I’m sitting at a wooden table, in a room with yellow walls, to talk about my divorce. I’m not actually married yet.
“What do you want to focus our session on today?”
Um, let’s see, where TF do I even begin?
My nails are uneven and bitten, my phone is permanently attached to my hand, and I haven’t slept more than four hours straight in months. On paper, it looks like I have my shit together. I have a good job at a magazine; I’m engaged; my Instagram is a probably annoyingly curated mix of happy hour prosecco, recycled Tulum yoga shots from my last vacation, and marathon training (#SeenOnMyRun). But on the inside: I’m feeling overworked, anxious, completely distracted, and scared that my marriage that hasn’t even started yet is going to end in divorce like my parents’ did.
Oh, and just two weeks ago, I found out my ex—you know, the ex, the one you have the Worst Breakup Ever with and never fully recover—now works right off the same subway stop as me, and the constant unpredictable and painful run-ins with him are making me nauseated.
I’m falling apart.
In a burnt-earth-tone cotton top, her thick brunette hair pulled back out of her face, a few strands escaping, the woman I’ve come to see starts shuffling a worn deck of Rider-Waite tarot cards, spreading them out on the table. Smoke from a nearby smudge stick wafts through the room. I look down at symbolic images I recognize: Knight of Swords, Chariot, King and Queen of Pentacles.
Here we go.
Nearly everyone you know owns a tarot card deck. In 2019, there are more than 2,000 different types of tarot cards currently for sale on Amazon, ranging in themes from the Golden Girls to “literary witches” to yoga poses, many of them designed by talented artists, which makes them colorful, collectible (and highly Instagrammable) coffee-table accessories. Hell, even Neiman Marcus sells a cool, art-deco-y deck for $17. It’s no wonder #tarot on Insta is currently at 4.7 million posts—and growing.
It’s all self-care, of course. You know the deal: We’re busy, stressed out, and in a perpetual state of (Twitter-induced) panic. And tarot is right up there with ASMR, transcranial magnetic stimulation, and stocking up on amethyst crystals to treat depression and anxiety. It’s no surprise, then, that according to the Pew Research Center, our interest in mysticism and spirituality is on the rise. There’s more: The National Science Foundation found that more Americans considered astrology scientific in 2012 than they did in 1983 (the study did debut to mixed reviews).
So perhaps the most surprising place you’ll shuffle a tarot deck—your therapist’s office—isn’t actually surprising at all. Tarot cards have always had deep roots in psychological applications. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung explained that the cards were an easy way to represent the “archetypes of mankind”—or universal traits like strength, ambition, and passion—in psychology, making them ideal tools for therapy and mental health.
“Tarot cards are universally applicable and can create a visualization of your situation,” says Inna Semetsky, PhD, from Columbia University. “Once you see things laid out, it becomes clear what you actually want. They help you externalize your problems.”
Translation: It’s all about the visuals. Tarot decks, with their easy-to-understand symbolism, are so strangely useful in healing and therapeutic sessions because they allow you to storyboard your life—you can look at the cards and see colorful, palatable images of behaviors you may identify with and that are now assigned to you, since they’ve been pulled for you. Seeing your hopes and fears laid out in pictures, they become more obvious and less therapy.
The thing is, the cards would “represent” entirely different things for different people going through different problems. They are universal. That’s the point. There’s nothing here that is just for me or you. That’s precisely why they’re so useful in psychology. They put a cartoon on a concept that, when it’s just floating around in your brain, can be impossible to pin down.
“Using tarot in an appropriate way can enhance therapy. It’s not for fortune-telling—it’s a tool that gives you something to meditate on,” Jayni Bloch, a psychologist in Ontario, Canada, says.
She explains that in one couple’s counseling session after a man had an affair, the couple had continued to fight in circles for a long time and agreed to try pulling cards together.
“I had both of them select three cards,” she said, “as the three-card approach works well to get conversation going. It’s short and sweet. So they each picked up their cards and I explained, ‘The first card is the problem, the second card is the action, and the third is the outcome,’ so they can reflect on what they see. The first card that showed up for the man was a card of a woman. He blushed. He admitted, ‘I think she’s still on my mind.’ So that was the reason they couldn’t communicate or fix things—he was still hanging on to this affair.”
But, Bloch said, he couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud—or try to deal with it—until he saw the image on the card.
Finding the right therapist is like going on a series of first dates. It can be excruciating when you’re not a good match—but when it’s right, it’s like fireworks. I was plunked into therapy when I was 12 by my parents after they separated. I picked it up again later on, seeing different therapists in college and while I moved cities and changed jobs in my 20s. But at 31, I found myself therapist-less. It hadn’t worked out with the last several I’d tried—they felt antiseptic and academic and just didn’t seem to get me.
