As if life weren’t hard enough sometimes, we all have to navigate the challenge of reconciling our own preferences for living with the influences and expectations of those around us. We have a powerful desire to be free and unencumbered but also a deep-seated desire to be connected and appreciated.
When these desires conflict, we can end up living someone else’s life—chasing the goals and dreams of others instead of our own.
Many people are deeply influenced by the expectations of their parents—or of teachers, coaches, mentors, or peers:
Be a lawyer.
Run the family business.
Choose the career that pays the most.
Climb the ladder.
(Regardless of who we are and what we want.)
There’s nothing wrong with any of those things IF it’s a good fit for us. That’s the catch. What if they’re not a good fit?
Too often, we don’t run the numbers. Will it be worth it to go along with what someone else wants for our life when we’re the one who has to put in the 90,000 hours or so of lifetime work in that field?
There are many factors we can consider in our work choices: role, title, salary, bonus, team, location, commute, culture, reputation, values fit, growth and promotion opportunities, and more. Early in life, we tend to overweight the extrinsic factors of approval and status and underweight the intrinsic ones. Meanwhile, the intrinsic factors tend to grow in importance over time for most people. If we’re not careful, this complex set of factors can make us feel trapped in a life not of our liking.
Signs of Living Someone Else’s Life
How to know if we’re living someone else’s life? It’s hard because, if we’re doing it, we’ve probably gotten good at lying to ourselves. And that’s one of the hardest habits to break.
But the signs are revealing. If we’re living someone else’s life, we may be:
- Living the success script of others.
- Marrying someone to please or accommodate our parents.
- Lacking enthusiasm and motivation for our current path.
- Feeling like our life is passing us by.
- Envying people who have summoned the courage and conviction to travel their own authentic path in life (what we call “life entrepreneurs”).
- Judging others harshly about their situation or choices when deep down we know we’re numbing our own pain and regret.
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
Where It Comes From
While some people have no problem with the pressure of living someone else’s life because they naturally revel in their individuality, others struggle mightily with it because of the way they’re wired or the way they were raised. Or both.
Feeling obliged to chase the goals and dreams of others can come from many sources. Here are some of the most common and powerful ones:
Parents and childhood programming. There’s no question that some parents lead us into this trap, albeit with good intentions (or at least ignorance of the pain and suffering they may be causing). Some parents deal with their own disappointment and regret by trying to live vicariously through their children. They view their children’s behavior and choices as a reflection of their own success, worth, and parenting. Some are competitive about their parenting and focus on outdoing their friends and neighbors. Others use their children’s accomplishments as validation of their own success. Usually, there’s a mixed bag of motivations, ranging from genuine desire for their kids’ happiness to willful ignoring of toxic pressure and manipulation. Too often, parents forget (or don’t fully realize or won’t admit) that their children are different from them.
“Some parents see their children as extensions of themselves,
rather than as separate people with their own hopes and dreams.”
-Dr. Brad Bushman, professor, Ohio State University
Insecurity. Maybe we’re not confident about our own ability to choose a good career, or to take a harder path and pull it off. Maybe we feel unworthy. Or maybe we feel lacking in comparison to others—or compared to where we’d like to be or where we think others expect us to be.
People-pleasing. Maybe we’re accustomed to putting others’ needs ahead of our own. This “disease to please” is common, and it can induce us to live for others to avoid risking the disapproval of others or the discomfort of fighting for what we want. We may have a strong sense that our parents will be disappointed if we don’t do what they want us to do. (Note that our parents may have felt similar pressures from their parents, and so on.) This is a sticky wicket because we love our parents and don’t want to disappoint them, but we also want to make our own choices and be happy.
Panic choices. Due to all the pressure we face, it’s easy to panic and choose quickly or even flippantly. Sometimes we default to the path of least resistance while downplaying our deepest desires.
The lack of a compelling alternative. Think of the college student who has always earned good grades. She gets lots of praise and encouragement about climbing the corporate ladder and becoming an executive, with its great compensation and prestige. She wonders if it’s a good fit for her, and yet she’s not sure how else she can make a living. She’s not yet clear on who she is, what she loves to do, and what she wants. When we place that uncertainty up against the clear and direct expectations of loved ones, which side is likely to concede defeat?
Why It’s Hard to Avoid This Trap
Most of us grew up seeking the approval of our parents and striving to demonstrate our worth. And we were rewarded when we met their expectations. That can set up some longstanding habits that are hard to break.
