Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?

By: Jessica Anderson

Updated November 05, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Galyen, LCSW, BC-TMH

It's likely that at some point in your life, you've found yourself so excited and intrigued by the life happenings of someone close to you that you held onto their emotions and imagined their circumstances as your own. This is called living vicariously through others. It's common, but it can add a great deal of stress and unhappiness in your life. Living vicariously through others happens from time to time, but if it becomes your only source of experiencing fulfillment in life, you may want to find the help you need to bring you back to a happy and healthy life.

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What is Living Vicariously?

Living vicariously through someone is not usually done on purpose. What we perceive as good intentions can easily turn into vicarious living. Here are some signs that you may be living vicariously through someone else:

  • You read about or watch others live your dreams instead of reaching them yourself.
  • You spend lots of time on social media wishing you had what others have.
  • You dictate what hobbies or interests your children or loved ones take part in.
  • You encourage others to take chances you won't.
  • You actively seek celebrity gossip.
  • You binge watch reality TV.
  • You become intensely interested in characters from television, movies, or books.
  • You have intricate fantasies about being someone else.

In short, living vicariously refers to living life through someone else's experiencesrather than being a part of the events yourself. It requires immersing yourself in someone else's world and emotionally or mentally making their achievements and setbacks your own. It allows you to experience rewards without having to risk your own failures. You can tap into the feeling of achievement without putting in the work that may or may not pay off. It lets you explore personas and lifestyles you cannot have in real life and allows you to navigate the world through a different perspective without committing to any big changes. Living vicariously lets you have countless new experiences without stepping outside the prescribed boundaries around you.

Vicarious living can be dangerous because it takes away from the happiness and satisfaction that we should feel when thinking about our own lives.

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Is Living Vicariously Common?

The list above shows that living vicariously is extremely common. We often do this while watching TV.Everyone will go through stages of this at some point in their lives.However, if it is beginning to take away from your quality of life or the quality of life of the people closest to you, then it becomes a much larger problem. Here are some examples of how people live vicariously:

Example 1: You always dreamed about making varsity when you were in high school, but you struggled with coordination and were never great at athletics. Now, your child was born a natural. You may push your child to pursue a future in professional sports because of your past. You may gain a sense of fulfillment through your child's successes becauseyou did not have those experiences yourself. However, this pushing takes away from your child's ability to follow their own dreams and set their own goals.

Example 2: You have begun to spend a large amount of time on social media. You tend to look at the profile of your friend who recently began playing in the WNBA. You feel proud to have known her in high school and constantly look at the pictures she posts of her team and their travels. This makes you feel like your life is less significant and takes away from your happiness.

These are only two examples, but you can see that although living vicariously might be common, it is unhealthy for you and loved ones. 

How Living Vicariously Can Harm Us And Others

As stated above, everyone at some point or another experiences vicarious living. This in itself is not a bad thing. However, when vicarious living becomes our main way of livingor at least takes up a main chunk of our lives it can have harmful results.

We Become Dependent

Living vicariously can cause us to become too dependent on others when it comes to happiness and fulfillment in life. When our lives only have meaning in the accomplishments of others, we are leaving our happiness and meaning in the hands of someone else. Because of this, we lose our sense of independence as well as our confidence and ability to navigate day-to-day life on our own.

We Ignore What We Can Do

When you become obsessed with the experiences of others, you can easily miss what matters most to you. Your attention becomes wrapped up in someone else, and you may neglect all of the abilities, gifts, and talents that you personally bring to the table.

Wondering If It's Dangerous To Live Vicariously Through Others?
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We Develop Excuses

If someone else is doing all the hard work and you are holding onto their emotional reward, why should you put in any effort toward your own happiness? When you are living vicariously through others, it becomes easy to put off working toward your own goals.

We Give Others a Sense of Obligation

When you live vicariously through someone close to you, you can inadvertently create goals and aspirations they feel they must meet. When this happens, you take away their sense of purpose and give it to yourself. Your loved one may be hurt and left with an understanding that the emotional needs of others are more important than their own.

Ignoring The Dreams Of Others

When you live vicariously through others, it can be easy to steer them in directions they may otherwise might not be interested in. For example, if a parent ignores their child's natural talent for music and instead pushes them toward academics, they are shutting the door on their child's dreams.

How To Stop Living Vicariously Through Others

If you have been living vicariously through others, and it is negatively affecting you or someone close to you, there are ways to take a step back. The good news is that this type of living can be resolved. Follow the guidelines below to bring yourself and your loved ones back to a healthy place in life.

Remember Who You Are

Try to remember what makes you unique. Think of the talents and abilities that you have and make a list of things that make you special.

Celebrate Your Accomplishments

Everyone has something they can celebrate. Maybe your biggest accomplishment in life is a milestone event like graduating from school or raising your children. However, do not forget to acknowledge day-to-day successes too, such as getting in a morning workout or eating a healthy lunch. Anything that you feel proud of should be recognized as an accomplishment. Take time to meditate or write in a journal about what this accomplishment means to you and how it has impacted you or will impact you in the future.

