Gen Z are turning to tarot to heal their broken hearts

TikTok has embraced love readings wholeheartedly, but while they can offer clarity and optimism, these predictions may also be dangerous.

by Sian Bradley
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23 August 2021, 8:00am

In 2020, Reana Chainani did a tarot reading for her then-boyfriend. The cards suggested she would cheat on him. Three weeks later, she did. The university student, who hails from Leeds, had turned to tarot ‘to figure out who she was’. Now, it had predicted the messy breakdown of her relationship. “Whilst it was traumatic,” the 19-year-old admits, “it pushed me to believe in tarot.”  

This belief soured when a heartbroken Reana became obsessed with love readings on TikTok. These videos reach billions of viewers and often bear the caption “this message is for you!” The most popular readings predict fairytale endings of exes returning and crushes declaring their undying love. Readers are usually young women who speak with an excitable air of unyielding positivity. It’s like being comforted by a friend, one who’s too afraid to tell you to move on.

Of course, heartbreak sucks. When you’re in the thick of it, you just want to believe that your ex will come back. Nobody enjoys the tears, social media stalking and essay-length text messages that follow a messy break-up but, unfortunately, this phase of the pandemic - the one of restrictions lifting, rising cases among young people and vaccines - has been peppered with them. In the UK, there has been a spike in searches for advice on ending a relationship. Why? People realised they were in ‘Covidships’ that have fizzled out, whilst psychologists say that long-term relationships have cracked under the pressure

How do we navigate heartache while our futures still seem uncertain, given the ongoing threat of COVID? For Gen Z, a generation that has shunned traditional religion in favour of spirituality, tarot may hold the answers. Tarot, a deck of 78 cards, each representing something, such as new beginnings, personal growth and deceit, has readers pull cards and offers interpretations to help clients make choices. Pre-pandemic, the ancient practice was viewed with more scepticism; that’s no longer the case.

We’re in the midst of a spiritual renaissance, and tarot is now so mainstream that Urban Outfitters sell a Friends-themed deck. Much like the crystal craze that wooed millennials, this tool for mystic soul-searching has proven popular amongst lovesick teens, who can access free readings on social media. Its stratospheric rise coincided with the pandemic, which makes sense, considering that periods of high stress are associated with a rise in spirituality.  For Gen Z, this practice serves a need for new-age therapies: 16-24-year-olds in the UK are less likely to receive mental health treatment than any other age group.  

According to HotHighPriestess, a 20-year-old tarot reader who prefers to keep their offline identity anonymous, Gen Z just want to feel understood. “Tarot is one way we can feel validated by the universe,” she added. The Priestess attributes her self-confidence and ability to build healthy relationships to tarot, after readings helped her reunite with an ex.  “I wanted to give someone else that empowerment,” she says.  And so, she launched her TikTok account with three videos. She told viewers that the first one they saw was meant for them. In one, she pulls the two of cups (a card which refers to unconditional love) to the tune of Bill Withers ‘Just the Two of Us’. “That one went the most viral,” she says. “People love to hear that stuff.” In the others, she pulled The Hanged Man in reserve ( it’s time to free yourself) and the Two of Swords (let go of what’s holding you back). They received a fraction of the views and likes. 

HotHighPriestess has now collected a cool one million followers. Her videos are typical of TikTok tarot; she specialises in general love readings, crammed into 60-second videos. It’s soothing, bite-sized watching. She argues that this accessibility has helped reshape tarot’s reputation. “Tarot has been around forever, but the readers were perceived as unapproachable. When you go on TikTok you see people doing tarot who look like me, the girl next door, and you're like, suddenly, this isn't so scary.”

But this accessibility can have a toxic side too; while readers maintain the belief that coincidences don’t exist, it’s likely that you’re seeing a video because you liked similar ones, rather than because your ex is coming back. Tarot readings also play into TikTok’s algorithm. People will comment, ‘I claim’ on videos that fit their desired outcome. “That generates so many comments, which boosts that video on your For You Page,” HotHighPriestess explains. So while that video may not be meant for you, when you’re feeling vulnerable you’ll happily believe it is.

Reana claims why this was the last thing she needed to hear while reeling from the breakup: “When I did my readings, it would say, ‘you need to retreat’. But TikTok was telling me ‘it will happen, he's waiting for you’, so I spammed my ex with messages begging for us to sort it out. That was the worst thing I could have done because I knew deep down what the tarot was trying to say, but I wasn’t ready to hear it.”  

