A Psychiatrist’s Relationship with Beyoncé: 4 Lessons Learned from a Legend

A Psychiatrist’s Relationship with Beyoncé: 4 Lessons Learned from a Legend

I was not always a Beyoncé fan. It wasn’t so much dislike as it was ambivalence. Confusion about other people’s obsession with her. Sure, I had always respected her as an amazing singer, dancer, and performer. The BeyHive would admonish me for stopping at “amazing.” Fair enough. She is phenomenal. One of a kind. I never debated that. But I never understood all of the hype and, frankly, was very judgy: about how she dressed, styled her hair, moved across the stage, and moved through the world. Like she owned it. Something about it bothered me though I couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I remembered thinking to myself many times “This isn’t feminism!” At the same time, I would ask myself, “What am I missing here?” The question was rhetorical… until it wasn’t.

After a series of conversations with a dear friend and lover of Beyoncé, my thoughts began to shift. He knew of my conflicted feelings about the artist and recommended I listen to season 6 of a podcast called Dissect, which analyzed Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, lyric by lyric and image by image. When Lemonade was first released in 2016, I quickly wrote it off. I considered myself above the drama of celebrity infidelity scandals and secret, exclusive album releases on platforms I’d never heard of. I wasn’t going to fall for this publicity stunt. Wasn’t it really just another pop album by another pop star in skimpy clothes with risque moves? It couldn’t possibly have any real substance. I was skeptical of revisiting it, but I gave the podcast a listen, tried to keep an open mind, and… well… I stand corrected. My relationship with Beyoncé (of which she is wholly unaware) transformed, and the transition highlighted some valuable life lessons for me as a psychiatrist and as a human being.

Lesson #1: It is okay to change your mind, but I can’t promise it will be painless.

The first time I started Black is King, I couldn’t finish it. One of the first songs is “Find Your Way Back.” As I watched, I wondered to myself, “Why is this woman dressed for New York’s Fashion Week and dancing in the desert?” But I wasn’t asking that question in any real way because I wasn’t ready for a real answer. Opening myself up to the possibility that Beyoncé was more than meets the eye, more than just a sexy woman in a fancy dress, would mean breaking the small box I had been living in – a box that felt safe when I thought it was all that was possible but would leave me enraged if I ever acknowledged how confining it was. But as none of this was conscious yet, it was much simpler to just be…a hater.  

I was fortunate to grow up in a home filled with love, a home where being unique was celebrated. My mom always used to say that I “marched to the beat of my own drummer,” and I thought that made me pretty cool. I was an energetic, inquisitive kid with an active imagination, who wasn’t afraid to speak up or go against the grain. I was also Black, but skated over real awareness of that for many years. The people of varying racial and cultural backgrounds who loved me never made a big deal out of my Blackness because it wasn’t what defined me, at least not to them. So it was a rude awakening to be marching along through life and suddenly get the message, via micro and macro aggressions, that my curious mind, singular voice, and other unique qualities were unappreciated and unwelcome. It took me years to realize that being Black was not a small part of that. Gradually, I felt the freedom to be my true self become restricted.

I attended a fancy private middle and high school in the posh coastal town of La Jolla, and there weren’t a lot of people who were like me. My idea of “cool” quickly shifted to believing the most revered thing to be was wealthy with straight, blonde hair, blue-eyes, and, ironically, tanned skin, but by the sun, not by genetics. I also played competitive tennis in Southern California, and, no surprise, there weren’t a lot of people like me in that arena either. I doubted my right to even be in those spaces, so never in a million years would I have had the audacity to demand anything, to assert myself, to be seen – all things Beyoncé seems to have no trouble doing. It never even occurred to me that those were things I could do. Without knowing it, I had begun playing by rules I didn’t realize I’d been taught.

When I witnessed Serena Williams yelling at an umpire during the U.S. Open in 2018, I quickly condemned her behavior. That sort of display simply wasn’t befitting of a tennis player. Tennis has a certain etiquette. It is a respectable sport where people control their emotions and communicate calmly and politely. I saw other viral videos of intelligent, powerful Black women in “white spaces” speaking up for themselves and similarly found their behavior inappropriate or even shameful. What could they possibly hope to accomplish in that way?

