Shaun Murphy: A Comprehensive Psychological Profile

written by Daniela V.

This post aims to put together ideas and information that have already been shared on Reddit and elsewhere.

Shaun Murphy, such a complex and multi-layered character the writers and producers have come up with! I can remember very few characters in television history with the same level of depth in them.

And the reason of all that complexity is that there is so much more to Shaun’s personality and attitude than simply his ASD. This guy has had a very hard life, he suffered numerous traumas and went through hurtful experiences.

All of that definitely shaped the person he has become growing up.

I feel, like others, that those aspects are finally being explored in season 5 and I hope that, by the end of the season, we will be offered a satisfying resolution. So, let’s see more in detail some of Shaun’s psychological traits we have been given so far.

Shaun’s fear of abandonment/rejection

It has been right there from the very beginning. And Lea saw right through it quite early and easily in 1×12, when she said, “You’re never gonna be happy if you constantly live in fear.”

Exactly right, Lea. And even if Shaun’s life has become exponentially better than when he was a young boy, he still is not completely happy (recent events notwithstanding).

Here are some examples from seasons 1-5:

1×09 “Intangibles”

Shaun: “Are you giving up on me?”
Glassman: “No, I haven’t given up on you. I can’t always be there. I can’t always help you the way you need to be helped, the way you deserve to be helped.”

2×02 “Middle Ground”

Shaun (to Lea): “It hurt. You hurt me. You went away and it hurt and it kept hurting.”

3×11 “Fractured”

Shaun: “My dad didn’t want me, my mom chose him over me. Carly now hates me, Lea will get tired of me, you’ll get sick of me. I do everything wrong.”
Glassman: “I could not be more proud of you. You hear that? And I could never get sick of you.”

5×02 “Piece of Cake”

Glassman: “I need to be around different people.”
Shaun: “Different from me?”

5×06 “One Heart” (Flashback #2)

Shaun: “You said (*) you’d be always be there for me, to help me.”
Glassman: “I am. Go, if you need to go. I’ll still be right here.”

(*) Note that “You said” implied that Shaun was referring to something Glassman had already said even earlier on, probably when Shaun was still a teenager, since he was 20 in the flashback scenes.

5×07 “Expired”

Shaun: “You said you would never abandon me, but that’s a lie. A lie. That is a lie!”


Through all those instances, it is very easy to understand how such a big deal it is for Shaun the fear of being left behind. Of being abandoned by the people he loves. And you do not need to be a psychologist to get that his fear stems from his troubled past, from the fact that he was not wanted and loved by his own parents.

I wonder how many times Glassman has reassured Shaun throughout the fifteen years he had known him. Still, at the first sign of trouble, Shaun’s fears were back there in full force. Clearly, keeping being reassured was not enough for Shaun.

In the first few episodes of season 5, Glassman was going through his own issues, he did not want to willingly hurt Shaun. There were many moments when I wanted to slap him, in order to force some sense into him. And I could not believe that he was not able to recognize all the signs that were right there in front of him, every time he talked to Shaun. Still, it is undeniable that his behavior had almost nothing to do with Shaun (apart from the fact that Glassy was really convinced to not be needed anymore). But it is not what Shaun saw. What Shaun saw was that Glassman was abandoning him.

Let’s face it, it is right there. Shaun is not ashamed of his ASD per se, but simply refuses to acknowledge all the shortcomings that come with his neurological condition.

It is crystal clear. Everything bad that happened to him in life is more or less related to that. Being rejected by his parents, not having friends, being bullied, Steve’s death.

Is it possible that he feels somehow guilty for that? I really think it is.

He probably feels guilty for not being the perfect son his father wanted (remember the flashback in 3×10 “Friends and Family”?), for not being able to support his weak mother in handling her alcoholic and violent husband, for forcing Steve to take things into his own hands, in order to protect Shaun.

And this is also the main reason why Shaun always had a problem in accepting Glassy as a father, because if Shaun himself was the problem, then that relationship was doomed to fail all over again. And he could not endure that a second time.

Shaun struggled to be independent throughout season one, and ended up finding out that he still desperately needs Glassman, in season 5.

The clients review clearly showed all of Shaun’s limitations. Limitations he does not accept and tries hard to not see. Lea was right when she said that the algorithm was flawed because it did not show what Shaun is really good at. But Shaun did not acknowledge that, stating that the evaluation parameters should be the same for everyone.

So, was it really just the fact that Lea lied to him that bothered Shaun? It is surely an issue. Honesty is very important to people with ASD, because they cannot judge other people using different means, such as non-verbal communication.

But I do not think that it is the only problem at work here.

With her behavior, Lea was constantly reminding Shaun about his shortcomings. While Shaun, on the other hand, was trying really hard to highlight the fact that none of his struggles with Salen’s changes were related to his ASD.

He constantly said as much to Lea, to Salen, to his fellow residents.

Season 5 was hardly the first time when we were shown Shaun fighting against himself with this kind of issues.

Just think about his conversation with “Ghost Steve” in the brewery basement, during the earthquake.

