The Gift of Reading the Tarot: Teach Empathy


Inspired by Dr. Irvin D. Yalom’s book The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, I am looking at each chapter through the perspective of tarot reading…*


“When teaching students about empathy, Erich Fromm often cited Terence’s statement from two-thousand years ago—‘I am human and let knowing human be alien from me’—and urged us to be open to that part of ourselves that corresponds to any deed or fantasy offered by patients [read: ‘clients’], no matter how heinous, violent, lustful, masochistic, or sadistic. If we didn’t, he suggested we investigate why we have chosen to close that part of ourselves.” (p. 21)

“Accurate empathy is an essential trait not only for [tarot readers] but also for [clients], and we must help [clients] develop empathy for others. Keep in mind that our [clients] generally come to see us because of their lack of success in developing and maintaining gratifying interpersonal relationships. Many fail to empathize with the feelings and experiences of others.” (p. 23)


In his chapter “Teach Empathy,” Dr. Irvin Yalom discusses how his therapeutic clients sometimes self-ingratiate and self-demean themselves in the course of the session as a means of avoiding a question. Such statements as “I know you’re sorry that you ever took me on as a patient” or “My session must be your most unpleasant hour of the day,” belie a self-belittling that avoids facing deeper questions about themselves.


I guess something else I’d say about those statements is that there is a fine line between the act of empathy and the act of projection.


It is one thing to place one’s self—mentally—in the shoes of an other…and another thing to define the situation that the “other” is experiencing. In the first, we try to understand the experiences of someone else and compassionately relate to the experience. In the second, we have already decided what some else is experiencing. As Yalom notes, the difference between these two-sides-of-the-same-coin is perhaps social skills. Perhaps it is the job of the therapist (or the tarot reader) to remind clients to define others less and explore others more. What would it mean to do this?


I think it means asking more questions. If you are a tarot reader, how many questions do you ask your clients during your tarot readings? Are we able to ask our clients to explore others and ask questions about unfamiliarity…if we, ourselves, are “telling” our clients what they are feeling? If we are reading the cards for a future outcome, are we any less guilty of projecting? If we have already decided a client’s future, how does this allow the client to make choices? It doesn’t.


If we want to teach our clients to experience true empathy, it becomes our responsibility to teach by example… Ask questions. As a tool, the cards serve better as a springboard for understanding commonly experienced emotions and feelings and life adventures rather than defining—and thus minimizing—the future. Let the universal themes of the tarot images inspire conversation and explore the minutiae of human experience rather than creating a limited purview of possibilities. Teach empathy, not projection.


What card might exemplify this idea—the difference between empathy and projection? In my mind, the Nine of Cups works pretty well. I have always seen the Nine of Cups to be a depiction of show-offiness, of pride, of a materialism that’s more important than the expression of real feelings. This seems a little odd when we consider the numerology of the card—by the time we reach the ninth card within the suit of cups, we ought to be on the cusp of emotional actualization, of triumph and mastery of our emotions. And yet this fellow in the Nine of Cups, with his defensive crossed arms, and smug ostentation and superiority among his possessions…there is something hidden, or ignored, in that pretended show of happiness.


Nine of Cups, Rider-Waite-Smith tarot


…And I would say that it is one thing to display the vanity of one’s golden cups; it is something else to pull those cups down, pass them around the table, and allow one’s guests to drink deeply from the emotions that you keep in those cups that are normally tucked away on the display cupboard. How do we get to discover what emotions are hiding in this host’s cups—how do we come to know the true person beyond the showy poseur?


…First we have to ask for a drink.






Although I am exploring Yalom’s reflections on the profession of Psychology and Psychiatry, I do not claim or pretend to have any training in either of those professional fields. I am simply interpreting Yalom’s reflections and concepts from the perspective of the art of reading the tarot, which although it is a talent for which I have had certified training and for which I have several years of professional experience, is not a clinical or licensed profession or activity. Readers of this blog are reminded that unless you have training and a license in the psycho-therapeutic arts, that you should NEVER be diagnosing or attempting to diagnose a reading client for clinical symptoms. Rather, you should always refer the client to seek professional help if the concern arises that the client’s issues may be related to or appear to be psychosomatic in nature.






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