We all come up against cards that, no matter what we do, simply don’t make sense.
Every week my inbox is flooded with DMs from people who want to know how to interpret a card (which is, somehow, at least half the time the 7 of Swords). Sometimes they’re stuck because they can’t make sense of the card in the context (e.g. the Lovers at the center of a career reading), and sometimes it’s simply because the card is saying something they just can’t grasp (i.e. what in the world the Judgement card is all about).
Essentially, they know that the card has something powerful to say though they have no idea what that is, and so they send it my way hoping for that jolt of perspective to snap it into place.
But sorting through sticky cards is one of the essential skills we must develop as readers. When we confront one of those cards that just won’t give us a straight answer about its significance, we shouldn’t panic or throw in the towel. There are ways to work through it.
So I’ve compiled the four key steps that I use to make sense of those confusing cards. It’s no magic solution, but the pathway to honing your reading talent and confidence.
These steps are also a little glimpse of what students of the Foundations of the Tarot Workshop will be guided through. This 3 week beginner’s workshop is for the soulful tarotist looking to jumpstart their mastery of the cards. It covers all the fundamentals of tarot and how to use it to support your personal psycho-spiritual journey. It goes beyond just memorization, and focuses on creating relationship with the cards with an archetypal perspective.
(And more than that, there’s some extra special goodies that come with this workshop, including the exclusive Archetypal Tarot Elements Ebook which breaks down the symbolic and archetypal facets of all 78 cards, so definitely an incredible resource!)
Anyway, click here to get more info on the workshop, and let’s move through theses steps.
1. Check the guidebook.
This step may seem obvious but it’s where we have to start, and it’s actually often missed. A lot of times when we pull a tricky card, we roll through the keywords in our head, get frustrated, and then walk away without taking the time to get an outside perspective.
Now I don’t recommend inundating yourself with guidebook entries, but referencing one or two books you trust can be very helpful. For example, perhaps you pull the Sun card and keep thinking “positivity, joy”, which doesn’t feel very useful in your reading about why you’re relationship ended. But if you turned to Karen Hamaker-Zondag’s Tarot as a Way of Life, you would see the phrase, “accept yourself totally”, and that might offer something really useful.
The point is not to get the “right” reading of the card, but a new perspective. Then you might begin to slowly open your somewhat limited focus in the moment and see other possibilities about what the card has come to say.
If you want a list of deep but beginner-friendly tarot resources I trust, click here.
2. Collect your personal associations.
This is where we start digging deeper. I know I say this a lot, so forgive me if you’ve heard it before, but when we’re reading the cards we’re not seeking “answers”. We’re seeking truth. We’re seeking the realities of the psyche so that we can sort through our challenges and find our own way through.
Therefore, we must remember that the cards are not giving us objective facts, but symbols that speak to our individual souls. When we pull a card, often we’ll have a very personal reaction to it, and that reaction or association means more than what any guidebook will say.
For example, sticking with the Sun, whenever I pull that card for myself I always feel disappointment rather than excitement. For me, the Sun feels uncomfortably bright and welcoming, and I almost feel unworthy of it. So when I draw it, I know it’s not promising me happiness, but encouraging me to let go of my resistance and step into its light.
Or, for another example, I had a client who was making some difficult decisions about her career. She was successful, but felt something was off and didn’t understand why. The last card of her reading was—of all things—the 2 of Cups. I was still a newbie professional and mumbled out trite things like “harmony” and “falling in love with yourself”, until finally I let go and just showed her the card. She smiled as she said it reminded her of when she met her husband, how right it felt. And then her face fell as she continued, “My career doesn’t feel right like that.”
The 2 of Cups was exactly the card she needed because it reminded her of what that intuitive rightness can feel like, how it is clear and connected. But I never would have guessed to read it that way because that was her association with the card, not mine.
So in this step take a few minutes with the card and jot down what you connect with it. How does it make you feel? What details or symbols are you drawn to? What thoughts or memories come up? Be curious and open here!
3. What is this card telling me that I already know?
Now that we have some outside info to open up our perspective, and some personal associations to deepen our connection, we’re ready to ask the card, “What are you telling me that I already know?”
Returning to the Sun and what it might be offering post break up, if you have broadened your understanding from “positivity” to total self-acceptance, and you noted that your personal reaction to the card is a feeling of unworthiness, you might conclude that the card is telling you that despite what happened, despite your shame or pain, this moment is about you accepting yourself thoroughly, flaws and all. That may be where joy is truly available.
Or maybe with the 2 of Wands in a career reading, after reading in your guidebook that it can point to stagnation in the face of possibility, and then noticing that you’re fixated on the looming mountains in the background, you may realize that the card isn’t telling you to take risks, but that you’re somewhat frozen and scared.
Though this process can really clarify the meaning of a card, it likely won’t offer big revelations. We’re doing some basic addition to understand what is already present within ourselves. Sometimes things come through right away, and sometimes they don’t. If something does click into place, trust it, and if it doesn’t, don’t panic. There’s one more step, which is both the juiciest and most challenging.
4. What is this card telling me that I don’t already know?
This question is a paradox, absolutely. How can we know what we don’t know? But the point of engaging with the cards is not just reflecting back everything we already think and feel, but learning about ourselves—our motivations, our potentials, our blocks and fears. This is the real purpose of using the tarot, and where most of us back out because it requires sincere patience, curiosity, and commitment.
There’s nothing much to do in this step but ask the question and prepare for the answer. Sometimes it pops in immediately, but most of the time this process is slow. It can take days or even weeks for a card to “click”. And that is ok. Because the tarot is not here to tell us what to do, but guide toward who we are. This deep inner reflection is not accomplished in an hour.
So what does this look like? Maybe after a few days you realize that the Sun is showing you that you unconsciously pushed the relationship to end because it forced you to hide some important part of yourself that needed to shine. Or maybe the 2 of Wands starts to illuminate that you’re frozen because you have a deep fear of being seen, of being successful.
I had a client who got the King of Wands Rx in his reading, and was totally confused by it. I described the king as being authoritative, passionate, fiery, even aggressive, and he insisted none of those qualities connected to him. I suggested perhaps the king’s traits were not missing from him, but pushed away from him, but he seemed unsure and so we moved on.
A little while later he told me, very excitedly, that he had decided to end his 20-year work partnership. I was surprised by this because I did not see that coming in his cards, but he explained it was all because of the King of Wands Rx. That card kept bothering him, and he realized that it made him feel angry and dismissive, and when he followed those feelings he found that they were rooted in his difficult relationship with his business partner. The King of Wands was a part of him that he pushed away to keep the peace, but that was doing him far more harm than good.
The King of Wands clicked in for my client in a big way, but not within the 60 minutes of our session. He needed to sit with it, reflect, be curious. He was willing to be with the tension of the unknown, and that’s what led him to the huge revelation that changed his life.