Taking a second look, I see that  Beyoncé, Serena, and countless other Black women, myself included, have had too many good reasons to raise their voices, even to a yell, even in public. Assertiveness, aggression, and even rage are appropriate and necessary. These women had not been and would not otherwise be heard. The problem was not them being too loud or too angry, but others not listening and taking them seriously. Beyoncé hit that point home in Lemonade when she interpolated the words of Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Move past what appears, on first glance, to be anger alone, and you’ll see at the heart of the matter is pride, dignity, self-respect, justice, humanity. 

What would my life have been like if I had taken their approach? A part of me could not bear to consider… so it was easier to take a path of criticizing them than to grieve a life I had not, to that point, allowed myself to have. It was my own, first unacknowledged and then unmanaged, historical pain that made it impossible for me to understand Serena’s behavior. Just as I could not understand Beyoncé’s active decision to don regal, glittering gems in “Find Your Way Back.”  In focusing on her attire without attending to her thoughts and words, I was re-enacting my past trauma – doing to Beyoncé the very thing others had done to me by disregarding the depth of who I was because of my exterior. When I actually listened to the song’s lyrics, I heard Beyoncé singing about her childhood self – and her own children – finding their way through a cruel, uncaring world and back to their home, their family, their throne, their kingdom. So, in fact, the attire, which initially seemed irrelevant or even distracting, actually served to illustrate that very idea.

Having the courage – yes, it took courage – to see things from a different perspective, opened my eyes to personal challenges that previously felt too overwhelming to face. And my mind changed. In order to change my mind about Beyoncé, I had to be willing to suspend my usual way of seeing things and to look again with curiosity, at myself, at other people, and at the world we live in, beyond the world that has been constructed around us. 

Changing your mind, being open to having your mind changed, is what happens over the course of good therapy. This is what I aim to do every day in my sessions with patients. I open my own mind to understand things from my patient’s perspective and I also offer my mind and perspective to my patient. It sounds simple, perhaps, but it isn’t. What makes it so challenging is that often we don’t really want our minds changed. Humans can become quite comfortable and safe with what they know, even if what they know isn’t something they like. Trying and discovering something new requires risk and vulnerability. 

Lesson #2: Relationships are everything. Find and keep good people in your life. 

The benefit of therapy is that you don’t have to maneuver your way through these periods of mental growth on your own. As a therapist, I hope to walk the path alongside or even ahead of my patients – to say, “Yes, it is scary and we don’t know what’s ahead, but I’m here with you and we’ll get through it together.” 

I’m not going to give the hosts of Dissect or even Beyoncé herself all of the credit for my mental transformation. What really allowed me to open my mind and have it changed was my friend. I had no reason to trust Beyoncé, but a long history of reasons to place my faith in my friend. He offered both validation of my experience, just as it was, and challenged me to look at things from a different angle to see what I might find. 

Relationships with people you can trust and rely on are essential. When you have the choice, choose the people you surround yourself with wisely. It can be hard to know what to look for, especially if you’ve been burned before or had a string of relationships where you were mistreated or taken advantage of. When you stumble into uncertainty about who is a good friend or what is a good relationship, I refer you back to lesson #1: it’s okay to change your mind if the relationship doesn’t feel right and it’s good to seek out another perspective, to open yourself up to new and different relationships to figure out what works for you. 

Lesson #3: There is no one right way to do things, and this fact is a gift.

Beyoncé and I are in very different lines of work. Yet, in learning about her thought process in creating Lemonade and then watching Black is King through a similar lens, I suddenly felt like our missions were aligned. We want our children, all children – and, at this moment in time, especially Black children – to achieve their full potential, to be empowered, to be connected to their past and for it to inform (but not dictate) how they move forward into the future. Beyoncé said in a 2016 interview with Elle, “I hope I can create art that helps people heal. Art that makes people feel proud of their struggle. Everyone experiences pain, but sometimes you need to be uncomfortable to transform.” We both want to change the world, but we are approaching it in very different, very necessary, and necessarily different ways. 

