Is Living Vicariously Through Others Dangerous?

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated December 19, 2018

Reviewer Wendy Galyen, LCSW, BC-TMH

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At one time or another, we have all had the experience of wanting to live through someone else. Maybe we feel we know what is best for that person, or perhaps we find satisfaction in being a part of someone else's accomplishments. Living vicariously through others happens from time to time, but when it becomes our only source of experiencing fulfillment in life, it can take us down a dangerous path.

What Does It Mean to Live Vicariously Through Someone Else?

"Living vicariously" refers to living life through someone else's experiences rather than being a part of the events ourselves. It requires immersing ourselves in someone else's world and emotionally or mentally making their achievements and setbacks our own.

For example, a parent, who never got the chance to become a star athlete, may push their child to pursue a future in professional sports. The parent may gain a sense of fulfillment through the child's successes simply due to the fact they did not have those experiences on their own.

We can live vicariously through others on a larger scale too. If we follow celebrity gossip, spend lots of time on social media, or easily become personally invested in characters from our favorite books or television shows, it can be easy to use someone else's life to meet our emotional needs.

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Although we usually associate the idea of living vicariously through others with certain people like child stars and their demanding parents, living vicariously through others happens all around us all the time. And it does affect many of us regularly.

Is Living Vicariously Bad?

You will probably fall victim to living vicariously through others or experience someone living vicariously through you at some point in your life. It is a phenomenon that serves a purpose for us. It helps us connect with others, it empowers and motivates us to follow our dreams, and it gives us something to build a sense of identity and solidarity around.

It lets us experience reward, without having to risk our failure. We can tap into the feeling of achievement, without putting in our work that may or may not pay off. It lets us explore personas and lifestyles we cannot have in real life, and it lets us navigate our world through a different perspective without committing to any big changes.

Living vicariously lets us have countless new experiences, without stepping outside the prescribed boundaries around us. Despite the fact that it fills a void in our lives, living vicariously can be harmful to us and those we try to live through.

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How Living Vicariously Can Harm Us

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 due to 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 and the confidence and ability to navigate day-to-day life on our own.

We Ignore What We Can Do

When we become obsessed with the experiences of others, we easily miss what matters about us. Our attention becomes wrapped up in someone else, and we neglect all the abilities, gifts, talents, and good qualities that we already bring to the table.

We Develop Excuses

If someone else is doing all the hard work and we are reaping the emotional reward, why should we put any effort towards our happiness? When we are living vicariously through others, it becomes easy to put off working towards our own goals.

How Living Vicariously Can Harm Others

We Give them a Sense of Obligation

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

Ignoring Their Dreams

When we 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 in the direction of academia, they are shutting the door on their child's ability to create their dreams and goals in life.

Are You Living Vicariously Through Someone?

Living vicariously through someone is not usually done on purpose. It is often fueled by our innermost feelings of regret, guilt, or sadness rooted in being unable to experience something for ourselves. We end up carrying negative feelings and do not want others to experience them as well. To prevent those negative feelings in someone else we push them towards experiences that we believe will fulfill both them and us.

Unfortunately, what we perceive as good intentions can easily turn into a 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 on reality TV
  • You become intensely interested in characters from television or story books
  • You have intricate fantasies about being someone else

How to Stop Living Vicariously Through Others

Living vicariously through others is a normal part of the human experience. We all live vicariously through someone else at some point in our lives. As long as healthy boundaries are maintained, and a strong sense of self-appreciation is present, living vicariously is not usually a problem.

However, if you have been living vicariously through others and it is causing you or someone you love to distress, there are ways to take a step back.

Remember Who You Are

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

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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 working out or eating a healthy lunch.

Anything that you feel proud of should be recognized as an accomplishment. Take time to meditate or journal about what this accomplishment means to you and how it has impacted you or will impact you in the future.

Grieve What You Lost

If you feel there are opportunities in life that you missed out on, it is okay to be upset by that. It is important to get in touch with your feelings and give yourself time to work through your emotions. Try to put a positive spin on your feelings by considering all the opportunities in life you did have, despite 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.

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Despite what appears on social media, real life is not always perfect or dramatic. Our family, friends, or favorite celebrities are not more capable or gifted than we are. We should not constantly be plugged into their lives because what they show on social media is not a true reflection of who they are.

Create a Gratitude Journal

Remember that books and TV tell a story. The characters are not real, and their abilities and accomplishments are exaggerated and crafted to create a world that does not exist. Instead of getting wrapped up in a fantasy world, try journaling about your own life.

Focus on the events you are thankful for, and the accomplishments that matter to you. Make your gratitude journal for you and only you. When we are mindful of the good things that happen to us, we do not need to fill our minds with the things that happen to others.

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. If we are pushing someone to follow a path because we want an emotional response out of it for ourselves, we are in the danger zone.

Living vicariously through others is a part of everyday life. However, if we are aware of how it can affect us and others, its effects will be small. If you struggle with living vicariously, contact a professional through BetterHelp today! We can get you on back on the path to self-fulfillment.


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