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You won’t believe why tarot cards are actually a great self-care tool

tarot cards on wooden background
Photo credit: Esin Deniz/Getty Images

When the phrase “tarot cards” is used, it often conjures up images of roadside psychics, crushed velvet and a vague unease that the tall, dark stranger entering your life is just your Uncle Bob calling you up to ask for money.

But tarot is having a renaissance, and not for its predictive powers. Tarot is actually a great self-care tool.

I started learning about tarot cards after a major life crisis (addiction, near-terminal illness, lost relationships and careers — you know, low-key stuff) had me seriously questioning my ability to make decisions. I felt powerless and like I had no control over where my life was heading.

Enter: tarot cards.

To be transparent, I certainly started to learn tarot because I wanted to believe that I could tell the future. After the tumultuous year I’d had, I was desperate for a sense of certainty. But what I found was so much better: my own personal power.

How tarot cards help with self care

Tarot as a tool for self-care acts as a reflective modality that, through images representing archetypal human experiences, can help us to more deeply understand ourselves, how we got ourselves to the present moment, and what trajectory we’re currently following into the future. Think of it like having a great (and usually sassy) life coach that can fit in your purse, always available to help you figure out what is actually going on in your life and what to do about it.

Like any spiritual tool, much of the power comes from what you choose to do with it. Tarot cards can be used in prayer just as easily as they can be used in meditation or transformational journaling. But as a tool in your self-care kit, the cards have plenty to offer without any spiritual or religious underpinnings. They tell the story of what it is to be human, and if you’re reading this, you’re probably human, so you may benefit from seeing your life before you in a tangible form that can be examined, questioned and changed.

That opportunity for not only introspection but also clarified action helped me to step more firmly into my own power and to discern between the things I can control in my life and the things that I can’t. While that kind of discernment is hardly the relaxing self-care of hot baths and sheet masks — both things I love — it opens us to the deeper work of radically caring for ourselves by re-centering our agency and ability to create change in our own lives.

I loved tarot and the freedom it gave me to choose to care for myself so much that it’s now my full-time job. I’ve spent the past four years studying it, reading for others professionally, and now teaching everyone from therapists to healers to stay-at-home parents how to use the cards to support their own self-care.

MORE: A psychologist’s take on crystals: Do they have merit?

How to start with tarot cards

I know that tarot can seem daunting to begin learning. When I first started, I was pretty overwhelmed by the idea of having to memorize 78 cards (and many folks read them as having different meanings when upside-down, too, doubling the workload) in order to give myself a reading. But that’s the good news: You don’t have to have them memorized! It’s a worthy goal, but not necessary to begin.

The first step to a tarot reading is to get a deck that you like. (And no, contrary to myth, your first deck does not need to be given to you.) It should have at least 78 cards — some modern decks add a card or two to reflect the creator’s relationships to tarot and the world — and follow a classic tarot structure. The most common tarot decks are based on the Rider-Waite Smith deck, which is a great place to start and will allow you to use many of the books and websites that offer card meanings.

Your deck will likely come with a small guidebook, but before diving in, spend some time just looking at the artwork card by card. Keep a journal by your side, and jot down any ideas, memories or connections that an image evokes. When we’re using tarot as a tool for self-care, your personal connection to the cards is far more important than the traditional meanings.

MORE: I tried 6 happiness hacks backed by science — here’s what actually worked

Pick a tarot card spread

When you feel ready to do a reading, you may want to pick a spread. Tarot spreads are like maps, where each card is pulled with a particular question or area of life in mind. A classic one card each for past, present and future is not necessarily the best for self-care, so try to filter any spreads you encounter through the lens of the goal of reclaiming power in your own life: Does this spread help me to make better decisions? Or is it going to make me scared of a future that hasn’t happened yet?

My favorite spreads are simple and to the point, and I recommend starting off with just two cards. After shuffling your deck (you can do a fancy bridge shuffle, but just messing the cards around on a table works, too), pick two cards from the top. With a particular situation or challenge in mind, let card one represent “what do I think is happening?” and card two represent “what is actually happening?” This simple spread sits firmly in the land of deep self-care, helping you to tell the difference between the feelings and stories in your head and the reality of the present moment.

But let your own sense of self lead your exploration of the cards. Tarot for self-care is about you and what you need to feel supported and empowered in your life, not what I or any other purported experts say. Ask yourself, how do I want to feel? And what kinds of questions will help me to feel that way? And if you aren’t quite sure, let your deck be your guide.

How do you use tarot cards in your daily life? Tag us on Instagram @makeitgrateful and #makeitgrateful!

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