Using art – music, dance, fashion, imagery – Beyoncé has captured a worldwide audience and is cultivating something in them, whether they realize it or not. She is masterful in her art, at the same time brazen and covert. When I was able to re-watch Lemonade’s “Sorry” and really take it in, what I saw was Beyoncé sitting comfortably, commandingly, in the Madewood Plantation, a place that holds a history of atrocities, singing the words “I ain’t sorry” and “I ain’t thinkin’ bout you” while raising her middle finger. This was no accident. She was sending a clear message, and by packaging that message in a mainstream music video, she was reaching more people than I ever could. 

I too am attempting to cultivate something in my patients, albeit a smaller audience. Sometimes I give it clear words and direction, turning despair into knowledge and opportunity for growth. Sometimes I sit with them, unspeaking, through an experience, heightening a dormant feeling, giving it the spotlight it needs. And there is an art to all of this. I am creative, receptive, flexible, sensing when to push and when to pull back. Giving them sometimes what they want and sometimes what they need. Giving it to them in a way that will have both intense power and still be tolerable, or at least tolerable enough that they will continue to engage in the work. Beyoncé does these things too. We are both keenly aware of what we say and how we say it, thoughtful about our choices. People use the word “influencer” so much these days that it loses meaning, but Beyoncé is influencing people. Not to see the world her way, but to see the truth. My mission is also to influence, to bring people – my individual patients, my colleagues, policy makers – closer to personal and global truths. I hope and believe that my work and Beyoncé’s are complementary.

Lesson #4: Self-esteem is a never-ending journey.

When Beyoncé sings “same skin that was broken be the same skin takin’ over” in Black is King’s “Brown Skin Girl,” it is evident to me this is a ballad of resilience and self-esteem: see yourself, know yourself, love yourself. This is a song that you must both listen to and watch to feel the full effect. Black is beautiful. Tall is beautiful. Curly (and sometimes frizzy) hair is beautiful. Smart is beautiful. Strong is beautiful. Bossy is beautiful. Outspoken is beautiful. Kind is beautiful. Getting old is beautiful. Imperfection is beautiful. These are things I alternately know and forget on a daily basis. I wish that, having entered my 40s, I could know without any doubt my own strength and beauty and power, but that’s not how it is. 

It is interesting to see myself through my patient’s eyes. They sometimes assume I’ve got life all figured out. I’ll admit, I’m not totally clueless (in large part thanks to being in years of therapy myself), but I’m not totally confident either. Psychologist Marco Sander said, “Anyone who says they don’t care about what other people think is a liar or a sociopath.” While I wish I could say that I 100% accept myself every day, I take comfort in knowing that struggling to do so is normal. 

Some days I feel tall and gorgeous, with my brown skin and my curls; other days I feel awkward and unattractive, still not blonde and still with teenage acne that I thought wasn’t supposed to happen to 40 year olds. I can’t know Beyoncé’s internal world (she is human, like the rest of us, so I imagine it is complex) but her presence as a strong, smart, powerful, beautiful, Black woman seeps into me in the best ways. I am grateful for that and hope to pay it forward in my own life and work. 

Witnessing Beyoncé’s freedom and command of her own life initially brought up my own experiences of hurt and rejection. It didn’t feel fair that she could get away with things I felt like I couldn’t. I spent much of my 20s trying to embody that same confidence Beyoncé possesses, but it wasn’t received in the same way for two reasons: (1) it was an imitation of confidence, without a foundation, without exploration and discovery and appreciation of what I held within me and (2) I was hyper focused on its reception by others. Ultimately, it wasn’t about other people (including Beyoncé), it was about me. It took painful, though ultimately rewarding, self-reflection, recognition of the failures and lies of the world we live in, and reparative relationships with people who really saw me to find my own center. My own truth. My esteem for myself.

“Ooh, melanin, melanin, my drip is skin deep, like

Ooh, motherland, motherland, motherland, motherland drip on me

Eeya, I can’t forget my history is her story, yeah…

Here I come on my throne, sittin’ high

Follow my parade, oh, my parade…”

— ”Black Parade” by the legend, Beyoncé