Feeling like we’re disappointing people we care about or love can be one of the most difficult feelings we have. It takes courage to resist pressure from those we love and to be who we are. Meanwhile, the fear and doubt that come with breaking free are daunting.
Meanwhile, we see carefully curated versions of our friends’ lives on their social media feeds, not to mention countless ads, all with subtle and not-so-subtle hints about how we should live.
“Discovering vocation doesn’t mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond your reach,
but rather accepting the treasure that you have been given. But make no mistake about it,
well-meaning people around you—friends, family, work associates, and others—will push you to run someone else’s race.”
-Dr. Nicholas Pearce, professor, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management
Since the switching costs of changing our career or degree can be high, it can make us reluctant to abandon our current path even when it’s sub-optimal. So, we grind it out.
Quality of Life Assessment
Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.
The Problem with Living Someone Else’s Life
Decisions about work and marriage are among the most consequential in our lifetime, so the dangers of outsourcing these decisions to others are grave. We can lose big parts of ourselves when we go along with what others want for us, the ones that are precious and fragile. It can be our creative side, our idealistic side, the part of us that comes through in our passions, values, and convictions.
Sometimes when we’re chasing others’ goals and dreams, we’re basing our decisions not on actual pressure to do something but on our assumptions about what people want for us. And it’s possible that we’ve been misreading the situation, sometimes badly, yet never summoned the courage to have the conversation directly.
When we get older, we’re often surprised to discover how little it matters what other people thought way back when. Influences that can seem huge or even overwhelming at one point later turn out to be blips in the larger scheme of things.
Sometimes the expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us. In many cases, parents or others are projecting their own values and preferences onto us and not seeing the full picture of how different we are and how distinct our context is.
The biggest problem of chasing others’ goals and dreams is that we’re very likely to regret it. After years of work as a palliative nurse caring for people in the final weeks and days of their lives, Bronnie Ware identified the “top regrets of the dying.” The biggest regret she discovered was this:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
What to Do About It
If we’ve fallen into the trap of living someone else’s life or at risk of it, what can we do? Fortunately, there are many things we can do to address it:
Consider the bigger picture of our lives and the limited time we have to live them. Bear in mind that we may value our parents’ (or peers’) opinions now more than we will later in life—and that we’ll likely be more satisfied with our choices if we follow our own guiding lights instead of those of others. As we remember that we all die, we can imagine our final days of life and how we’ll feel about chasing others’ goals and dreams instead of our own.
Question any beliefs about what we should do with our lives because of what others think. We may have been flying on autopilot with those beliefs for a long time. What would happen if we took the controls back? Where would we fly?
Notice when we’re deferring to others and their views about what to do. Catch ourselves in the act of following instead of leading our lives. Reflect on why we’re doing it and whether those reasons will stand up to scrutiny in our distant future—or even now.
Know ourselves. Sometimes the problem is that we don’t know well enough who we are and what we want. These aren’t always easy to discern, especially when someone has been pushing an identity onto us. We can begin by working to clarify the following:
- our purpose (why we’re here)
- our core values (what we consider most important)
- our strengths (the things in which we most excel)
- our passions (what we get lost in)
- our vision of the good life (what our life would be like if we were at our best and realizing our dreams)
- our goals
Personal Values Exercise
Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.
It’s important to write these down. The act of writing them down not only helps with clarity but can also provide a form of accountability if we have the foresight to revisit it periodically (and to share it with trusted friends and colleagues). (Consider also taking a Traps Test and Quality of Life Assessment.)
Spend time alone and cultivate an inner life in which we tap into our deeper wisdom. Spending time alone and reflecting on the arc of our lives opens space for self-discovery and pattern-mapping, as well as distance from others.
Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our inner critic. Replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk, focusing on our capabilities and accomplishments.
Embrace our uniqueness as part of our identity. Revel in our idiosyncrasies. Be bolder in expressing our true nature and feel the joy and relief of returning home to ourselves.
Learn about and experiment with different career paths and figure out what suits us well. Too often, we get caught up in “climbing mode”—striving to move up the ladder of success, focusing on achievement and advancement—when what we really need is to go deep into “discover mode”—learning about who we are and what we can do in the world (e.g., our values, strengths, passions, aspirations). (See my TEDx talk for more on this.) Start with small steps and be open and curious. There are many ways to run such low-cost probes, including internships, job rotations or shadowing, consulting projects, crowdfunding campaigns, board service, life design interviews, volunteering, and more.