When I started feeling out of sorts earlier this year, I decided to try some unconventional paths. I sought out the services of Philadelphia-based Jessica Dore, an insightful and fiery 33-year-old licensed social worker (an Aries) who spins mental health wisdom to her 100K+ followers by pulling a tarot card every day and offering a psychological reflection on it. Dore has been an advocate for therapeutic tarot for a while now—during grad school, she trained as a psychotherapist helping people with depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. And although she’s not a licensed therapist yet, I was drawn to trying a session with her since her daily social media readings always cut me to the core. (Like this one.)
In my reading with Dore, she pulled a spread of 10 cards for me. Okay, yes, I knew that each card was just a universal symbol representing some sort of truth for everyone—but did I care? Absolutely not. The way we went through each one as it related to my circumstances at least felt personal and intimate, because we were only talking about me.
She pointed to my spread: Seven of Swords and a Knight of Swords in corners and a Queen and King of Pentacles in the others. The swords cards, she said, could indicate impulses and youthfulness and the painful draw of remembering the past—like how I felt when I was just out of college and dating my ex or the lifelong wounds inflicted by my parents’ split.
But, she pointed out, I’m far past those stages now—that was for 12 or 23. Not 31. She pointed to The Chariot—it was time to move out of being a child, of being reckless, of obsessing over old hurts, and to move forward to the future. I was old enough now. She pointed to the two cards framing the spread: the King of Pentacles and the Queen of Pentacles.
There was a serene king, with flowers on his crown, sitting on a throne, a castle in the background. He looked kind and fair. A queen sat in the forest on a similar ornate stone throne, peaceful mountains rising in the background and flowers framing the scene.
“They represent you and your fiancé,” she said. “You keep one another grounded and you are ruling your worlds independently. The cards aren’t right next to one another, but they’re deeply linked. You support one another.”
She gestured toward the swords again. “It’s normal to have fears and anxiety about change and about your ability to succeed in your new adult life. But it doesn’t mean you go backward or stop moving toward your goals. You just say to yourself, ‘I get it. I get why I feel that way. But that’s not my life now. That’s not the way I’m going.’”
It was so simple but so valid. I could see my “big problems” that seemed so alarming to talk about, illustrated and demystified. How I felt about marriage was normal, I realized, and mostly just related to my fears about growing up. And then, everything came into focus: the pentacles, adulthood, marriage, risk, growth. Of course the King and Queen of Pentacles are what I want, even if it scares me.
Not everyone is sold on shuffling cards from the therapist’s couch though. One friend I asked said he just couldn’t get into it—“It’s asking me to believe in something I don’t believe in: card magic!” He scoffed lightheartedly, “I’d prefer a good old-fashioned analysis of my anxieties.”
And that’s totally fair. It’s not inherently a better way to approach therapy than any other way—it’s just one tool.
That said, it’s become a thing, whether licensing boards and academic psychology programs (and skeptical friends) approve or not. “Alternative methods are starting to be more prevalent, particularly in San Francisco where I practice,” says Allison Zamani, JD, MA at the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy, an associate therapist and counselor. “Most people come to therapy because they want to understand themselves better, and they are open to different methods to get to that same place. Tarot doesn’t replace therapy in my work, but it can be a different lens to borrow from.”
Still, finding therapists who incorporate tarot isn’t as easy as signing in to Zocdoc. Recommendations often come by word of mouth: I asked around among friends and found psychotherapists who don’t advertise it but use tarot occasionally in offices in New York, San Francisco, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Philadelphia, and Portland.
And this isn’t something you can DIY—at least not to the same effect. Over the course of a few months, I had multiple sessions and I kept going back to tarot at home, upping my own study. Seeing my issues laid out, even at home, made the emotions that were too difficult to talk about, embarrassing even, seem totally normal and reasonable. But I still couldn’t unpack things alone like I would with a therapist. The point of therapy, after all, was still to talk issues out with a professional to see them in a new light—whether you’re using cards as a tool or not.
I did, however, learn a hell of a lot about myself in those sessions—and left feeling differently. At one point with Dore, she pulled a Six of Pentacles for me. I talked with her about boundaries in work and in friendship and family.
“You have a choice,” she told me. “You can always choose not to feel so resentful of people taking up your time. You just need to decide to give less of your time. You’ll feel guilty instead. But guilt will fade. Resentment only builds.”
I looked at the card: the tiny illustrated person giving everything they have, dropping all their coins without realizing their scale is falling toward empty. I saw myself and realized I’d been engaging in this behavior without even being aware that I was making a choice.
It felt visceral, obvious, manageable. I took a picture of the spread to keep looking back on, for when I forget what my life looks like.