I recently had a client come to me, emotionally wrecked. She had woken from a bad dream and deciding to turn to the tarot drew the Nine of Swords. A cloying dread seized her when she saw that anguished figure, swords looming above. Something bad was about to happen. Later that day (hoping to allay her anxiety) she drew another card only to be blasted by the Tower's bolt. This launched a week long jig with the more troubling characters in the pack. The more freaked out she became the worse the cards seemed to get. Naturally, every problem in her life took on a sinister bent as she tried to anticipate what disaster the cards could be predicting. And the tarot - now a cruel jester - seemed to jeer at her as she flailed in this quicksand of bad dreams, swords and towers. In the end nothing truly bad happened; the world did not end. Well, actually, something bad did happen. She felt like the world was about to end.
The cards can be a wise guide, but make no mistake, they can also be pitiless.
Looked at from a nuanced angle the cards were accurate in their way. Her question and state of mind were the issue. You see, waking from a bad dream is more or less exactly what is depicted on the Nine of Swords! The cards were being literal. They were saying “this is a bad dream”. Similarly, her world had been turned upside-down as the Tower suggested. However, what followed after that first draw is not unlike what happens when you take a microphone too close to the speaker: a horrible squealing noise erupts from the feedback loop of fear and scary cards.
This means that if you are just getting into the tarot you have to be careful when reading for yourself if you are upset or stressed out. Not because the cards cannot be useful at times like this - they can be exceptionally useful - but for the novice it can be all too easy to make things worse when the cards go into this mantic feedback loop. Similarly, take care when reading for yourself just before a job interview, big presentation, or other high stress situation where your performance could be hampered by a bum reading! You don’t need it.
Here are some tips for keeping it sane at times like these:
Don't whip the cards out straight after that break-up call. Don't wail at the cards asking stuff like "will I be alone forever?!" The tarot is going to be a total bitch. Trust me. Take some time to calm down and reflect. Take a bath. Reading when upset doesn’t work for two principal reasons; you lack the objectivity to interpret the cards constructively and emotional agitation can influence which cards you draw.
Write it down
This is a good habit anyway but is exceptionally helpful when you are reading on topics that are emotionally difficult. Firstly, when writing the reading out to yourself you should intentionally adopt a gentle, non-sensational, self-supporting voice. This is a conscious stance you take with yourself. Don't bullshit yourself, but be kind - especially if you are feeling depressed, shamed or your self esteem has otherwise been damaged by whatever has prompted the reading. Secondly, writing a reading out helps take that tangled mass out of your head and objectify it on paper, allowing you to get some distance from it.
Don’t ask for outcomes
Remove all predictive positions from the spread that show the outcome, future etc. Instead, ask what you can do to turn a problem around. Ask how best you should look at the problem. Ask what you should let go of. Divine for solutions, underlying causes and ask for spiritual guidance. Use the cards to motivate positive action. Essentially, you want to use the cards to gather data to help you to move forward instead of prediction. When you find yourself walking through the valley of the shadow of death, paradoxically, not knowing what is going to happen next sometimes can help you make it through to the other side.
Emphasise positive meanings
All the 'negative' cards have positive aspects. In a stressed out state of mind we are prone to cognitive distortions; twisted ways of thinking that catastrophize, exclude the positive from a situation and see things in absolutes or extremes. This inclination is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us avoid tigers lurking in bushes, but can really screw up a reading. When reading stressed you have to consciously adjust for this negative bias by choosing to emphasise the positive. Remember, you want to make things better not worse. For the most part our fears are exaggerations.
Let the spread rest
Once you have done the initial reading - leave the cards on the table (preferably overnight) and come back to them later. The symbols will ‘stew’ in your heart and when you look at them the next day they will pop with new information and clarity.
Get a reading from someone qualified
Sometimes it is best not to read for yourself at all. Instead, seek out a good reader. A good reader will be able to look at a hard topic and give you an accurate, constructive reading without scaring the living daylights out of you. You should walk away feeling better. This is important because if you think you can drive yourself crazy with the cards - believe me - a clumsy reader, or worse, a reader with bad intentions can make you feel far, far worse. It is entirely possible to receive difficult news in a reading and walk away feeling empowered, enlightened and galvanised by the reading.
This is the art of a true gifted reader, who is also a healer.