Once Reana realised that TikTok tarot had filled her mind with false hope,  she swore to avoid it. Despite this, HotHighPriestess maintains that TikTok tarot readings aren’t necessarily dangerous. “It’s not the fault of the reader for being so general, it's just that videos longer than 15 seconds won't be pushed as much in the algorithm,” she argues. “I recommend you find a reader you resonate with, then book a private reading with them.” 

HotHighPriestess offers private readings, 90% of which are about love. She has seen a surge of younger clients in recent months, who are craving guidance after COVID shook up their lives: “A lot of my Gen Z clients tell me I’m better than their therapist, that I have them hope when they need it most,” she says. “I think it's because tarot readers want to give you advice, while therapists just question you, and then charge you hundreds of pounds. It's funny that people talk so much smack about tarot readers when, in the States, it’s more expensive to get any kind of therapy.” 

If TikTok tarot is therapeutic for Gen Z, it’s unsurprising that the videos rake in thousands, if not millions, of likes. Emma Carney, a 35-year-old Tarot reader who posts under @bunnypudding, urges viewers to remain fairly sceptical. “You can’t tell thousands of people that someone will call them in three days. The cards don’t work like that; you need to build a connection with the person you are reading for,” she says. “Most generalised love readings prey on desperate people who want somebody to give them good news when really that reader should tell them to move on.”

This solidifies the importance of seeking out tarot readers you can trust to offer genuine guidance, however hard it is to hear. This was what Mel Wanjala, a 22-year-old media graduate, did to survive a difficult breakup. “I racked up a £90 phone bill calling around 20 psychics, astrologers and tarot readers. My mom was so pissed,” she admitted.  “When dealing with a breakup, you just want answers. You want to know what to do, why it happened to you, what’s wrong with him… the psychics gave me that. They told me ‘he is this type of person, you’re this, and so it would never have worked.’ It gave me clarity.”

Sometimes, seeking clarity can backfire. After her friends started reading her tarot, 22-year-old creative marketer Emma Parkinson began to depend on it. “I have some control issues, and tarot offered an opportunity to know what's coming,” she explained. Then, it all went wrong. “I was friends with someone I’d broken up with, and I didn’t want to mess it up. Then I got this reading. It was the Eight of Swords and the Knight of Swords. [My friend] read it as ‘you've got a loss on the horizon… this is going to end horribly.’ I just completely freaked out.” 

Emma went home and rushed straight onto dating apps, desperate to find somebody else to focus on. Then, she decided to look into alternative readings for the cards. “The Eight of Swords can be about self-induced mental anguish. And I was like, ‘oh my God I've just given myself so much anguish about something that hasn't happened yet, and isn't necessarily going to happen’.” 

It’s here, when people let tarot define their future, that it can do more harm than good. HotHighPriestess urges you to remember the power of free will. “A lot of TikTok tarot readers will start their videos off by saying, ‘take what resonates and leave what doesn't.’ And I feel like if you know, you know, right? If you have a feeling that your person isn’t coming back and you saw a video that said they are, I don’t think anyone would change their mind.” 

One aspect of TikTok tarot that could cloud the judgement of vulnerable young people is the narrative of ‘Twin Flames’. The theory goes like this: we all have somebody who is made perfectly for us, as they hold the other part of our soul. Twin flame relationships can be challenging, but they will always work out. Predictably, the idea that the toxic ex you’re cut up about will come back to you has become hugely popular on TikTok. Emma, the tarot reader, wishes it wasn’t. “If you research more into the Twin Flames ideology you find it says ‘they tend to pull away, come back together, pull away again’. That’s not a perfect relationship, that’s toxic.”

Heartbroken young people buying into that theory, who make up a significant proportion of Emma’s clients, ask her to do readings every day. “I have to be a bitch and say no,” she admits. “I have no interest in talking about some trashbag person for half an hour. I will tell you if they are a red flag, but this reading is for you, not somebody else.”  

Clearly, tarot is helping us, albeit in a flawed way, to navigate heartbreak after a tumultuous era. Readings help us understand what’s going on during painful, confusing times and teach them to practice self-love, and all of that is fairly uncontroversial. However, when desperate people use tarot readings to hold on, and the best thing we can do is let go, problems inevitably arise. Your ex may come back, but you can’t put your life on hold waiting for them to do so. Trust us on this one.

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