The Psychodynamics
Of Tarot Imagery

by Ellen Z. Uecker, OTR
Counselor and Author of Through The Tarot Looking Glass - In Search of Self

When first introduced to Tarot cards, in a parlor game atmosphere, I was immediately impressed by the richness and variety of the symbolism used to illustrate human values, virtues, emotions, predicaments, attitudes, etc. Having over ten years professional experience in mental health at that time, including extensive use of projective testing techniques (to be explained), I quickly became fascinated by the cathartic effect of the Tarot games for those actively participating. The so-called fortunetelling premise appeared to elicit a type of self-evaluation, in terms of the cards chosen to represent various aspects of their life or a specific personal required by the game format, or spread as it is called.

During this time I was deeply involved in a personal quest for spiritual truth, which included the study of Eastern philosophies and various religious doctrines together with a potpourri of new age concepts. The concept of Higher Self became a point of particular interest to me, since it corresponded so closely with the Self, as conceptualized by Carl Jung. I began to find that my spiritual journey was crossing paths with my professional career. In my extensive study of the Tarot I came across a book titled JUNG and TAROT: An Archetypal Journey by Sallie Nichols, which served to clarify my growing recognition of the psychological significance of the images and archetypal symbols present in Tarot cards. According to Nichols, Jung had specifically acknowledged that the Tarot had its origin in the archetypal images of the "collective unconscious."

I also began to learn that New Age practitioners, including various types of psychic readers and spiritualists, are integral today in the search for Higher Self. Believing that the special skills of the new age practitioner combined with techniques developed in the science of psychology could be a powerful merger, I began to formulate a practical application of these concepts through an integration of the esoteric mysticism inherent in the Tarot with the Analytic Theories of both Jung and Freud. As the development of a practical and structured procedure progressed, I also included certain elements of Reality and Rational Therapy models.

The belief that the Tarot works, in the mystical fortunetelling sense, rests on the postulate that we all create our own realities and hence our own destinies - this philosophy similar in many respects to that professed by Reality Therapy proponents. In a traditional Tarot spread, the final outcome card is believed to be mystically determined by all the preceding cards, which represent attitudes, emotions, thoughts, or circumstances surrounding an issue - and already known by the client, at some level of awareness. Therefore, doing a reading is somewhat like feeding all known information into a computer (in this case the subconscious mind) and tabulating or processing the most likely outcome, relative to that information. In a typical Tarot reading, the cards are shuffled and arranged into the proper order without benefit of viewing the face sides, presumably with the assistance of some mystical force interacting with our subconscious mind. This process is similar to Jungian theory carried to a mystical level of practice. While maintaining the basic premise and format of a Tarot reading, I applied the process at a more practical and conscious level, the cards to be chosen and arranged visually - although a precept of the projective technique would include probable subconscious or unconscious responses to certain symbolic illustrations.

Projective technique is based on the Freudian-Jungian assumption of subconscious mental activity within an unconscious part of the psyche, where memories and desires are kept hidden - not directly accessible to consciousness because of ego restraints. They believed the contents of the unconscious may only be brought into consciousness through the removal of these ego defenses. Freud developed his psychoanalytic theory around this premise, using both free association and dream analysis to locate and bring forth material from the unconscious that was believed to influence the conscious behaviors of individuals. Of course Jung further identified what he termed a "personal unconscious," as different from what he called the "collective unconscious" - this latter being evolved through racial experience and thought, more deeply seated than the "personal unconscious," and expressed in a universal symbolic language not easily understood by the conscious mind without special study.

Modern psychologists often use projective-type tests to facilitate unconscious uncovering - these generally involving the use of pictures or abstract images to elicit expression of unconscious material. One familiar example would be the Rorschach Ink Blot test. Others commonly used are the Thematic Apperception Test, in which the subject is required to interpret a picture by telling a story about it; and the House-Tree-Person, in which the subject draws, then answers questions about each of these. The images found on Tarot cards can be utilized in a similar manner. Sallie Nichols describes Tarot cards as "projection holders, meaning simply that they are hooks to catch the imagination." In the science of psychology, projection is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby we see our own characteristics and tendencies not in ourselves, but rather in the people and events in our environment. Sallie Nichols suggests that "by viewing the images that we cast onto outer reality as mirror reflections of inner reality, we come to know confronting the archetypes and freeing oneself somewhat from their compulsion, one becomes increasingly able to respond to life in an individual way..." or in terms of Jung's "individuation process." The word "archetypes" here refers to unconscious ideals which we unconsciously project onto, or assign to, our significant others. According to Jung, human beings tend to respond to others in terms of archetypal images which emerge from the collective unconscious, and have the effect of setting our conscious expectations of those close to us. When someone does not meet our ideal image of him or her, serious conflict can arise. If we can become aware of which unconscious archetypal ideals we have assigned to others, then we will be better equipped to comprehend and subsequently adjust our conscious responses. Tarot card images can be effective in eliciting conscious intuitions that effect changes in our inner images, which then serve to facilitate changes in overt behavior. These changes then result in new responses from people and situations around us. The Tarot used in this particular way does not attempt to predict the future, but rather allows the individual to take an active role in the creation of a new and transformed future - in the transcendence of their conscious ego for the purpose of achieving wholeness or complete awareness of Self, as defined by Jung - and ultimately in their Higher Self actualization.

