Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated June 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

At some point in your life, you may have caught yourself admiring the lives of someone close to you or those of famous people. You may have been so excited and intrigued by their experiences that you identified with their emotions or imagined their circumstances as your own. 

This phenomenon is called living vicariously through others. While it can be common and present certain advantages, it may also lead to stress and unhappiness. If living life vicariously becomes your only source of fulfillment, you may benefit from counseling and self-care techniques to discover a healthy way to balance your own journey and live life for yourself once more.

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What is living vicariously?

Living vicariously may not always be conscious or intentional. You may believe you are focused on living your own life, but make choices that contribute to  a pattern of vicarious living without realizing it. Here are some signs that you might be living vicariously through someone else:

  • You read about or watch others experienceing life and living out your dreams instead of pursuing them yourself
  • You spend large amounts of time on social media wishing you had what others have
  • You compare and dictate what hobbies or interests your children or loved ones take part in
  • You encourage others to take chances you're unable to face
  • You actively seek celebrity gossip
  • You binge-watch reality television
  • You become intensely interested in fictional characters from television, movies, or books
  • You have intricate fantasies about being someone else

Living vicariously can often require immersing yourself in someone else's world and making their achievements or setbacks your own. It may allow you to believe you are experiencing rewards and pleasure without risking failures. You could have countless new experiences without stepping outside prescribed boundaries or limiting beliefs. However, vicarious living can become harmful if it detracts from your life or the lives of people around you.

Examples of living vicariously 

Living vicariously may be common. However, if it is beginning to take away from your quality of life or negative impact the people closest to you, it may become a more extreme problem. There are a few examples of how this situation might play out. 

Example one: A parent living vicariously through their child

Jane always dreamed about making varsity in high school, but she struggled with coordination and was never the best at athletics. Now, Jane's child is in high school and is highly talented on their sports team. Jane pushes her child to pursue a future in professional sports because of her past. 

Jane gains a sense of fulfillment through her child's successes because she did not have those experiences herself. However, this push takes away from her child's ability to follow their dreams and set their goals. Jane's child wants to be an artist, and their mother's pressure makes them feel guilty. 

Example one: A parent living vicariously through their child

John has begun to spend a significant amount of time on social media, carefully observing the lives of others. He often looks at the profile of his friend, who recently began playing in the WNBA. Filled with inspiration, he feels proud to have known her in high school and constantly looks at the pictures she posts of her team and their travels. However, as John starts to live life vicariously through her, he feels like his own life is unsuccessful and begins to feel sad and insignificant. He struggles to identify his own accomplishments.

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How is living vicariously dangerous?

Living vicariously from time to time may not be harmful. However, if vicarious living becomes your primary way of life or takes up a significant portion of your time, it can have harmful results.

You may become dependent

Living vicariously may cause you to feel dependent on the lives of others for your happiness and fulfillment. When your life feels meaningful only through the accomplishments of others, you may be leaving your happiness in the hands of someone else. You might lose your sense of independence, confidence, and ability to navigate daily life on your own. 

You might ignore your own capabilities

When you live through others, you might forget what matters most to you. If your attention is focused on someone else's achievements, you may neglect to discover your own abilities, gifts, and talents. You may fail to realize your full potential and break away from the cycle of living vicariously.

You might develop excuses

When you are living vicariously through others, it could feel easy to put off working toward your own goals. If someone else is doing all the work and you are still reaping the emotional reward, you may start making excuses for yourself.

For example, you might believe the person you are living vicariously through is more successful, talented, beautiful, or intelligent and than you, and that you'll never be able to reach their level. However, it's important to be careful not to make such assumptions, as they might be wrong. Many successful people have worked hard to get where they are, despite setbacks. Success isn't simply handed to them on a platter; it's earned through perseverance, which means that it may be possible for you to achieve similar accomplishments as well. 

You make others feel obligated

When you live vicariously through someone close to you, you may inadvertently create goals they feel they must meet, which might make them feel pressured or obligated. 

Your loved one may feel hurt and develop an understanding that the emotional needs of others are more important than their own (which may be particularly likely in the case of a parent living vicariously through their child).

You ignore other people’s dreams

When living vicariously, it may feel easy to steer someone in directions they might not be interested in. For example, if a parent ignores their child's natural talent for music and pushes them toward academics, they could shut 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. 

Remember who you are

Try to remember what makes you unique. Think of your talents and abilities and make a list or table of qualities that you appreciate and that differentiate you from other people.

Celebrate your accomplishments

There may be something in your life to celebrate. Perhaps your most significant accomplishment was a milestone like graduating from school or raising your children. However, try to acknowledge daily successes, too, such as completing  a morning workout or making lunch for your kids.  

Anything you feel proud of may 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.

Grieve what you lost

If you feel there are opportunities you've missed out on, it can be normal to grieve. Try to get in touch with your feelings and give yourself time to work through them. Consider putting a positive spin on a situation by considering all the opportunities you have, not focusing only on the experience you may have lost. 

Additionally, you may have limiting beliefs holding you back from completing a goal. For example, some people may believe they can't achieve a goal due to their age, social status, mental health condition, physical health, or other factors. Although there may be extra difficulties in completing a task due to challenging circumstances, you may be able to find ways to make it happen by changing your mindset. Try not to write off your dreams forever.

Log off

Signing off social media for some time may help you regain a realistic perspective about the people around you. Studies show that social media can increase stress due to social comparison. 

Despite what appears on social media, real life may not always be perfect or dramatic. Your family, friends, or favorite celebrities may not be more capable or gifted than you are. They might have difficulties as well but not post about their challenges in an attempt to portray themselves more positively.

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Learn to be supportive

There may be a fine line between being supportive of someone and living vicariously through them. Being supportive may require you to empower someone to be their best without having a personal stake in what they do. You can be supportive when you want someone to succeed, no matter their path.

You may have crossed the line into vicarious living if your support becomes self-serving. Try your best to avoid pushing someone to follow a path because you would like that path for yourself.

Seek professional help

If you've been living vicariously through others for a while, you may feel you're in too deep to start focusing on your own life now. You may want to reorient toward your own goals but don't know where to begin.

Seek support with online counseling

This stage is where an in-person or online counselor may help. They can support you in setting your own goals and finding personal fulfillment. Therapy can also improve communication skills and decision-making, which can help you develop supportive relationships with people around you. If you're thinking about online therapy, studies show that 71% of participants who tried online counseling found it preferable to in-person therapy for treating various mental health concerns.

Online platforms such as BetterHelp offer a growing database of counselors specializing in various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, or trauma-related disorders. Additionally, online counseling allows you to meet with your therapist using your personal device from anywhere in the world that has an internet connection.

Takeaway

If living vicariously is causing harm in your life, it may be time to reach out for support. You can take steps to stop living vicariously and start living a personally fulfilling life. Consider connecting with a counselor to learn more from a professional.
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