Definition: Understood by all to be Lucifer incarnate, the malicious gossip is someone who spreads rumors, usually false (but sometimes true, excruciatingly personal, intimate secrets), for the sole purpose of really screwing up your life. These people are to blame when you find your name and phone number on the bathroom wall (or your photo and address on 4chan). Maybe they accuse you of cheating on a test, maybe they accuse you of cheating on your girlfriend— whatever the case may be, they’re out to destroy your reputation by making other people think you’re an awful human being.

Exaggerated archetype: The French journalists whose tactless and false quote, “Let them eat cake,” led to the beheading of Marie Antoinette.

If you’re the target: Welcome, you’re now stuck in a terrible situation with a person acting like a garbage nightmare, and it can feel hopeless and helpless trying to dig your way out of it.

I would never, ever ask you to excuse this sort of behavior outright—there’s no excuse FOR it, after all—but I will tell you that it will help your heart to humanize these people. Generally, people spread cruel rumors when they’re feeling awful about themselves. They’re engaging in this behavior in an attempt to take you down a peg or six because they feel like crap. Hurt people hurt people. Perhaps they’re in the throes of dealing with serious trauma, maybe they’ve been a bully their whole life because they were raised by abusive parents, whatever the cause, it’s likely that whoever’s coming at you like this is an emotional trash vortex on the inside.

The key to stopping this sort of gossip is absolutely cutting it off to the best of your ability. If the harassment is persistent, you should talk to a parent, teacher or community leader about putting an end to it. Don’t fear asking for an interlocutor: Just because there’s no physical violence involved doesn’t mean this isn’t malicious in its own right. A teacher or principal can intervene and bring disciplinary consequences to the person trying to mess up your life if the malicious behavior is happening at school. A supervisor or manager could do the same thing at work.

If this isn’t possible, as much as it sucks and hurts like hell, try to remember that gossip operates in cycles. No matter how miserable and horrible it feels right now, it will likely blow over as soon as another story comes up about somebody else. Remember, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you to mess up (and to thrive) in a myriad of curious and meaningful ways. You’ll be in living in another city or off at college years later and you’ll think back on this and shudder, wondering why you ever worried what those nimrods thought of you anyway.

If you’re the gossip: If you’re the kind of person who gets a kick out of being malicious and spreading gossip, whether it’s made-up dramatic rumors or the painful secrets of a very real person, know that it will all come back to you, probably tenfold. Karma’s a bitch. The people in your life who crowd around you waiting for the next amazing rumor or story will be crowding around somebody else listening to rumors about you someday, and that day will come sooner than you think, so hold on to your butt, dude. If I were you, I would do a serious cleansing ceremony and hand-deliver letters of apology to the people you’ve hurt.

Think about why you’re behaving this way. Is there something awful going on in your home life that’s causing you pain? Have you survived a violent trauma that’s lingering in your psyche? Are the everyday pressures of school and socializing overwhelming you to the point where you’re lashing out at your surroundings? It might feel impossible to defeat whatever’s causing you pain– if it’s an inescapable factor of your living situation, or you’re plagued with pain from a chronic illness. This might lead you to take on more accessible targets. But it doesn’t solve your problem– you’re still dealing with the original issue that’s hurting you, and now you’re a bully on top of it. In this way, when you engage in this sort of behavior, you’re hurting yourself as much as you are your victims. The key is to reevaluate your situation and start making changes to whatever’s causing you pain in the first place, not any innocent bystander within blast range.

Work on this behavior now and hope that it doesn’t follow you into adulthood: Once you’re established in social and professional settings as this type of person, it will be exponentially harder for you to get work. Nobody wants to hire (or live with, or start a band with, or date) mean, untrustworthy people. Repent, and learn the error of your ways before it all comes tumbling down on you.