the topic of meaning.


This 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 deal with our anxiety and how this can shift from being our enemy to being our ally in our endeavour to live a meaningful life. 

Ivan is the symbol of moderately successful individuals who “have their ducks in a row” and are appreciated by society for their pragmatic behaviour, never offending those in power. It is the existential crisis before his death that sheds some light on how anxiety shaped his life and what behaviours (defence mechanisms) he employed to deal with it. 

'Compulsive busyness' – Distractions: A modern defence against anxiety

There is one particular behaviour that Ivan uses to avoid dealing with anxiety and we frequently notice this behaviour in our “modern society” – compulsive busyness. Throughout his life, when faced with situations that raise anxiety, Ivan finds relief in getting himself busy. A couple of sequences will be revelatory: 

When dealing with family issues, Ivan decides to focus on work rather than solving the issue: “The main thing was that Ivan had his work. The whole interest of life was concentrated for him in the world of his work. And this interest absorbed him”. Being passionate about your work is not by default an avoidance behaviour, but it becomes one when Ivan uses it as a distraction devised to repress awareness of his far-from-perfect family dynamic. 

When being forced to slow down and live for a summer in the countryside, Ivan “felt for the first time not merely boredom, but unbearable anguish, and he decided that it was impossible to live like that and that it was necessary to take decisive measures. Having spent a sleepless night, pacing the terrace the whole time, Ivan decided to go to Petersburg (…) to transfer to another ministry”. There is tension, anxiety, and terror when getting busy and avoiding himself is no longer possible.

When moving to a new place, he becomes cheerful again and even his relationship with his wife improves – there is always something to do: “this to buy, that to order, this to move, that to adjust. (…) When there was nothing more to arrange, it became slightly boring and lacking in something, but by then they were making acquaintances, habits, and life became full”. It is not passion for work, but a strong drive to get oneself busy and full, no matter what the object of fullness is. All to avoid looking inside. 

What does it mean to be 'compulsively busy'?

Being compulsively busy serves the purpose of avoiding dealing with the awareness of something being not right. There is an internal conflict, and one feels that examining and addressing it might bring up unpleasant feelings, thoughts, and memories. It displaces the focus – you start to focus on external aspects (work, entertainment, etc.) rather than looking inside.

The wide range of available objects that serve as distractions leave individuals living in Western societies extremely vulnerable. Work, traveling, sport, or entertainment, are just a few examples and it is not only the variety of fields, but also the endless number of options within one given field. Someone wanting to spend 24/7 watching sports or sitcoms would have absolutely no problem in doing so, even on a budget. 

Work is a very good example of an activity that could serve the purpose of avoiding anxiety whilst at the same time being socially rewarded. Industriousness in and of itself is praiseworthy but in this case, industriousness is just a cover-up for feelings of anxiety that are avoided. Not only does one avoid the pain of anxiety but gets praised for the extra hours spent working. To make things worse, there is a growing trend in our culture that praises “being busy” without assessing its usefulness. People are not encouraged to stop and reflect but rather they are invited to think about the “next thing” before even finishing the “current one”.

I vividly remember someone telling me how, during their promotion party, their previous manager congratulated them and immediately after asked whether they had thought about the future step following this new role they were about to start. David Graeber brilliantly explored this phenomenon of “busyness for the sake of it in the workspace” in his book “Bullshit Jobs”. Although I do not agree with the author’s perspective on society, the book has been an eye-opener and I strongly recommend it. 

If your wallet is larger, you could travel for months without going to the same place twice. Booking flights, accommodations, dealing with the regular inconveniences arising from being in a new place, etc. force you to focus on the outside and therefore serve as distractions from a deeper experience of oneself. Whatever feelings of anxiety have been bothering you for a long time can now be displaced onto the external circumstances – the accommodation is not where you thought it would be, the shops are different. Your energy is directed towards your adapting to your new place and understanding the new system you will be living in for the next days, weeks or months.

Not only do you avoid dealing with the underlying anxiety, but you’ll probably be held in high regard amongst your peers for having seen “so much of the world and different cultures”. Whenever the settling in finishes and anxiety starts to resurface, you kickstart the whole process again from scratch. And let’s not be hypocrites about it – in the short term it works. It is in the long term that things only become worse. 

Notice, Ivan had nothing to keep himself busy with in the countryside and he was forced to experience his anxiety for a short moment. As a parallel, nowadays a person in the countryside would have absolutely no problem getting immersed in entertainment, work meetings, or social media. That opens the gates for endless avoidance, endless means to numb the anxiety, but the underlying issues are not going anywhere. 

Sounds like the “modern individual” is faced with the perfect storm for enabling avoidance: On the one hand we have a human tendency to avoid dealing with the conflict triggering the anxiety because it is painful. Therefore, we create behaviours that “protect” us from that anxiety. On the other hand, these behaviours are praised socially – i.e., working hard and “making it” is seen as the pattern to follow.

When he realised that he was about to die and the abstract thought of death started to suddenly become reality: “He would say to himself: “I’ll busy myself with work – why, I used to live by it.” And he would go to court, driving away all doubts; he would go into conversation with colleagues and sit down, by old habit absentmindedly (…). He is so attached to this protective behaviour against anxiety because it has served him. He trusts it so much that, unconsciously, he thinks even death can be avoided through busyness and distraction. 

How can counselling help 

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Pushing anxiety away and immersing yourself in distractions will just postpone the inevitable and make things worse. Towards the end of his life, Ivan realises his beliefs about life might be false. This makes him anxious, but he decides to push it away again and misses the possibility of understanding what the anxiety is flagging whilst he still can. He will be forced to face it later, right before dying, when he admits to himself: “Not right. All that you’ve lived and live by is a lie, a deception, concealing life, and death from you”.

This is the perfect example for showcasing that conflict is not resolved through avoidance, but things will only get worse in the long term and opportunities will be missed. In our work together we will explore the behaviour patterns that you use to get yourself distracted. Attempts to avoid exploring what lies underneath the anxiety will be challenged in an empathic manner and you will have the chance to observe your behaviour so you can get an insight into its origins and forms. The whole process will go at the pace you decide. Having a mental health professional alongside you 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. 

Understand your attachment to these defensive behaviours

Why are we so attached to these behaviours that defend us against anxiety? When realising the existence of these patterns and how detrimental they are in the long-term, clients sometimes ask me “Why am I doing this, is there something wrong with me?”. These behaviours were helpful at a certain point in our development, in childhood to be more precise. It is impossible for a child to understand the complexity of the world around them and to correctly interpret what is going on. When parts of them are conflicting, they feel anxiety – i.e., when they feel uncomfortable with the caretaker’s behaviour, they want to push back but they are afraid of the punishment that might follow.

Complying behaviour becomes useful, it protects them from the danger of punishment as well as from internal conflict – a small child perceives it as imperative for survival. How could one not become attached to the behaviour that proved useful when they were so vulnerable? In time, this behaviour becomes familiar and readily available. Therefore, the person knows what to expect when behaving like this. But this is a maladaptive behaviour, it is no longer aligned with reality and it doesn’t serve the survival purpose it once did.

Counselling helps you explore how this particular behaviour played a survival role in your life and you will become able to see its negative impact in the present. These insights will allow you to shape your behaviours based on current realities and deal healthily and maturely with anxiety.   

If you are experiencing feelings of anxiety at work, in your relationships, or in any other circumstances and would like to understand how I work with these issues in my private practice and whether I could help you, book an introductory call now

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

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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