For decades, the psychology field has employed tests that utilize ambiguous visual images to reveal underlying, unconscious or difficult to communicate needs, beliefs and response patterns in patients.
The Rorschach Test, a set of ink blot images, for example, was originally developed to assess patients for schizophrenia but is more commonly used to explore individuals’ perceptions and psychological processes. The Thematic Apperception Test, more popularly known as the picture interpretation technique, includes a set of also ambiguous and evocative images depicting a range of human scenarios and asks that test takers tell stories about what’s being portrayed in the illustration.
Both tests are designed to explore personality dynamics in the patient and better understand their motivations, beliefs and inner conflicts.
Just like the Rorschach and Thematic Apperception tests, a set of classic tarot cards portrays ambiguous images of humans in a wide range of situations. Though tarot cards do not function in quite the same ways as projective testing methods, when the cards are used correctly, they can help to better understand the patients, and to help them to better understand themselves.
Below are just a few of the ways tarot cards can be a useful tool in psychotherapy sessions.
1.Tarot cards can provide fresh perspective to a stuck situation.
We all have blind spots. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, we simply do not and cannot see the full spectrum of possibilities available to us in any given situation and this goes for the work we do with clients as well.
Because tarot cards function solely through random selection and synchronicity, they have the potential to touch on our blind spots in a way that few other tools can. Even without interpretation on the part of the clinician, a single image (or a pair or cluster) can provide a client with a brand new way of seeing a situation.
2. Tarot cards harness the power of metaphor.
Metaphors are widely used as a clinical tool because of their ability to make the many facets of the human experience concrete and comprehensible. Tarot cards contain vast imagery and are chock full of metaphorical content that can help patients understand their experience and circumstances in new light.
In fact, research has shown that when used in therapy, metaphors were especially effective when clients were asked to participate in developing and describing them in relation with their circumstances. The illustrations on each tarot card are ideal prompts for clients to develop their own metaphors for their experience, with or without the guidance of the therapist.
3. Using tarot cards in sessions is empowering to the client.
In traditional tarot readings, a reader will shuffle the cards and draw cards for the client before interpreting and exploring the meanings of the cards. In a psychotherapy session, it tends to look a bit different.
Patients can be prompted to use the cards in a number of ways, from choosing cards at random to laying all the cards out face up and selecting images that are the most personally resonant and then describing what the images mean to them. Unlike traditional models that emphasize therapist facilitation, when clients use the cards themselves, they often experience feelings of empowerment and may even become more invested in the process.
4. Tarot cards are a unique way to tap experience that is otherwise difficult to verbalize.
Talking about inner experience does not come naturally to many. Whether it’s because people are so fused with their thoughts and feelings that they cannot describe them objectively or because the weight of shame or fear of judgment holds them back from expressing the truth about their experience, inability or unwillingness to talk about inner turmoil can thwart or undermine to the therapeutic process.
An evocative image on a tarot card offers a way for people to talk about an otherwise difficult to express inner experience in an objective way, if that feels safer or more comfortable for them.
5. Tarot cards are neutral–philosophically, therapeutically and spiritually and easily adaptable to work within any therapeutic framework.
The symbols and themes depicted in tarot cards represent universal human experiences, which include thought processes, personality types, cognitive styles both maladaptive and healthy and more. Contrary to popular belief that tarot cards are representative of a particular spiritual or psychological school of thought, they are in fact, inherently neutral.
Because of this neutrality, the cards are wide open to one’s own unique interpretation and are available as tools for psychotherapy clients to extract meanings that are aligned with their own unique world views, spiritual or religious perspectives and beliefs.
Ultimately, tarot cards can provide an avenue for challenging psychological material to come forth in a way that feels safe for the clients, provided that they have “opted in” and agreed to the use of tarot cards in their psychotherapeutic work. But the cards should be used sparingly in sessions. Research in the field of tarot in psychotherapy is sparse and it is not a substitute for a solid treatment foundation of empirically-supported approaches.