What is it to feel really bad for someone else?

After I finished this piece, I became concerned that some readers would not be familiar with the sort of project this is.  I’d certainly assume they are, but I started to worry that a word of explanation would be needed.  The stuff below is, I think, a sort of classical conceptual analysis.  However, it isn’t about truth-conditions.  I don’t know how often this is done these days.  In my grad school days, it was a common indoor sport, but then that was the heyday of ordinary language philosophy.  Philosophy now a days is so technical!  But, since it is great fun, and also educational, I hope it still goes on.


I’m going to describe a case, but I’m hoping to disguise it enough so that it can’t be recognized.  So my question is really about how to describe a kind of reaction to a case sort of like the one I’ll described.  The case I’ll describe is the inability to get or sustain something my student and I had worked towards, but I think approximately the same sort of reaction could occur when one’s child falls ill (i.e., fails to stay well) or a friend’s relationship blow up in her face (i.e., she fails to sustain a loving relationship).  It’s important the failure is not something that the person could have avoided.  There weren’t alternatives for her.  And in the student case, it isn’t as though I resented the time I spent; it was what I was paid for, after all.

So imagine you are working on an important project with a student for a deadline.  A contest is involved, and the student, you hoped, would do very well in it.  And then you find out the morning the completed result is due in that the student simply could not finish it.  She did not really understand the last step at all, messed it up, and then took it down or out or deleted it.

I described the case to one person, who maybe is not particularly as interested in precision as philosophers are, and he said that that sort of thing was very annoying.  I thought that “annoyed” was not really right.  Perhaps we could flesh out each sort of case I mentioned so that “annoyed” is correct, but when, e.g., one’s child gets meningitis from an encounter at school, one probably shouldn’t feel annoyed with the child.  Of course, one might feel get anger at a school that didn’t take precautions when infection was known to be a possibility, but certainly not the child.  Similarly with the friend.  And, in the situation I am thinking about, not with the student.

So I became interested in finding the right word to express feeling bad when something happens but (a) the feeling bad arises from an empathy with their loss, and (b) the bad feeling really is for them.  It isn’t like a the abdominal pain anxiety can give one; abdominal pain doesn’t seem – to me, anyway – to be something one feels for someone.  And while “annoy” is probably “annoyed at” the bad feeling part of it is not an empathetic reaction on her behalf, I think.  So I started through a list of words that express feeling bad in a situation where there’s a failure and looking for something that carries this idea of empathetically feeling-bad-for-someone.

I opened Word’s Thesaurus and started to check through the words I could think of that one might use in a situation.  I’m wondering what you all (our readers) will think.  I got the uncomfortable feeling that the English vocabulary is not rich in expressions of empathetic feeling-bad-for.   Maybe I’m missing out here, but I did try googling “Parents of a very sick child feel” and seeing what competitions I got.  That was not useful.

Here’s the list:


  1.  Annoy: irritate, infuriate, exasperate, upset
  2.  Dismay: Disappointment, Shock, Alarm
  3.  Worry: Concern, Apprehension, Anxiety, Care
  4.  Distress: suffering, pain, sorrow, anguish
  5.  Concern: anxiety, worry, apprehension, fear
  6.  Alarmed: Worried, upset, distressed, shocked
  7.  Drained: weary, shattered, worn out

It may be that we simply understand a lot of these words as capable to pointing two ways.  For example, perhaps one can feel disappointment as just a let down in one’s own feelings or, alternatively, as being disappointed for someone.  In the latter case, perhaps the reaction would be more behavioral:  soothing words, trying to arrange something to make them feel better, and so on.  Similarly, one might feel just sad, as it were, or sad for someone else.

I’m not sure, but I think I am wondering whether there is a word in English that is entirely about an empathetic “feeling-bad-for.”  And if not, why not.