Introduction: This is not based on any one incident that happened to me. While I have discovered unflattering things written about me online in the past, I’m certainly not the only one, and I’ve read many more posts written about “anonymous” strangers, people that I have no idea who they are, but if they were to come across these posts, they would figure it out very quickly.

It starts with stage one: blissful ignorance.

One day, you are metaphorically strolling along the metaphorical sidewalk when you metaphorically bump into a link to a blog post written by a friend or acquaintance of yours.

Oh, look! you think. My friend wrote a blog post! S/he is such a talented and eloquent writer. I will now go read this blog post, because I will probably enjoy it.

You poor fool.

So you start reading the post, and you see that your friend is describing a situation that happened, or a friend of theirs that they have some sort of issue with.

You keep reading.

This friend that they’re describing seems like kind of a jerk, and also strangely familiar, but not quite.

Now you’ve arrived at stage two, which is recognition.

There’s no name given, but as you read on and on, there is no question. This is a blog post about you. The story is different from the way you remember it; you don’t think you were quite that rude, and you had a lot on your mind that day, plus you’d only had three hours of sleep the night before, and also your shoes didn’t fit right and your feet were starting to blister, and in any case, they didn’t seem upset, and they didn’t say anything to you about it during or afterwards.

You keep reading, faster now, hoping for some sort of exoneration, but from your friend’s point of view–and now your point of view, as the reader of the post–you are a villain, you are a moron, you are a selfish clod. Maybe your behavior is exaggerated slightly to make for a better story. Or maybe you’re just trying to make excuses for your own heinous behavior.

And that’s when the shame kicks in.

You are a bad person. No, your friend is the bad person. If they had a problem with you, they should have taken it up with you privately. No, if you had behaved better, they wouldn’t have felt the need to vent to the public. No, they’re wrong. You’re wrong. People don’t like you. You will never fit in. You will never be normal.

Enter stage three: the comments section.

Have you ever heard the joke that YouTube’s slogan should be “Don’t read the comments?” Well, when someone writes a hurtful blog post about you, do not read the comments. For that matter, when someone writes a neutral blog post about you, do not read the comments. One time, my sister wrote a completely innocuous post where she related something I’d mentioned to her about my own parenting experience, and she asked whether it was universal. Half of the responses were, “Your sister is an idiot who doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Thanks, Internet people! That made me feel really good about my day. Also, you really do my sister a favor when you misinterpret her character as one who needs to denigrate others in order to feel better about herself.

(Yes, I got her permission before posting this story.)

Anyway, when the intent of the post is to criticize you, then the comments are about a thousand times harsher. They tell your friend to drop you, that you’re toxic, that they can’t believe your audacity, that if anyone ever did to them what you did to your friend they would file charges, slap them, run them out of town. Sometimes, the commenters are even people who know you in real life and (best-case scenario) don’t know that you are the person they’re writing so strongly against.

Oh God, this is just like high school. You thought that people had grown out of this, or you thought at least that you’d learned how to fit in enough so that they wouldn’t still be badmouthing you behind your back, but no, apparently you’re still the loser and they’re still laughing at you.

Now that you’ve finished reading and your sense of self-worth is completely blown to pieces…. Well, stage four is different depending on the person and depending on the relationship between the blogger and the bloggee.

It could be that you as the bloggee will pretend you never saw the post, in order to avoid awkwardness, but you’ll think about it every time you see the blogger, and you’ll obsessively check your teeth for spinach and your shoe bottoms for toilet paper and you’ll fret the entire time during every interaction over whether they’re collecting material for their next post at your expense.

Or it could be that you’ll write an angry comment on the blog post defending yourself and calling out all those jerks who dared to judge a stranger based on only one side of the story and how dare they and please don’t do that. The jerks will not be sorry. They will gang up on you and call you names and you’ll never be able to live it down. Just don’t do it.

Or, it could be that you’ll take a deep breath and find a time and a calm way to talk to your friend about it, and they’ll apologize and you’ll apologize and it’ll all be very touching and Hallmark and a learning moment.

Or, it could be that you’ll reform your evil ways and also not be hurt by the fact that someone you thought was your friend thought that it was better to write about how awful you are to thousands of people (or, you know, potentially millions) than to actually be honest with you.

(Just kidding.)