The Oral Structure
by Kat Langer & Prema McKeever
During the first couple of years of a child’s life, they are completely dependent on their primary caregiver (usually the mother) to fulfill their basic needs for food, comfort and affection. Ideally in this phase the child learns to trust that their basic needs will be fully met when expressed, leaving them feeling relaxed, happy and satisfied. Different circumstances may lead to the caregiver being unable to adequately fulfill these needs during this stage, such as the mother being ill, exhausted or otherwise unavailable for the child. This in turn leaves the child feeling anxious and their nervous system unable to relax back into a state of calm. Over time, the message the child picks up is that it is not safe to ask, or that asking may in fact lead to them feeling worse, and with that the child gradually loses trust that their mother (or indeed anyone) can meet their needs. The difficulty arises if later in life a person becomes stuck in this sense of deprivation and continues to rely on others to fill them up, leading to a pattern which Wilhelm Reich refers to as the “Oral Structure”, also known as the “Needy Child”.
An important part of a child’s development is the internal connection to their own body signals and messages. This includes recognizing core needs like food, sleep, attention, touch and time alone. The child doesn’t feel these as separate needs but rather as a discomfort in their body. Infants learn through attuned attention to actually identify what their needs are and start to develop the felt sense of satiation. For the Oral character structure, this attuned attention to needs didn’t happen enough. If needs are not met the discomfort in their body continues and grows to pain, and the natural response to this chronic situation is to lose contact with the body. As an adult this leads to an inability to identify needs and a disconnect from the felt sense of satiation, the ability to relax, and to receive.
Their early experience of Not-Getting-Enough weaves itself as a theme through their adult relationships, in which this person stays focused on the other in an attempt to seek fulfilment from the outside, rather than through their own internal resources. Feelings of emptiness and longing at the core of their body are avoided through an external focus on connection with others, leaving them disconnected from their own feelings and needs. This person will often appear needless and express themselves through selfless action as they become very attuned to others’ feeling states and skillful at pleasing others and fulfilling their needs. This type is generally very heart-centered and generous, sensitive and compassionate. They are good listeners, helpful and supportive and will often take on caring roles in their professional and private lives. When in the gifts of this pattern, this person will experience an abundance of love, joy and happiness in their lives, as well as an ability to genuinely comfort and uplift others.
The oral character structure can therefore take on two very different patterns – that of an outwardly needy person who sucks on others’ energy, or a pattern whereby the person compensates their neediness by becoming needless and focusing on the needs of others. The latter expression is commonly referred to as the “compensated oral structure” and this person may in fact appear extremely self-sufficient with an underlying belief that they do not need anyone or anything, relying completely on themselves. This is similar to and may play out through strategies displayed by later developmental structures, such as the need to control and manipulate others (Psychopathic Structure), carrying the burden of taking care of others resentfully (Masochistic Structure), or the need to be perfect and highly successful (Rigid Structure). Regardless of their expression, the oral type is ruled by an underlying fear of abandonment, isolation and a strong resentment at not being held and nourished. Consequently, they have difficulty expressing their anger in a healthy way for fear of being rejected and cut off from others.
The body of this person tends to develop much like the body of an infant, with a sunken chest and soft, rounded shoulders slumping downwards and inwards to protect the heart. The hands and feet are small in relation to the rest of the body which will appear as lacking energy and strength, with the musculature being under-developed and flaccid. This person will often be too thin or too fat and energetically imbalanced, appearing not grounded and connected with the earth. Their head may be thrown forward with large outward-focused eyes and full lips reaching out for nourishment. They will give the impression of being weak and depressed, and unable to stand up for themselves. Their protective posture prevents them from breathing fully and feeling their core which is where they feel empty and helpless.
In a therapeutic context, this person needs to learn to acknowledge and claim their own needs, experience how it is to ask and to take in and feel satisfied on the level of their body’s felt sense. They need to be encouraged to express their needs and also be validated in their expression of strong emotions, particularly in their anger, without collapsing into sadness and depression. Touch is an important tool to give them a sense of being met and nourished, and this type will often crave physical connection through touch. However, their tendency to merge with others and dissolve in connection leaves them with weak energetic boundaries, so it is also essential for them to learn to feel themselves in their bodies without relying on others. Focus on grounding techniques and on feeling their core will help this type to stand on their own two feet and to feel energised from within themselves. Importantly, they need to feel entitled to having needs without feeling ashamed, guilty or anxious and find ways to nourish and comfort themselves.
These clients will often present a challenge to their therapist for their tendency to become dependent and suck energy from others. It is therefore just as important for the therapist to have clear boundaries and internal resources when working with an oral person, and notice any tendency to be sucked into their client’s field or feeling depleted by them. Conversely, many people with this structure become therapists or other helping professionals. For them it is important to be aware of when the pattern to take care of others to the detriment of your own boundaries may be kicking in. This can show up as feeling overly exhausted after working with someone or working too much but also not having the ability to say “enough” and give yourself the care and nourishment you give others.