Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?

By: Jessica Anderson

Updated September 18, 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. Unfortunately, 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 summation, living vicariously refers to living life through someone else's experiences- rather 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 it lets you 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 us.

Unfortunately, what we perceive as good intentions can easily turn into unsatisfying, vicarious living. It is 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. 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, it is becoming a much larger problem and will need to be addressed so that you and your loved ones are able to live happy and healthy lives. Here are some examples of how people often live vicariously:

Example 1: You always dreamed about making a Varsity team 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 you child to pursue a future in professional sports because of your past. You may gain a sense of fulfillment through your child's successes simply due to the fact you did not have those experiences of your own. 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 often, 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 living vicariously is common and happens all around you everyday. If you are struggling with these types of viewpoints, remember that you are not alone. It is common, and you can move forward with the right mindset and support.

How Living Vicariously Can Harm Us And Others

As stated above, everyone at some point or another experiences vicarious living, and this in itself is not a bad thing. However, when vicarious living becomes our main way of living- or 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.

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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 towards your own happiness? When you are living vicariously through others, it becomes easy to put off working towards 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 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. Luckily, this type of living can be easily 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 is okay to feel upset. It is important 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 a 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 you do not know where to begin. This is where a therapist can help.

If you are in need of a convenient therapist, consider BetterHelp. Their services are available anywhere, anytime. Their professional counselors know how to help, and you can get started in 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 and that your life will be more joyful when you begin to appreciate your own circumstances. Living vicariously can be dangerous, and you deserve a life of much higher quality. Try your best to make some positive changes, and reach out for help to start living the happy life that you deserve. Take the first step today.

FAQ's (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 the body. For example, when you watch a TV show, or a film, where a person is riding a rollercoaster, you might feel it in a part of the body like your heart racing. You have a vicarious thrill by watching another individual ride the rollercoaster and see their excitement and fear. The person on the ride is exhilarated and perhaps frightened. You're not there with them, but you have a vicarious thrill by watching them. It's sympathetic participation in their experience. You're observing them enjoying the ride, and you understand what it's like to be on the rollercoaster. Still, you're not there, which means that you have 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. 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. That's what the word means, and the words from vicarious experiences, or written accounts, can help us understand why a person feels that they do. You've probably heard the expression living vicariously. You can better understand it by reading the words from vicarious individual's accounts. You might wonder. "Am I living vicariously? How do I know for sure?" What some signs of that behavior? Maybe you're inspired by someone else and what they're doing. Maybe you're fearful to participate in that experience. If you read and analyze the words from vicarious accounts, you'll understand the psychology behind living vicariously. It's 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. 

What is a synonym for vicariously?

Some synonyms for vicariously are indirect, by proxy, a surrogate, being empathetic. You might be experiencing something by proxy, but you're not doing it yourself. The concept of living vicariously has to do with wish fulfillment. You have a dream, and you want that goal badly. But 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 it's a different circumstance, and you're watching a person achieve dreams that you want for yourself, and you feel like you can't get those things, that could make you feel bad. You can read the words from vicarious writers or authors, and start to comprehend why you're feeling these emotions. That way, you can work through these complex feelings. Therapy is an excellent place to explore why you engage in living vicariously. You may not understand why you're not able to pursue particular goals. A licensed mental health professional can help you explore these concepts and start to process them. They can support you in taking actions, rather than sitting back and watching others get the success you want. Your wants and dreams matter. You deserve to have a life where you get what your heart desires, but to do that, you need to stop living vicariously through others. It would help if you worked on living your life and appreciating who you are. Accepting yourself isn't something that's going to happen overnight. People put hard work into first understanding themselves and then accepting who they are. It can take years of self-reflection and analysis to get to a place where you know who you are. That's why it's crucial to be patient as you begin to analyze your behavior and get the root of why you do what you do.

Can you live vicariously through yourself?

Can you live vicariously through yourself? This is a meta-question. 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. The words from vicarious are derived from Latin. The word vicarious is derived from the Latin noun vicis, which means "change." It also means alteration. You can't live vicariously through yourself because the concept relies on another human being. The whole idea behind vicarious behavior is that you're not confronting your issues, and instead of projecting them onto another person.

 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 to engage this behavior. Then there are other instances where living vicariously can severely affect your quality of life. You may not understand why you're living vicariously, but it's something you can discuss with a licensed therapist and start to analyze why you're participating in that behavior. It's okay not to know why you're doing that, but going to therapy is an excellent way to discover why you're afraid to pursue your dreams and goals and live through others instead. It's okay to question these things and work on yourself. 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 those things. 


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