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Analyzing Ethical Dilemmas through the Lens of the Television Show Gypsy

According to Haeny (2014), psychologists face a plethora of ethical dilemmas when attempting to find a balance between their personal lives and professional lives. In particular, this multitude of challenges present cognitive dissonance in many instances where the line of what is ethically and morally correct is not clear. Specifically, Haeny (2014) proposed that these particular inner conflicts derive from trying to:

Satisfy the need to maintain a life outside of work while having the professional obligation to follow the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct to prevent their personal lives from interfering with their professional roles and relationships. (p. 265)

Although some guidelines from the professional ethics code can be discretionary or situational it does not justify unethical behaviors from a professional psychologist.

In the television series titled Gypsy, Jean Holloway is a licensed clinical psychologist, who at first seems to genuinely want to aid her clients, but as her professional practice and personal life develop, Jean begins to unravel aspects of herself that are ethically interfering with best practices for her clients, as well as the individuals in her life.

According to the code of ethics (APA, 2002b), there are five general principles that a professional psychologist should abide by: beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity. Throughout the show Gypsy, clinical psychologist Jean Holloway faces several ethical dilemmas that intertwine with the aforementioned principles, and challenge the ethical guidelines provided by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Inappropriate Relationships

A central ethical boundary issue ensues when Jean maintains several inappropriate relationships with individuals who are in her clients’ lives.

According to the APA code of ethics (2002b), standard 3.05 states that a multiple relationship occurs when “a psychologist is in a professional role with a person and at the same time is in a relationship with a person closely associated with or related to the person with whom the psychologist has the professional relationship” (p. 6).

In Jean’s case, she pursues the ex-girlfriend, Sidney, of one of her clients, Sam, and becomes quickly immersed in her world. Jean eventually begins to have an intimate and sexual relationship with Sidney, despite her having a seemingly successful marriage to a lawyer. According to standard 10.06, “psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with individuals they know to be close relatives, guardians, or significant others of current clients/patients” (APA, 2002b, p. 15). In particular, this multiple relationship that Jean pursues with Sidney is harmful to both Sidney, and to Sam, who are being deceived. The APA code of ethics (2002b) strictly states that:

A psychologist refrains from entering into a multiple relationship if the multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists. (p. 6)

In this context, during therapy sessions with her client Sam, Jean would at times mistakenly state information that she should not have known, damaging her competency and/or effectiveness. Jean also recommends Sam to attempt dating other women in an effort to forget about Sidney, which works in her favor. Sam began dating his other ex-girlfriend that he had before dating Sidney, and decided to marry her, although he seemingly did not appear to be content with his decision.

Furthermore, Sidney once took Jean to Sam’s apartment in order to pick up her dog, and had several instances where she could have gotten caught. When Sam expresses that he no longer needs to come to therapy, Jean convinces Sam otherwise, which is a violation of standard 10.10 that states, “Psychologists terminate therapy when it becomes reasonably clear that the client no longer needs the service, is not likely to benefit, or is being harmed by continued service” (APA, 2002b, p. 15). Throughout the series, there is mention of a past client that Jean had obtained a restraining order against, Melissa Saugraves. Although not enough information is provided, one can assume that Melissa was also in some way manipulated or hurt by Jean, as at the end of the series, Jean is seen meeting with Melissa and Jean shows Melissa that she still has the client’s bracelet. The deception and manipulation that Jean utilizes with her clients and those in her clients’ lives is deemed unethical and harmful according to the code of ethics (2002b).

Additionally, Jean makes appointments for weekly blowouts at the hair salon where the daughter, Rebecca, of one of her clients, Claire, attends. While at her hair appointments, Jean inquires about Rebecca’s life and her relationship with her mother. Eventually, Rebecca invites Jean to a dinner with her friends at her apartment. While at the dinner, Jean’s true identity is almost revealed when a game of reading the last text on everyone’s phone is practiced. In addition, Jean attends a yoga session with Claire, which in reality is for her own benefit as well.

In addition, Jean takes on a nurturing, motherly role with Allison, another one of her clients, who has a substance abuse disorder. Although it is with the correct intent, Jean breaks her boundaries with Allison when she attends Narcotics Anonymous with her, and when asked what relationship she is to Allison, Allison answers that Jean is her mother. When Allison does not come in for scheduled therapy sessions, Jean follows the address provided in the intake and visits Allison, yet finds that her boyfriend Tom is with her. Tom later visits Jean in her office, risking exposing Jean’s unethical behavior outside of the office, and placing a drug in Jean’s yogurt. Jean also provides Allison with her previous apartment to stay in, since Allison has nowhere to stay. Jean’s previous actions with Allison placed herself and Allison in danger, as towards the last episodes, Allison goes missing and it is discovered that Tom has kidnapped Allison.

Work Should be Based on Professional Knowledge of Psychology

Incongruent with standard 3.04 of the code of ethics, Jean has placed herself and her clients in harm’s way. Throughout her therapy sessions with clients, Jean violates standard 2.04 which states that a psychologist’s work should be based on professional knowledge of psychology (APA, 2002b).

As time progresses, Jean does not utilize her clinical knowledge or skills to aid her clients. Rather, she uses a manipulation tactic and involves information that she should not be aware of in her sessions. Furthermore, as a human being, Jean encounters her struggles in her personal life, examining her past life, and at home as well, which can be an influencing factor in her behavior.

