Wednesday 24 May 2023

Second-hand Experience: If a Life's Worth Living, It's Worth Living Vicarously

I’m a gypsy, Marty. No matter how hard the traveling is I still go, again and again. You are a comfort creature traveling vicariously. — Fran Houston

One of my father’s favourite aphorisms was “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.” In this, he (perhaps unknowingly) echoed Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, who in 1774 wrote to his son “Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.” These words of paternal wisdom came to mind as I began gathering my thoughts for a blog post about vicarious living. I’ve arguably lived more through other people’s lives than my own. “If a life’s worth living,” I pondered, “it’s worth living vicarously.” I’m going to focus on my experience of relationships, health, and travel. I’ll explore a few of the pitfalls, and what, if anything, I live for myself.


The Cambridge Dictionary defines vicariously as “experienced through the activities of other people, rather than by doing something yourself.” This very much applies to me with friendship and relationships. My earliest real experience of both came in my late teens when I was at university. I found myself amongst a group of mutual friends who lived and loved with breathtakingly authenticity. Their lives intoxicated and scared me in equal measure.

As I described in a blog post exploring my lifelong need to belong, “[s]ome of the deepest relationships I’ve known date back to those days and people, but I never felt part of the group. I found a peripheral role as unofficial observer and poet-chronicler. This is not a criticism of the others, but it’s how it was. It’s how I was.” Those largely second-hand experiences defined for me what it meant to love and live fully and deeply. I experienced coupledom and parenthood vicariously too, long before I knew either state for myself.

I continue to learn from friends who share details of their friendships and relationships with me. Most of us discuss our lives with people we trust, but occasional catch-ups hardly qualify as living vicariously. I talk at length and regularly — often daily — with my closest friends. In these circumstances, it feels less like “keeping in touch” and much more like sharing in their lived experience.

Health and Illness

I’ve shared my experience of illness previously, in a blog post excerpted from our book. Other than being hospitalised for ten days in 1987 following an episode of gastrointestinal bleeding, I’ve enjoyed good physical health. When I visited my doctor two years ago to rule out prostate cancer, it was my first medical appointment in thirty years. I’ve explored my mental health in articles including This Boy Gets Sad Too, Return to Down, Nobody Is Immune from Stress, and Anxiety and Me.

These examples aside, just about everything I know about living with disability and mental or physical ill health has come second-hand from Fran and other friends. It’s legitimate to ask how much one person can learn from someone else’s experience of illness. High Tide Low Tide is our attempt at answering that question, alongside such blog posts as If You’ve Never Been Depressed or Manic, How Can You Know What It’s Like?


It seems that most people love to travel, or would if they could, but I lack that sense of adventure. I’ve never been outside the UK, and only left the mainland once, on a childhood trip to the Isle of Man. I nevertheless love keeping Fran company on her travels. As she put it once, “I’m a gypsy, Marty. No matter how hard the traveling is I still go, again and again. You are a comfort creature traveling vicariously.” We explore this further in our book:

It might seem ridiculous for me to claim that I travel with Fran, or that she accompanies me on holidays in the UK. Yet we stay closely in touch, and share our experiences as fully as possible. My horizons have certainly been broadened as Fran’s virtual travel companion on trips to The Bahamas, Panama, Spain, and on a three-month tour of central Europe. [...] I have witnessed both the negative and the positive impact of travel on Fran’s health and well-being, as she challenges herself to explore new environments, meet new people, and discover more about herself.

There have been more trips since then, including a month-long visit to Mexico in 2018, which I documented in five parts as Our Mexican Adventure. Time zones and unreliable internet access sometimes get in the way, but we keep as close to our usual regime as possible. It’s this commitment to connection that allows me to experience Fran’s adventures as deeply as I do. She’s not the only friend I have who loves to travel. A special shoutout to Laurel, Andi, Sophie, and Craig. I value the opportunity to share virtually in all your adventures, whether that’s though social media posts, photos, videos, or chat. Thank you!

Perils and Pitfalls

Living vicariously can be seen as self-delusion, the equivalent of living in a fantasy world. It’s true that experiencing something second-hand isn’t the same as experiencing it first-hand. I’ve never walked the streets of Ajijic in person, seen elephants or hyenas in the wild, or had my photo taken with Donald Duck in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve not experienced mania, the pain of fibromyalgia, psychosis, psychoactive medication, or therapy. I’ve never owned cats or a rabbit (shoutout to Aimee and Vikki!) I have, however, experienced these things second-hand, and that second-hand experience has its own validity. Sharing other people’s lives has helped me clarify what I want — and don’t want — in mine. The danger only arises if you imagine first and second-hand living are equivalent. They’re equally valid, but they are not the same.

Amongst the pitfalls is the possibility that people will perceive it — and you — as annoying, overly intense, or intrusive. Codependency is another danger, especially where one person in the relationship lives with illness or needs ongoing support and caregiving.

Living vicariously can provide a useful distraction when things are going poorly in your life. If you’re not careful, though, you may lose the incentive to do things for yourself. Why bother, when you can live through your friends’ lives and experiences? You might stop pushing your boundaries and inviting new things into your life, relying instead on other people to take risks on your behalf.

Vicarious living also carries the risk of envy and frustration, if the people you’re living through are in situations you want to be in, or are doing things you want to do. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can introduce you to options you might never have thought of otherwise. There’s a danger, however, of setting the bar unfeasibly high, or craving something that’s not relevant to your needs. I spent many years seeking the kind of relationship I’d experienced second-hand in my university days. The search was ultimately fruitless and, arguably, cost me the opportunity to develop connections more in tune with my true needs.

A final problem arises if the people you’ve been living through break contact or no longer wish to share their lives with you. Friends part and relationships change for many different reasons, but if you’ve been living vicariously through their experience it can be hard to adjust. I’ve faced this kind of shift at different times and in various ways. It begs the question, what is my first-hand experience of life?

What Life Am I Living for Myself?

This is an important question. At the present time, this comes down to my work life, my writing, and my friendships. As I described recently in One More Cup of Coffee, I’m much happier at work since moving to a new team. I have no people management responsibilities — a major anxiety trigger for me — and can focus on developing and using my coding skills. It feels very much “me” and I’m certainly experiencing it first-hand. Writing has always been an important part of my life. I have friends who understand (major shoutout to fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson at I’m NOT Disordered) but whether it’s my personal diary, letters to friends, short stories such as Home Eleven, or blogging, writing is my core first-hand experience. It’s the clearest example I have of what it means to be me.

It might seem odd to claim that friendship is part of my first-hand experience when I live so much through other people. There’s no contradiction, though, not least because vicarious living is part of my first-hand experience. More fundamentally, connection is one of my key life values. It’s how I engage most directly with the world. My close friends know me better than anyone else. Better, perhaps, than I know myself. Ironically, I learn more about myself by sharing, second-hand, in their experience of me. I’m not sure my father would approve, but it works. Neither he nor the 4th Earl of Chesterfield were available for comment.

Over to You

In this post I’ve shared my first-hand experience of living vicariously. What do you think? Do you live through the lives of your friends? If so, what are the benefits and disadvantages? Do others live vicariously through you? How do you feel about that? Fran and I would love to know what you think, so do share, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Mostafa Meraji at Unsplash.


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