Even if you don’t read professionally, you will, at some point, likely pull cards for someone else, and navigate the tightrope of tarot ethics.
You’ll have to discern whether it’s best to tell the person the Tower is about to fall or just say everything’s okay and maybe a vacation is in order. You’ll have to help them sort through some choices you would never have made. You’ll have to deal with the endless questions of when they’re going to meet their husband, get the new job, win the lottery.
While we can’t hold ourselves responsible for the cards that come, we can control how we interpret them and deliver that interpretation. We can be clear about what we’re there to offer our querent, and what our ethical boundaries are.
As Mary K. Greer said: “A true tarot reader wants to help the client by offering perspectives and previously unknown, or known but unconsidered, information that ultimately will serve the client’s well-being and best interests.” This is our true goal as readers, to help our clients, to broaden their perspectives, to serve their well-being. That requires conscientiousness and clarity in our ethics.
The ethics and empathy of tarot reading is something we discuss in depth in The Archetypal Tarot School, but I’ve put together a little list of some ethical points to consider when reading for others. I hope they help you have beautiful, healthy, supportive readings.
1. Prediction can be problematic.
Predictive reading is not inherently wrong. I’ll say that again, predictive reading is not a “bad” thing to do. There are amazingly skilled readers out there who blend psychicness and cartomancy to divine really accurate things. If that’s your skill, which you’ve honed over years and have a powerful confidence in, that’s wonderful.
For most of us, rather than having vividly clear psychic “downloads” with the cards, we have tingling senses, gut intuitions. We can sort of see the outline of something, but don’t know exactly what it means. But when we’re in a reading and the querent is staring at you, pressuring you to tell them when, how, who, we feel the pressure to turn those vague tingles into definitive statements about the future.
When we’re not thoroughly sure about these predictions, they can be problematic. Early in my tarot career I had a client who was in a very bad relationship. Week after week she booked sessions with me, asking, always, “Will we get married? Will he forgive me? Will he stop lying?” I’d glance down at the Page of Cups, Temperance rx, the Nine of Swords, and, panicked, stammer that things would eventually “work out” if she was in touch with her truer needs.
And I didn’t do this because I was a bad reader. I just didn’t have a strong ethical boundary. I could sense that my client would not be able to healthily receive the truth that no, things weren’t so great, and so instead I tried to give her hope while also infusing small doses of reality. In the end the relationship did end and my client, of course, never returned. While I had good intentions, I would have served my client better if I had told her I cannot predict what will happen next, but I can help her make sense of what’s happening now.
We are not obliged to give someone definitive forecasts for their life, especially when those insights don’t come through organically. If a sincere intuitive insight comes through, it’s totally okay to offer it. But we cannot demand them, and we can’t make them up to satisfy someone in crisis.
2. Be wary of projections.
Projection is a big issue with any sort of therapeutic or guidance-centered work, but a particular danger in tarot readings because most readers don’t know to spot this impulse and reel it in. But it is so important to see your projections and bring them back under control.
As Jung wrote, “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” Essentially, projections happen when we make unconscious assumptions about someone that reflects our own psychology. We project when something about another person reminds us of an unknown or unacknowledged part of ourselves. As Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” and this is at the heart of projection.
Projection is normal. We project our archetypal images onto people all the time, especially our mentors, lovers, competitors, and friends. But we also project onto people we don’t know very well because we are using our personal knowledge of the world to fill in the gaps of what we don’t know about them.
But the problem with projection is that it prevents us from having authentic, meaningful connections with our querents. It inhibits powerful, cosmically divined guidance. It creates biases and judgements. And it just makes for bad readings.
When you get the sense that you “know” what the querent is feeling or what they should do, or you feel the sharp pang of judgment rising up, be wary. When you feel that you’re straying from the cards and offering your own advice, take a quick pause. What you see in them may actually be a mirror for what you don’t see in yourself. Go a little slower, honor their individual humanity, and be a little more curious about their unique experience.
3. The container must be sealed.
Marion Woodman describes the space of analysis as a container that must be “held absolutely sealed.” What she means by the sealed container is not only that the information shared should remain confidential, but that the space between analyst and analysand should be a bubble that cannot be infiltrated, a cocoon of complete vulnerability. It should feel like an hour long refuge that is utterly safe.
In a tarot reading, we are creating this same container. It’s a very strange arrangement when you think about it. In a professional setting, a relative stranger finds you and agrees to reveal their greatest insecurities, fears, and tensions—the things about themselves that ache and embarrass them the most. Or with our friends, we agree to submerge wholly into their confusion and struggle to become a channel for what they cannot access. For that one hour we, as readers, are devoted to the crises of our clients’, friends’, coworkers’ hearts. Therefore, the way we form that container really matters.
At the beginning of the reading it is important to make clear your orientation to the cards. Make sure they understand what to expect in a reading and what you will be guiding them toward. Warn them if you’ll be asking personal questions. Give them a way to put up a boundary or pull back if needed. We want to, as Woodman urges, make the container feel extremely safe..
And most of all, remember that the reading is not about your skill, or the cards you pull, but the querent’s experience. Sense when to hold back and when to push, when to listen and when to advise. Make sure the querent has a clear voice in the reading, that they are heard, understood, and being held the way they need. Try not to make judgments, and try to always remember their inherent worthiness. And if you’re not sure how you’re managing that, record one of your readings and watch it back. We must create a container which is given entirely to the querent’s soul, protecting it, exploring it, and facilitating its opening to the querent themselves.
If you want to explore this more and go deeper with your tarot practice, The Archetypal Tarot School may be right for you! Check it out and may your readings be beautiful, powerful, and ethical!