However, according to standard 2.06, when a psychologist understands that his/her personal conflicts may intervene in his/her daily work duties, he/she should consult professionally, ask for assistance, and dictate whether or not he/she should temporarily suspend work duties, or take time off from providing therapeutic services (APA, 2002b). In Jean’s case, she was having marital issues, conflicts with her estranged mother, and having a difficult time accepting her daughter’s possible transgender transition. However, Jean did not consult or take the time to process her sudden life changes.

Personal Problems and Conflicts

Aside from ethical and professional boundaries, Jean has violated everyday boundaries. For instance, throughout her current existence, she seems to have an alter ego named Diane Hart who she claims to be when meddling with her clients’ loved ones. Additionally, Jean lies to her colleague and friend about what is occurring in her life. For instance, she explains that she missed her event because she has been having marital issues with her husband, Michael. In reality, Jean chose to spend time with Sidney instead. Jean lies to her husband Michael, and has an affair with Sidney. Finally, Jean steals pills from another mother who has a child that attends the same school that her daughter, Dolly, attends. Along these same lines, Jean steals prescription slips that are signed by a medical doctor, in order for her to write her own prescriptions. Not only can this be morally incorrect, but it can also be dangerous, since the medication was not prescribed for her. As a psychologist, one would refrain from lying and deceiving individuals in one’s life, as it can hurt them over time. Also, one would not steal medications and consume them without a proper prescription, and would consider the dangerous implications before committing the act.

Resolving These Ethical DiIemmas

As a clinical psychologist, one would begin to resolve the issue of multiple relationships by first performing an informal resolution. Before approaching the individual, one would ensure that in doing so,  it would not violate any rights to confidentiality, which is stated in standard 1.04 (APA, 2002b).

One would speak to Jean, or any colleague who is behaving unethically, and state that what he/she is doing is unethical, and if continued, will be reported. If the individual does not seem to cease his/her behavior, and if reporting the behavior does not jeopardize a client’s confidentiality, one should report the behavior to “state or national committees on professional ethics, state licensing boards, or to the appropriate institutional authorities” (APA, 2002b, p. 4). The aforementioned ethical dilemmas could have been avoided if Jean would have refrained from pursuing her clients’ loved ones and if she would have complied with her ethical duties and boundaries.

Resolving Issues of Misrepresentation of Work

Additionally, standard 8.11 addressing plagiarism states that psychologists should not use another individuals’ work as their own, unless cited appropriately (APA, 2002b). Although not published, Jean plagiarizes her husband’s secretaries’ story and claims it as her own when she sends it to Sidney. Discrepant with standard 3.09, Jean lies to her colleagues and states that Allison has been making progress and has been attending sessions, which does not serve her client effectively (APA, 2002b).

Furthermore, Jean alters her clinical notes regarding Allison when a colleague of hers asks to see her notes. Jean alters the notes to make it appear that she has had more progress with her than is true, as well as fabricates the appointments that Allison has made. When Allison goes missing, a detective meets with Jean in order to ask questions about her whereabouts. Jean proceeds to burn, in her backyard barbecue, the true notes regarding Allison.

In this instance, Jean has displayed incongruence with following the ethical standard 1.01 which states that, “If psychologists learn of misuse or misrepresentation of their work, they take reasonable steps to correct or minimize the misuse or misrepresentation” (APA, 2002b, p. 4). Jean not only elicited the misrepresentation of her own work, but also did not take the reasonable steps to correct her errors. In addition, when Jean is in jeopardy of having Claire and Rebecca in therapy together, Jean visits Rebecca, convinces her not to go to therapy, steals a letter that Rebecca has written to her mother, and copies Rebecca’s handwriting to send Claire a more positive letter. These actions are also incongruent with principle C of integrity in the code of ethics, where honesty, accuracy, and truthfulness are emphasized (APA, 2002b).

As aforementioned, if the psychologist does not take the reasonable steps to resolve the misuse of her work or the misuse of others’ work, one can resolve the situation by utilizing an informal resolution. One would speak to the colleague and ensure that he/she understands the harmful implications that relate to his/her actions. If the colleague is genuinely unaware of his/her actions, one could provide him/her with the code of ethics or with several ethical decision-making models. If the colleague continues to act in an unethical manner, one should report his/her behavior to the aforementioned. The violation of this ethical standard could have been avoided if Jean would have been honest with herself, and would have been honest with both her colleagues and what she wrote in her notes.


It is clear that the APA code of ethics (2002b) serves as a set of professional and ethical guidelines in which every practicing psychologist, researcher, and student should abide by. Psychologists should aspire to follow all general principles and should enforce the ethical standards provided within the ethics code. Furthermore, psychologists should strive to aid professionals around them, guiding them and consulting with them, in order to ensure that every client receives the therapy that he/she needs in a professional manner.

Cite This Article

Prieto, H. (2018,  March). Analyzing ethical dilemmas through the lens of the television show Gypsy. [Web article]. Retrieved from http://www.societyforpsychotherapy.org/analyzing-ethical-dilemmas-through-the-lens-of-the-television-show-gypsy


American Psychological Association. (2002b). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.

Haeny, A. M. (2014). Ethical considerations for psychologists taking a public stance on controversial issues: The balance between personal and professional life. Journal of Ethics and Behavior, 24(4), 265-278.

Rubin, L. (Producer). (2017). Gypsy [Television series]. New York City, NY: Netflix


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