Do you ever go to the cards confused, heartbroken, lost, and walk away feeling even more confused, heartbroken, and lost?
We all know the transformative power of the tarot. You likely discovered it yourself in your first reading, when the Magician, the Hermit, the High Priestess looked you in the eye and told you exactly who you were. And then, as the story usually goes, you picked up your own deck to learn how to find that magic for yourself, but so often the cards you pull are unclear, and you don’t know if it’s because you lack the skill to read them, or they’re just plain wrong.
This is the point where (if you’re anything like me) you throw your cards across the room, or (if you’re a slightly less excitable person) you start to give up on the tarot all together.
But you should not give up on the cards, nor on yourself. Because there is a reason the cards you pull don’t make sense, and there are ways to fix it.
So I’ve gathered the top 5 mistakes I see tarot readers make that prevent them from accessing that deep, transformational wonder the cards innately hold. Perhaps one of these mistakes is familiar to you (I’ve done them all at some point in my tarot journey), and you can finally get some direction in your tarot mastery.
1. It’s the wrong time to pull cards.
Jungian Marie Louise von Franz said that the best time to do your divination is when the archetype is constellated, when you are at its heart. What that means is that when we are in the depth of the question, when our soul is tingling a little and yearning for something wise and true, that is the moment the cards will reveal something to us.
Because every question about who we are holds an archetype at its center, and we must be in communion with that archetype to receive its answer.
But what we often get wrong is what being in that archetype really means. When we are lost in our emotions, overwhelmed by what depth psychology calls “affect”, then we are not in touch with our depths. We are still in the grip of the ego’s pain of fear, anger, sorrow. In these states, the cards we pull will only reflect this ego pain, and we won’t be able to go any deeper.
The fix here is to let yourself settle. Do not pull cards immediately after the fight, the bad news. Let the shock ware off, and then ask yourself what is the deeper knowledge yearning to be met. Then, when you feel a softness, an openness, a readiness, the oracle will be able to respond with what you really need.
2. You’re looking for an answer, not the reason you’re stuck.
This is the most common mistake, and one of the most difficult to get past. When we come to the cards, we’re looking for an answer. We’re looking for the Ace of Wands to tell us to go for our dreams, or the World to tell us we are on the right path.
But while that sounds very pretty, and does occasionally happen, that is not usually how the tarot speaks to us. When we are needing to know whether we should stay or go, and the 2 of Swords or 7 of Cups, or Moon appears before us, it may make a lot of sense, but does not offer an answer.
Because it’s not meant to. So here’s the fix.
When we ask the cards to give us answers to the big questions of our lives, we are trying to bypass the necessary work of individuation, of becoming. We are not meant to be told what to do. Instead, we’re meant to be told why we don’t already know.
Then the 2 of Swords may point to the split between our mind and heart in our decision-making, and the 7 of Cups may point to being overwhelmed by possibility, and the Moon may point to the archetypal moment we are in of confronting the unknown.
With this information we won’t know the answer, but we will know ourselves.
3. We don’t respect the sanctity of the oracle.
When we have just received the rejection letter, and we go to our deck with hopes that the Fool, the Star, the Magician will remind us of our greater path in life, and we get the rainbow-tinted love fest of the 10 of Cups, we’re likely to immediately pack up our deck and say, “Guess the cards were off today.”
I’ve done this lots of times, and is one of the biggest mistakes I have made as a reader. Because there will be lots of cards that don’t click, that don’t infuse us with awe, that don’t make any damn sense at all. But that doesn’t mean they’re the wrong card. It means we don’t understand their message.
Because reading for ourselves tarot is, by its very nature, a philosophical paradox. We are trying to be both subject and object. We are trying to observe ourselves from within ourselves. We are trying get an impersonal view of our very personal experience.
And so when we are given a card that tells us something that does not fit into our ego narrative, of course we say, “Doesn’t make sense,” and walk away.
But, if you take the tarot seriously, you believe in its synchronistic power to always show us something true. This is the way we must view the oracle. I’ve used this analogy before, but imagine receiving a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi and then shrugging and saying she must be having an “off” day. To do so would be to kill the oracle on the spot. Her power lies in her mysterious rightness, and that is the power of the tarot, too.
So to fix this mistake, trust the oracle, trust the cards. Believe that the 10 of Cups does have something to reveal. And this leads us to our next mistake.
4. We only read the cards one way.
We spend months and months learning the meanings of all 78 cards, memorizing their keywords and reading dozens of books. But then when the meanings we’ve memorized don’t fit the context of our readings, we feel that sinking feeling that we’ve got it all wrong.
Early in my tarot career, I one time read for someone who was about to graduate with her PhD and didn’t know what she wanted to do next. All of the cards fit beautifully, with the exception of the final card—the 2 of Cups. I was stumped, and tried to manipulate this card of love and harmony into something that pointed to career and purpose, but I just couldn’t make it fit. Apologetically, I told my client this card was a mystery to me, and of course I began to spiral into a panic that I was not so great at this tarot thing.
But my client told me a story about how she met her partner, how right it had felt, how clear she had been about what she wanted. And she said that the 2 of Cups made her think of that, and, with tears in her eyes, realized that that’s what was missing in her academic work.
When a card doesn’t fit, it does not mean it’s the wrong card. It means we are meant to explore. And this is the fix.
The cards are symbol. We are meant to enter through the portal of their symbolic language and meet some piece of ourselves there. That means we cannot always read strictly with keywords. We need to let the symbol, the number, the suit, and our own intuition illuminate alternate reading patterns.
5. We don’t take time to contemplate.
This is a very common mistake that happens when we’re reading for ourselves. We feel that tingle in the heart, pull out the deck, draw 8 cards, stare at them in confusion for fifteen minutes, and then walk away. Because we expect the cards to just fall into place, to fit in like puzzle pieces. But the tarot is not a puzzle, it’s a language. We’re not trying to solve it, we’re trying to decipher it.
When we pull our cards, we need to allow room to sit with them, examine them, question them. We need time. And usually, this time is more than an hour or a day. Often we need weeks before the wisdom of the reading really falls into place.
In the Archetypal Tarot School, my 9-week immersive tarot course, we start each week pulling 2 cards and sit with those cards throughout the week. We do not pull a clarifier, or forget the cards by 8pm on Monday. We sit with them, we stew with them. And it has been absolutely incredible hearing how that practice alone has deepened so many of my student’s relationship with the tarot. Because when you take time, you will truly come to understand.
So the fix is to go slow. Come back to the cards every day and ask if there is something new they’ve taught you. Be patient and listen. Our lives rarely change in a flash. Transformation happens one step at a time, and the tarot knows how to guide us.