“[Lea] thinks you’re limited. You are.” That phrase implied the fact that Lea could not love Shaun exactly because of his limitations. That was exactly the way Shaun himself saw the situation.

I could give many more examples, but I have been too verbose already.

Shaun refusing external help

How can Shaun overcome those problems, that clearly interfere with his ability to feel completely happy? And that maybe also interfere with his ability to better function professionally?

Well, obviously as a first step he needs to recognize that such problems exist and be available to work on himself.

That therapy that Glassy proposed back in season 1, does not seem such a terrible idea now, does it? But, nay, nay. Shaun did not want that, like he himself said to Glassman in 1×09 “Intangibles”: “I don’t want a stranger helping me.”

Well, at the moment I can only think of two possibilities: either therapy or a huge event that serves as an eye-opener for Shaun.

Freddie Highmore stated in an interview that Shaun will face his painful past again, in season 5. I can only assume that something will make him revisit his past experiences as a learning/healing opportunity.

The possibility of Marcie reappearing in Shaun’s life has been mentioned by many fans, but I do not know how much of a cathartic experience that could be for Shaun, if not as part of a wider quest.

What Shaun would basically need is to look into himself, being totally honest about what he sees, and then reset everything.

This is the only way possible, if he really wishes to begin a new life with the people he loves and wants there with him as his new family. It is also the only way possible if he wants to become the best person and the best doctor he can be.

In this respect, I believe that introducing Salen’s character was a very smart plot device. Removing Shaun’s safety net, at least, forced him to face the reality of his situation.

So, what do you think it is going to happen? Theories? Predictions? Let’s fill the hiatus with some interesting ideas!


For further reading…

Shaun’s Backstory

Some of Shaun’s past and backstory has been shared on the show and is canon, while other pieces of the puzzle, particularly surrounding his history with Dr. Glassman, remain somewhat obscure and are subject to much speculation among fans. Let’s take a look at what know and don’t know.


2 thoughts on “Shaun Murphy: A Comprehensive Psychological Profile

  1. Well done, everyone! I love TGD fans. TeeJay, that recap was EPIC. You’ve managed to outdo yourself.

    Andreas, I tend to give Shaun more of a break while acknowledging his shortcomings. I do take your point that he needs to consider his actions; he’s actually proved capable of doing that at times.

    Daniela, excellent psychological analysis. I’ve been thinking much the same things. To wit:

    We don’t know when Shaun got his initial diagnosis, or by whom.Or how he reacted. Schools often fail kids with autism and other special needs. His parents were clueless, but Steve seemed to know something; he recognized that Shaun was “the smart one” when others called him “Shaun the moron”.

    In any case, Glassman surely followed up with a psychologist and later an autism specialist. We don’t know the extent of the treatment he received; as everyone has said, he’s accepted his autism because he had to, but he’s also defensive about it, in denial about its effect on his reactions and those of others.

    I agree with Daniela about the abandonment theme. It started with his parents, Steve’s death, later fearing Glassman’s abandonment way back in Season 1 (“Are you giving uo in me?”)Then Lea moving to Hershey. It was irrational to be angry at her for that, but he felt she abandoned him.. He told her that she hurt him; to him, abandonment IS hurt.

    Fast forward to Season 5. Lea tells him that he hates change, and in general, that’s true. But not all change…with changes in a medical condition he adapts quickly and well, often coming up with innovative solutions. The problem with Ethicure’s changes is it affects his workplace routine. At first he’s calm, even accepting Salen’s “data driven” changes. Then came the itchy scrubs; he may actually be allergic, or at least sensitive, to man-made fibers. And of course the VERY LOUD, evil, hand dryer. Here comes the first meltdown.

    Then comes the billboard. Shaun hates it. Ir harks back to Influence, when Shaun told Glassman that he wanted to be known as a good doctor, not an autistic doctor. (I love the way the writers follow the crumbs.) The warning signs are there; it’s building. Shaun gets some mental reprieve when Salen agrees to make the changes he requested; enough so he resolves the billboard issue himself. Of course, that contributes to Glassman thinking/convincing himself that Shaun doesn’t need him,

    Then we have the perfect storm: Glassman’s withdrawal and eventual intention to move to Montans (abandonment), Lea’s confession (betrayal), and finally the loss of the baby girl because of the inexcusable expired medication. Ir all comes to a head and we have that final explosive, powerful scene in Expired.

    I can’t say anything about that scene that hasn’t already been said. Freddie, of course, richly deserves to be honored,; in fact that’s past due. But TeeJay is right; Richard and Paige brilliantly contributed to and fleshed out that scene.

    My god, how do we wait until April?

    • Thank you for your comment and for your kind words, Julianna!
      I agree with what you have said. Shaun probably did not receive a proper diagnosis before meeting Glassman. His father thought he could change Shaun’s behavior hitting him. So, it’s easy to imagine that he was not supported at all, apart from Steve, who was a child himself.
      This kind of trauma is very difficult to process. So, yes, sometimes Shaun is in the wrong, but we need to take into account where he comes from.
      The bad news kept piling up and he obviously exploded in the end.
      April is indeed very far!

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