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Apr 13, 2017

The Terror! Existential Issues in Counseling

“No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way: go within.” –Rainer Maria Rilke

This seems counterintuitive to use as the start of a blog for professional counselors, doesn’t it? I mean, technically, we’re supposed to help people. We want them to grow and develop, but we also want to be the ones to help facilitate that growth. So, when we read a quote above, we might think, “Well, wait! What about me? If people turn inward, then what’s my role?!” And that’s a good question, but unnecessary.

For starters, some people (not every person) are wary of turning inward. It’s scary business. And it’s especially scary when turning inward ‘forces’ one to look at one’s mortality, aloneness, lack of inherent meaning, and complete and utter freedom (in other words, existential issues). Those issues are utterly terrifying. Imagine I told a person that facing their fears was key to healing and walking through them. That person would likely laugh in my face and remain avoiding the very thing that frightened them. A reaction I’m pretty sure we can all relate to.

Secondly, some people (not every person) don’t even know how to turn inward. Self-reflection is a skill. Sure, some people have a natural tendency to self-reflect and ask themselves questions such as, “What am I feeling in this moment? What thoughts do I have about…? How am I showing up in life?” On the flip side, however, are the rest of people, who don’t have that natural tendency and haven’t learned to develop that skill. Not being prone (or privy) to self-reflecting can lead to a lack of turning inward, which can then lead to a lack of ability to do what Rainer Maria Rilke suggests above.

This is where we (counselors) come in! Can I get a “Hallelujah?!”

We’re counselors. We’re trained to help people face the very things that frighten them the most. We attempt to do so with grace, passion, care, and wonder, rather than fear, a tendency to demonize, or self-loathing. When we’re able to do this, we can be of service for people facing existential issues and crises.

Rainer Maria Rilke is right in that each person’s answers come from within. I would take it even further and say that each person’s existential terror can only be addressed with that journey inward. However, rather than leave them with the quote above and wish them well while we push them out the door, we can help them to learn how to reflect inward, learn how to navigate that uncharted, treacherous, and terrifying terrain, and we can be a source of comfort by merely being present. Existential answers need to be found from within, yes, but that doesn’t mean we leave our clients on their own to search for the answers. We remain with them on their journey, as much as possible, and help reflect what we’re seeing as we go. Our role is not one of passive bystander, but of journeying companion. Even with the things that are the most frightening.
Tara Vossenkemper is an Assistant Professor and counselor educator with Central Methodist University, along with the founder and a practicing counselor with The Counseling Hub, LLC (located in Columbia, Mo). Tara specializes in working with relationships (using Gottman Method Couples Therapy), anxiety, existential issues, and spirituality. You can read more about Tara and The Counseling Hub at



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