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Grieve What You Lost

If you feel there are opportunities in life that you've missed out on, it’s okay to feel upset. What’s important is to get in touch with your feelings and give yourself time to work through them. Try to put a positive spin on your feelings by considering all of the opportunities in life you did have, not merely focusing on the experience you may have lost.

Log Off

Signing off social media for some time may help you regain a realistic perspective about the people around you. Remember, social media is a highlight reel of our lives. Rarely do others share the true nature of their setbacks, struggles, and negative experiences.

Despite what appears on social media, real life is not always perfect or dramatic. Your family, friends, or favorite celebrities are not more capable or gifted than you are. You should not constantly be plugged into their lives. You need to remember that what they show on social media is not a true reflection of who they are.

Learn to Be Supportive

There is a fine line between being supportive towards someone and living vicariously through them. Being supportive requires you to empower someone to be their best, without having a personal interest in what they do. You know you are supportive when you want them to succeed no matter what path they follow.

We can usually tell that we have crossed the line into vicarious living when our support turns self-serving. Try your best to avoid pushing someone to follow a path just because you want an emotional response out of it for yourself.

Seek Professional Help

If you're struggling with living vicariously through others and have been for a while, you may feel like you're in too deep to start focusing on your own life now. You may want to look toward your own goals but don’t know where to begin. This is where an in-person or online counselor can help. They can support you in taking action, so you’re not sitting back and watching others achieve the success you want.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you are thinking about havingonline therapy, consider BetterHelp. Their services are available anywhere, anytime, so you can meet with acounselor in the comfort of your home and at a time that works best for you.BetterHelp’s counselors have the expertise to help youbegin your journey toward finding your own happiness today. See reviews of BetterHelp counselors below from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Roy understands my goals and communicates clear strategies to help me reach them. His aim is that his clients learn to use these strategies with independence, which means that our sessions are productive and have a clear focus. Roy is very responsive and helpful with each of my questions and reflections. Because of his support I feel that I am making progress."

"I have been in and out of therapy for so many years, but never connected with anyone quite like Deb. Her compassion and understanding has helped me tackle issues that I have kept hidden for so long. She has invested so much time and energy in my growth and the changes I feel are so amazing. I am reaching out and doing things I never thought possible and now look forward to each new day. I highly recommend Deb; she is truly amazing!"

Moving Forward with Your Own Experiences

If you're finding yourself living vicariously through someone around you, remember that you are capable of stopping.Your life will be more joyful when you begin to appreciate your own circumstances. Try your best to make some positive changes and reach out for help to learn how to start living your own life. Take the first step today.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

What does it mean to live vicariously?

When you live vicariously, you're using someone else's life to fulfill your dreams. Maybe you have goals that you're afraid to shoot for, and it's easier to watch someone else achieve them. You may feel the feelings of other people or their emotions in a part of your body. For example, when you watch a TV show or a filmof a person riding a rollercoaster, you might feel it in a part of your body like your heart racing. You have a vicarious thrill by watching another individual ride the rollercoaster and seeing their excitement and fear.

Because you're not there riding the roller coaster,you’re experiencing a sympathetic participation in the activity. And it doesn't end at watching someone participate in something. It also can be applied to people achieving life goals and being an observer of those people. For example, you might want to become a professional writer, but you don't know how to achieve it. You're not sure how to have participation in the experience of writing. So, you watch another succeed or gain fame in the field. You're not necessarily doing it yourself. But by watching that person succeed at writing, you're having participation in the experience by proxy.

What is the meaning of vicarious?

Vicarious is defined experienced in a person's imagination or mind through the outside actions of another human being and is likely due to fear of rejection or failure. But there's also a sense of safety when you don't do something for yourself but watch another person achieve the goal you wanted. 

What is a synonym for vicariously?

Some synonyms for the word “vicariously” are indirect, by proxy, a surrogate, and being empathetic. You might be experiencing something by proxy, which means you're not doing it yourself. The concept of living vicariously has to do with wish fulfillment. You have a goal and want it badly. Yet, you can't bring yourself to try to get it. That's why you watch others do what you'd like to accomplish.

Is living vicariously a bad thing?

Living vicariously doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. Let's say you're watching a movie, and you see a character who is in pain. You can empathize with that person. That's being empathetic toward that individual. However, if you're watching a person achieve dreams that you want for yourself and you feel like you can't get those things, then that could make you feel bad about yourself. 

Can you live vicariously through yourself?

Good question! The answer is you can't live vicariously through yourself. The concept of living vicariously has to do with another person. You are deflecting from yourself and your experience to live through someone else. 

 Why do I live vicariously through others?

People live vicariously through others in healthy and maladaptive (or unhealthy) ways. There are instances where it's not impacting a person's life when they engage in this behavior. Then there are other instances where living vicariously can severely affect a person’s quality of life. You may not understand why you're living vicariously, but it's something you can explore with a licensed therapist. Therapy is an excellent way to discover why you're afraid to pursue your dreams and goals and why you live through others instead. Whether you see a therapist in your local area or choose to work with an online counselor, you can find out why you're living vicariously through others. It starts with self-acceptance, and eventually self-love. A therapist will support you in achieving both these things. 


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