Crazy-Making: The Three Stages of Gaslighting

by | Nov 4, 2014

A few weeks back we talked about gaslighting, the term for mental abuse that makes you doubt your own reality. The word “gaslighting” comes from an old movie in which a husband tries to prove his wife is crazy by actually making her so. He changes her environment—including turning down the gaslight—and then insists nothing has changed. He uses brainwashing techniques to undermine her self-confidence. After awhile, she begins to mistrust her own memory and judgment. She really does think she’s crazy.

If you have a spouse or parent or co-worker or someone in your life who is gaslighting you, you need help. People who perpetrate this insidious abuse can be so subtle and clever that you may not even know you’re a victim. Sometimes you get so beaten down that you submit to your abuser, who is then in complete control of you. Which is what he wants.

The Gaslighting Dance of Destruction

How does it happen that a perfectly intelligent, savvy, upbeat human being can be emotionally destroyed by another human being? Even the most mentally healthy person can be brought to submission by a gaslighter. It happens in three stages.

Stage 1 – Courtship

At first the gaslighter is all charm and charisma. He pretends to think you are wonderful and showers you with attention, and you believe him. He is fun, full of energy and ideas, and you want to drink the same Kool-Aid he does. You are so enamored that your partner or friend or co-worker can do no wrong. Your endorphins are working overtime. You are hooked on a relationship with someone who doesn’t actually love or necessarily like you. He has chosen you to be his partner in a dance of destruction.

Stage 2 – Fall from Grace

Once the gaslighter has you hooked, he can now play with you like a cat with a mouse in its grasp. Suddenly you can do nothing right. Everything you try is met with disdain. You don’t understand what’s happening because it isn’t rational. Still, you work harder and harder to please and appease your abuser. You are trying to get the relationship back to where it was. Your tormentor sometimes encourages you, sometimes criticizes you, sometimes unleashes terrible anger. You are walking on eggshells, trying to survive in this volatile environment. You are now in a dance with a partner who controls you, and you are at his mercy.

Stage 3 – Rejection

The more confused and weaker you become, the more powerful your abuser feels, and the more blatant his abuse becomes. Now you are in a dance of love-hate. The gaslighter despises you for your weakness, but he still feeds off your neediness. You are conditioned to feed his ego and you appear to be a willing partner in the dance. But in fact, you are more and more dependent on the gaslighter to define your existence. You are a shell of your former self, and your abuser views you with contempt. You are no longer a worthy victim, and you have out-danced your usefulness.

If this Dance of Destruction seems familiar to you, you have probably participated in it, maybe unbeknownst to you at the time. Gaslighting is destructive emotional abuse, and all the more acute because of its insidiousness. The first order of business is to realize you have been in this serious debilitating situation and that you must extricate yourself from it. Next week we’ll talk about how to cope as a victim of gaslighting.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here:



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