The Emperor is a fellow who is in command, assertive, highly intellectual and confident in his beliefs and actions. He is the more traditional patriarchal figure in the Tarot, often depicting fatherhood or paternal instinct. He shows up when discipline and self-control are called for and when we need to take control of a situation in our lives.
Emperor suggests the need to be less reactive or emotional in our planning, to rely more on our intellect and reasoning ability in order to avoid making mistakes. When he shows up there are many things to consider. If he is appearing in a spread concerning actions you are taking, he may be telling you that you are not disciplined or objective enough. Perhaps you need to take more initiative or be more in control of the situation.
Conversely, if he shows up around another person in your circle, it could indicate someone who is controlling or trying to have power over you. It may be time to look at the ways in which you are giving your power away or allowing others to get the upper hand in the situation. Perhaps it's time to be more assertive or to stand up for your ideals.
A reversed Emperor may tell you that you are proceeding in error or doing things that go against your better judgment or highest good. Perhaps you have not been disciplined enough in a certain area of your life and it is leading to self-sabotage. On the other hand, perhaps you've wanted something so badly you've insisted on following a path that no longer serves you. Either way a reversed Emperor can point to an error in judgment when it comes up around a course of action. When it comes up around a person and is reversed it can indicate an individual who is irresponsible or selfish with a “me first” attitude.
Another important lesson the Emperor teaches us is the difference between discipline and punishment. Discipline is positive. It reinforces strong lessons, motivates and encourages us to grow. Punishment and criticism on the other hand have the exact opposite effect – they demoralize, cause a defeatist attitude or cause us to quit trying. If the Emperor shows up consider how he's reflecting on you. Is your inner critic too harsh? Are you holding yourself up to impossible standards and then giving up because you can't meet such rigid or impossible demands? Are you a perfectionist? All of these behaviors cross the line from positive discipline into negative punishment. The Emperor calls on you to look at your behavior analytically and with discernment so that you can become a loving, supportive authoritarian figure in your own life.
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