“Deep down, you know . . . “

“You need to heal . . . “

“You have to do what feels right . . . “

These are the kinds of phrases tarot readers on YouTube tell their audiences.

Looking for a therapeutic break on my quarantine anti-journey, I rediscovered the appeal of tarot. Feeling trapped in a lockdown time warp, I found myself drawn to the mystique of fortune-telling videos. I drowned my sense of uncertainty in the hypnotizing cadences of divining ASMRists and the peppy affirmations of tarot readers bubbling with vague but good news about my future.

While tarot has a long history, the genre of pick-a-card videos tells us not only about its continued popularity but also why it might be a form of self-care.

Framing and Reframing with Tarot

Pick-a-card readers are often careful to note that they cannot predict the future. We are responsible for choosing our future actions. These statements are not issued once but repeated throughout a reading and implicitly part of the advice given.

There are two key elements to a popular pick-a-card video. First, the seeker (the audience) is figured as the central agent in their life with options to choose from. Second, the reader offers a positive spin on the story the cards reveal, suggesting actions that support the seeker’s well-being (e.g., is it ever a bad idea to “think about what you need right now”? or “drink more water”? or “pay attention to your triggers”?).

An assortment of tarot cards are spread across a table.
So many possible pathways. Photo by Anne Young.

Recent psychology research explains that re-framing our stories can improve mental health. Tarot and similar divination methods (such as charms or runestones) are essentially story-telling genres. Whether or not you believe in psychic spiritual energies, examining and reframing our thoughts and perceptions can be powerful and life-changing.

Reading tarot cards or experiencing a reading can help us to develop habits of mind, escape negative patterns, and think about our problems in new ways. Giving or receiving a reading can help us to feel connected with and affirmed by others. Since tarot reading is in itself an experience, it can provide positive memories and visualization tools.

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Controlling Your Story

This type of story-based self-care differs from the popular image of the dangers of fortune telling as an addictive scam. For example, this negative image of fortune-telling appears in a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone. In the episode, a young William Shatner holds his skeptical wife hostage while he inserts coins into a yes/no jukebox genie. Entrapped by superstition, he becomes convinced that his life follows a preordained path which the coin-operated genie can predict. With the help of his wife, he breaks free of this constant coin-flipping and turns away from the fortune-telling machine, and ultimately, the dreaded “zone.”

This dark side of divination makes some people balk at fortune-telling or associate it with scam artists. As many pick-a-card Youtubers demonstrate, ethical tarot is not about striking superstitious fear into the hearts of their viewers. Instead, through visualization and story-telling peppered with positive affirmations, they invite us to expand our perspective. We can dive within to work on ourselves, tackle our mental blocks, and envision positive actions.

Introspect and Self-Reflect

In this way, watching pick-a-card readings is like any story consumption, from reading to gaming to watching TV. These are things that strike us as relevant to our situation and help us to see it from another perspective, at a distance. Beyond that, card readers encourage us to create our own story, self-reflect and introspect on our fears and desires.

Focusing on images and re-framing our stories can be therapeutic if approached in the right way. For the most popular readers, the cards do not hold the answers – you do. And, regardless of how or why tarot readings can be uncannily accurate. For example, one reader says, “maybe you’ve been watching too many pick-a-card readings…”

Feature photo by Anne Young.

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