Build up our courage—the courage we’ll need to resist the expectations and pressures from others. Recall that our fears (of disappointing people or of failing at our chosen endeavors) are probably overblown and that many of the best things in life are on the other side of those fears. (See my article, “Getting Good at Overcoming Fear.”) When we make big choices like marriage and career choices, ask ourselves who it’s for and whether we’re being unduly influenced by others.
Spend less time with people who are trying to control or direct us according to their whims and preferences. Terminate the toxic in our life and reduce exposure to unhelpful influences, at least for a period of time that allows us to change our trajectory. In the larger scheme of things, the costs associated with that are well worth it. As we do this, it will be easier to separate our decision about what we’ll do with our lives from our relationship with important people in our lives. Those are two different things, and that decision is ours and ours alone. Realize that it’s impossible to please everyone—and that pleasing others isn’t the point. Far from it.
“It is crucial to understand that loving people and following their scripts prepared for you are not the same thing….
If you make yourself unhappy because you are not living your life,
that has nothing to do with expressing love.
If someone requires this from you—unfortunately, this person does not care about you.”
-Alexandra Ruzycka, filmmaker and writer
Don’t play the victim and blame others. Would we rather be happy with our own life or have someone to blame for making us feel miserable? The choice is ours. And it’s our life, not theirs.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s selfish to do what we want with our life. It’s our life, and we must accept full responsibility for it. Doing so isn’t selfish. Far from it. It’s simply accepting the mantle of adulthood and its accompanying responsibility—a natural progression.
Find someone who’s done a good job of living their own life despite pressures to do otherwise and ask them to share how they went about it. Sometimes it’s helpful to learn from others who have been on a similar journey with comparable influences and pressures.
In the end, the reckoning we’ll face for our choices will be ours to bear on our own. Our parents and peers have their own choices to make. We’re more likely to find happiness when we blaze our own path in life by our own guiding lights. And we’re more likely to feel good about betting on ourselves. Our life is ours. Our time is now. What are we doing with it?
- Are you living someone else’s life—chasing the goals and dreams of others?
- How is it affecting your happiness and quality of life?
- What will you do about it, starting now?
- “The Trap of Caring Too Much About What Other People Think”
- “The Conformity Trap”
- “The Comparison Trap”
- “The Trap of Losing Yourself”
- “People-Pleasing: Why We Do It and How to Stop It”
- “Are You Pretending to Be Something You’re Not?”
- “Feeling Behind?”
- “The Perils of Climbing Mode in Our Career”
- “Golden Handcuffs: Stuck in a Job You Don’t Like?”
- “Is Your Identity Wrapped Up Too Much in Your Work?”
- Eddie Brummelman et al. “My Child Redeems My Broken Dreams: On Parents Transferring Their Unfulfilled Ambitions onto Their Child,” PLOS ONE, June 19, 2013.
Tools for You
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life
- Quality of Life Assessment to help you discover your strongest areas and the areas that need work and then act accordingly
- Personal Values Exercise to help you clarify what’s most important to you
Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding Living Someone Else’s Life
- “…surely we can do better than having to look back on our lives and regret that we lived by someone else’s priorities.” -Greg McKeown, writer
- “It’s better to fail trying to do what you really care about than to succeed at something else.” -Mark Albion
- “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” -Steve Jobs
- “…to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life—the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.” -Hunter S. Thompson, writer
- “But there is something that’s a great deal more important than parental approval: learning to do without it. That’s what it means to become an adult…. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep
- “Our deepest calling is to grow into our authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be.” -Parker Palmer
- “One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.” -Shannon L. Alder
- “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” -Janet Wojcicki, professor, University of California at San Francisco
- “The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer
- “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” -Greg McKeown
- “You can never find happiness living someone else’s life.” -Marshall Goldsmith
- “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” -Warren Bennis
- “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” -Warren Brown, entrepreneur
- “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” -Joseph Campbell
- “…too many of us cling fiercely to imaginary limits we have set for ourselves or accepted from others….” -Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek in LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives
- “…there is an anointing on your life not to be someone else. You are anointed to be you.” -Joel Osteen, preacher
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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!