Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?

Updated November 28, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

It’s likely that at some point in your life, you’ve found yourself so excited and intrigued by the life events 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. If living vicariously becomes your only source of fulfillment, you may benefit from counseling, so you can lead a happier, more healthy life.

What Is Living Vicariously?

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When we live vicariously, it’s not always 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 experiences rather than being a part of the events yourself. It requires immersing yourself in someone else’s world and making their achievements and setbacks your own. It allows you to experience rewards without having to risk your own failures. Living vicariously lets you have countless new experiences without stepping outside the prescribed boundaries around you.

However, vicarious living can be harmful if it takes happiness or satisfaction out of your life or those around you.

Is Living Vicariously Common?

Living vicariously is extremely common. We often do this while watching TV. Everyone experiences it 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 because you 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 can be unhealthy for you and loved ones.

How It Can Harm Us And Others

Living vicariously from time to time is not a bad thing. However, when vicarious living becomes our main way of life or takes up a significant portion of our lives it can have harmful results.

We Become Dependent

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

We Ignore What We Can Do

When we live through others, it can be easy to miss what matters most to you. If your attention is focused on someone else, you may neglect your own abilities, gifts, and talents.

We Develop Excuses

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

We Give Others A Sense Of Obligation

When you live vicariously through someone close to you, you can inadvertently create goalsthey feel they must meet. When this happens, you may take away their sense of purpose. 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 could be 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. 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.

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. 

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. It may help to remember that what they show on social media is not a true reflection of who they are.

Learn To Be Supportive

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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 would like that path for yourself.

Seek Professional Help

If you’ve been living vicariously through others 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 setting your own goals and finding personal fulfillment. Therapy has also been shown to improve communication skills and decision-making, which can help you develop supportive relationships with those around you.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

If you are thinking about online therapy, consider BetterHelp. Their services are available anywhere, anytime, so you can meet with a counselor in the comfort of your home and at a time that works best for you. BetterHelp’s counselors have the expertise to help you begin your journey toward finding your own happiness today. And online therapy has been proven as effective as in-person therapy. 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!”

Takeaway

If you’re finding yourself living vicariously through someone around you, remember that it can be harmful if it starts to consume your life. Your life can be more joyful when you begin to appreciate your own circumstances. There are things you can do to stop living vicariously and to start living a personally fulfilling life. Online therapy is one option that has been proven effective. Take the first step for yourself.

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