Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Living Vicariously

Recently, I was asked if I’d written about “living vicariously”. The question has prompted me to write about it. (Most of what I write is directly or indirectly in response to questions my patients/teachers present to me.)

Let’s begin with a definition of "vicarious" that I’ve appropriated from dictionary.com.

  • performed, exercised, received, or suffered in place of another: vicarious punishment.
  • taking the place of another person or thing; acting or serving as a substitute.
  • felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others: a vicarious thrill.
  • Physiology . noting or pertaining to a situation in which one organ performs part of the functions normally performed by another.

Often the way we use it in the vernacular is when we suggest that one person has consciously or unconsciously avoided the challenges of Life and hope to experience the good parts (Who would want to experience the painful parts?) through someone else. Perhaps some of the better known examples of vicarious living are (please forgive my sexism) the “stage mother” who always wanted to be a performer but for various reasons turned away from their dreams – now, they push their child with a peculiar relentlessness. Another familiar expression is the “sports dad”; when their son or daughter is still a toddler, they begin shaping them into an image that the father wants. More subtle expressions are found in the inverse. Parents who have lived an indentured life of their parents morality – and then they are shocked when their own children express the “hell-raiser” that the parent was afraid to express. Had the parent expressed it (not necessarily in outlandish fashion) the child wouldn’t need to so vehemently express the parent’s unlived life.

There’s something quite narcissistic about this dynamic. Instead of trying to be aware of what talents emerge organically, the parent imposes an image which is not natural for the child. Often as the child matures, the child sometimes doesn't express their own native identity but accepts the image the parent imposes. 

I’m reminded of chánzú – foot-binding of very young girls practiced in China for almost a thousand years. – because small feet were considered more desirable. It was a form of mutilation. Consider the word, “mutilation”. To me, it suggests the act of muting another’s expression. When we force our children into an environment that extrudes some reflection that we wanted to see when we looked into a mirror. When we indulge in this kind emotional mutilation we are violating the unique character of the child.

I am not suggesting that children should not be socialized to be responsible citizens; that is our responsibility as parents – but it is also our responsibility to nurture their unique character.

Most children (I’m thinking about my own son.) despite our best efforts, become their own persons.

I’m concerned for those young people who have demurred individuating because they fear disappointing their parents.

I’ve often said I used to be threatened by a person’s threat of physical suicide… today; I am more horrified by one who commits psychological suicide or psychological homicide. Abandoning your self is gruesome beyond words.

I believe that it is each person’s SACRED OBLIGATION to live their own life with all the integrity they can.

Again, from Dictionary.com


  • reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object:
  • regarded with reverence: the sacred memory of a dead hero.
  • secured against violation, infringement, etc., as by reverence or sense of right: sacred oaths; sacred rights

If we abdicate this central task, it becomes the seeds of all manner of problems. If we are parents, I believe we are obligated to create the environment wherein our children can express their unique character and gifts. That means we are not to enable them to remain perpetual adolescents. It means we prepare them for the realities of living in a difficult world. We do what we can to prepare them for the disappointments that are inevitable. We communicate (more so in our behavior but also with our words) that their supreme task is to express their Spirit (not yours), as fully as possible. We communicate that we (their parents) are not the most important ones to please – they must live, as much as possible, a life of integrity.

My teacher, Carl, used to refer to the “disease of abnormal integrity” a mode of functioning wherein one acts without regard to societal expectations, violating any or all cultural norms, having no apparent respect for the feelings of others. A more modern description might be "sociopathy". The opposite is someone who has no integrity; they are people-pleasers in extremis. Neither is the desired state. Finding a balance between them is the trick… and it is quite a trick. 

There is an inherent tension between the two impulses. Knowing (through trial and error), how to navigate between the dangers of these two positions largely is the functional definition of emotional/psychological maturity.

Let me return to “vicarious living”. Vicarious living is dishonest living. Whether we are trying to coercively scapegoat our children into living the life we didn’t have the guts to live ourselves – or whether we are psychological/emotional parasites, getting our thrills voyeristically from another’s life, it’s dishonest and reflects our own failure to mature while simultaneously planting seeds of problems in our children.

I am reminded of a fragment of a letter that Paul wrote to the Philippians, he says, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The Greek word for “salvation” is soterios – it means WHOLENESS, COMPLETENESS or HEALING. Note that Paul tells them to work out their own wholeness (not someone else’s) and that it’s a scary process – not for the faint-of heart.

Living a life of integrity – honesty – not shirking our obligations – not drafting our children into living a life from which we turned away, is our endeavor.

Is it easy? No, it’s the hardest thing I can imagine – something I strive to do – something I fail to do – but I keep trying. I hope you keep trying too.

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