Very differently from his colleague Freud, Jung placed strong emphasis upon spiritual values, and believed that the yearning to understand the meaning of existence and purpose was the most basic of human instinctual drives - as witnessed in the primordial images of the collective or "racial unconscious," and as represented in ancient mythologies and almost every religion. The current cultural emphasis on immediate gratification and material success would seem to deny this basic inner need, and when this occurs an attempt to compensate results in maladaptive behaviors and social decay. We can witness this through epidemics of crime and drug addiction. According to Jung, "the unconscious and the conscious exist in a profound state of interdependence of each other and the well-being of one is impossible without the well-being of the other."

This would indicate that sick behavior on the conscious level is mirrored by a sick unconscious. In our search for well-being there is a tendency to search outside ourselves for answers. We are bombarded with media information and popular opinion that cannot be effectively integrated, resulting in a sense of alienation and hopelessness in many. Our inability to resolve epidemic social problems also results in generalized feelings of impotence. Dynamic evolution and cultural growth will occur only when individuals evolve through inner growth, that can be achieved through a step-by-step procedure similar to Jung's "individuation" process and "transcendent function." Exploring the unconscious is necessary for this to occur, requiring a special approach designed to safely elicit repressed material. If individuals achieve Higher Self awareness and guidance, then society will begin to heal.

For Jung, Self-awareness represented the fullest development of personality that had to be achieved through a deliberate process which ultimately resulted in changing the center of personality from the conscious ego to a point midway between the conscious and the unconscious. It replaced or took precedence over the more primitive ego. The process required the individual to experience each of the different personality components separately, including "persona" or social masks/roles; "anima" or the feminine aspect in the unconscious of males; and "animus" or the masculine aspect in the unconscious of females. This differentiation of personality components, or the individuation process, was facilitated by "regression" or withdrawal of one's focus from outer world awareness to the unconscious - for the purpose of accessing components of the personal and collective unconscious. Symbols were emphasized as being the key to unlocking the unconscious - to locating and identifying these components. Once the individuation process was complete, an integration of all components was needed to create a new unity of Self. This integration was called the "transcendent function", or in other words, the individual transcends ego and becomes whole. Actualization of the Self included use of the constructive or Higher Self aspects of knowledge gleaned from the unconscious - as well as control of the darker or "shadow" aspects of this awareness.

If we accept Jungian Analytic Theory as valid, then the open but structured interplay between the conscious ego and the unconscious offers many possibilities for growth and change in all aspects of our daily lives. Although the knowledge and insight stored in the unconscious regions of the mind may be considerable, it is generally not available to most of us in our daily decision making and problem solving efforts. Modern psychology accepts that effective problem identification and solution often cannot begin until discovery of the underlying basis of the externalized aspects - these being often only a manifestation of the real problem. Once we develop the ability to discover answers and truths within ourselves, we no longer feel compelled to search for direction and purpose from outside sources.

In my book, Through The Tarot Looking Glass - In Search of Self: Guide to the Psychodynamics of Tarot Imagery, I have outlined a well-structured procedure that integrates primary aspects of Jungian and Freudian Analytic theory with the mystical wisdom and practice of traditional Tarot. There are specific exercises which assist the individual in defining their Self, in terms of the conscious ego or "I Am", relative to the real world; the Ideal conscious self, relative to the real world; the id or instinctive Lower Self, corresponding to Jung's shadow where conflicts arise; and the superego or Higher Self consciousness, corresponding to Jung's transcended Self where ideals become manifest. Other exercises help the individual to understand important relationships in terms of actual perceptions as well as unconscious ideal expectations - then examining any conflicts between actual and ideal images. Separate appendices provide suggested interpretations/indications for all 78 cards and corresponding to each exercise. These meanings are more reflective of the collective unconscious, derived through an integration of psychological theory and universal archetypes. Individuals are required to create a journal of their own impressions of each card, representing data from the personal unconscious - meant to be integrated with the universal meanings.

Ellen Z. Uecker is a Registered Occupational Therapist (OTR) with many years experience in the mental health field, including as Director of O.T. in a regional psychiatric inpatient program. Currently an independent psycho-spiritual counselor, integrating Tarot, astrology, and numerology with traditional Jungian-oriented psychology. She is author of the book, Through The Tarot Looking Glass - In Search of Self, and published in professional therapy journals, including an award winning article on the adaptation of Tarot cards for psychological evaluation and counseling. Email her at or visit her website at:

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