Satisfying the Oral Urge
©Cort Curtis, Ph.D.

There are many reasons that people give themselves as
to why they choose to smoke. If you were to ask a
smoker why they smoke you would hear a wide range of
responses such as...

"It's fun"
"It's a reward"
"It passes the time"
"It's like my friend"
"I like to watch the smoke"
"It brings back memories"
"It's cool"
"It helps me concentrate and think"
"It helps me to relax"
"It helps me let off steam"
"It's pleasurable"

One psychological theory that may underscore all of
these reasons is that smoking, and the need to smoke,
satisfies an oral urge or craving. It feels good to have
something in the mouth and it brings a kind of
satisfaction that has its basis in early childhood growth
when the oral stage of development was prominent.
When a smoker tries to quit smoking they are removing
a strong psychological "crutch" to satisfy this oral need.
If a smoker is to be successful in quitting smoking it
could be helpful to understand what is at the basis of
their smoking and to find some replacement to satisfy
that oral urge.

Back to the Breast

The oral urge goes way back to infancy and is typically
manifested in the first 18 months of life. The mouth, the
lips and the tongue are the primary bodily source of
pleasure and satisfaction (the "erogenous zones") for
the newborn. As infants we needed to suck, and this
need to suck was satisfied most appropriately by breast
or bottle. If we were breast fed, or bottle fed with love,
care and holding, and everything went smoothly we
easily passed through this oral stage and went on to the
next. If for some reason we did not adequately pass
through the oral stage we may find that we still have a
strong need to "suck" on something or put something in
our mouths. We become "fixated" at this particular
stage of development and we will manifest certain
characteristics of that stage. It is our way of trying to
satisfy a strong need that was never fully satisfied in

Satisfactions and Interruptions in the
Oral Stage

In the first few months of life we lived in a sensori-motor
world. We did not experience a separation between
ourselves and our mother; we existed in a
relationship with her, a total dependency wherein there
is no separation between ourselves and our mother. As
infants we feel what our mothers feel. When she smiles
with warmth and joy we immediately experience that joy
as our very own experience, and bask in the feeling of
total warmth and security. The warmth, care and love we
see in our mother's smile becomes the basis for how we
see ourselves and the world. When we can expect and
accept affection, we learn to trust ourselves and others
and we embrace life with open loving arms. If however
she is anxious or irritated, hostile or upset, we feel
these disturbing feelings inside us as well. These first
impressions of the world, as experienced through our
mother, sink deep into our psyche, literally shaping the
way we learn to view life.

This early world of experience is a sensory world of pain
and pleasure, of comfort and discomfort, of cold and of
warmth. We are totally dependent on others to take
care of our needs. If we cry out to express our
displeasure from pain, hunger or loneliness and
someone comes to comfort and console us, we learn
that we can trust others to satisfy our needs. We
develop an inner
security that our needs will be met. We
reassured, and we develop a deep trust that others
will be responsive to us. The development of trust
becomes the earliest and deepest strata of the human
mind if we our loved.

The warmth, care and affection we feel builds a stable
foundation of love and trust of others, ourselves and
the world. A deep inner security develops from knowing
and experiencing that we are dearly loved and cherished.
Being loved deeply allows us to naturally love ourselves,
to love being alive and to be able to trust others enough
to love them. Natural trust in the world that provides
consistent comfort and security develops into a strong
sense of
optimism. We begin to actively reach out and
explore with open, trusting arms the world we have so
newly entered.

However if we cry and others either ignore us or become
angry at us for bothering them, we sense that we are
not important and lie in fear that our basic needs for
food and contact comfort will not be met. We lie in our
cribs in pain, alone in a world that seems cold and cruel
and unresponsive to our needs. We feel
afraid, lonely
unwanted, an impression that sinks deep into our
minds, leading us to distrust others and feel pessimistic
that our needs will be met.

Unfortunately some of us never experience the basic
security, comfort and love we need to form a stable
foundation of trust in the world. Some of us are
emotionally abused, our needs for comfort and security
cruelly denied. Our view of the world reflects what we
experienced in the first year of life. Neglect leads to a
view of
pessimism ("I cannot count on anything", "I
can't trust that things will turn out"); of
insecurity ("I
am unwanted and unloved"); of
distrust and suspicion
("I will be hurt or ignored") and of
fear ("My needs will
not be met"). While some of us have been neglected and
abused, virtually
all of us experience some of these
some of the time and in varying degrees of

How We Get Fixated

All of us need to feel accepted and loved, to have the
security that our needs will be met. If we do not gain
this stable foundation early in life we will attempt to
achieve some kind of oral gratification later in life--that
sense of satisfaction an infant feels when his needs for
food, comfort and pleasure are met. Individuals whose
oral gratification have been frustrated or denied become
fixated, stuck trying to fulfill oral needs for love, comfort
and attention.

A person with oral fixations tries to achieve oral
gratification and oral pleasure by activities such as
over-eating, excessive drinking, smoking or even
excessive talking about oneself to seek attention and
affection. Other behaviors such as nail-biting, gum
chewing, chewing on pencils, putting objects in one's
mouth and thumb sucking are often unconscious
attempts to satisfy an oral craving. Even sexual
compulsions and fantasies can have their root in oral
underdevelopment and cravings. Perhaps it is no
accident that as a culture we are fixated on women's
breasts which may reflect a cultural deficit in oral
satisfaction. We
attempt to regain pleasures similar to
being fulfilled at the mother's breast. Unfortunately
these substitutes, if they are lacking the intimate
connection that we need and seek from our partner, can
never fully satisfy unmet needs from infancy. We may
try to compensate by engaging in some of these
behaviors to fill the emptiness inside, but the
satisfaction and pleasure is usually short-lived at best
and self-defeating in the long run.

When we try to seek gratification that was unfulfilled as
a child by engaging in certain substitute behaviors we
are predictably frustrated. Nothing we do truly fulfills the
original need. If we are an incessant talker hoping to
receive the attention and affection we so desperately
need, we will drive people away, confirming our world
view that we are unwanted and unloved. If we take to
alcohol or drugs to dull the inner pain and escape for a
while to a pleasurable world, the alcohol or drug never
makes us feel fully loved and accepted, what we really
needed as a child. If we take up smoking as a way of
satisfying the basic oral discomfort of needing
something in our mouth, that cigarette will never really
nourish us. It does not adequately fulfill the true need of
being loved, nurtured and connected.

Smoking (and other types of substitute oral behaviors)
in many ways acts as a
pacifier when we are feeling
anxious, tense or uneasy with ourselves. If we were
given a pacifier as an infant, it may have satisfied our
need to suck but in most situations,
pacifiers are not
given for the benefit of the infant
but rather for the
benefit of the adults who don't want to put up with the
infant's crying. When the infant is given the pacifier he is
typically put aside and separated from human contact.
When the infant has a need to suck it is wanting
nourishment and human contact.
The pacifier offers
neither. Giving the infant a pacifier, thus trains the child
to expect no real satisfaction or psychological payoff
from the most fundamental action that it knows--

. As a result, the substitute act leaves the infant
feeling "empty" with no real nourishment and no real

Smoking often serves the exact same purpose. If I am a
smoker, and I am feeling anxious or uneasy about
myself in a particular situation I may try to "pacify" that
anxiety with a cigarette along with the action of sucking
on that cigarette. Smoking a cigarette is really the
perfect pacifier. By smoking I am
sucking on something
and I am feeling the
warmth of the smoke coming into
my mouth and throat. And if I am around others who
smoke, I am also feeling somewhat
bonded and
because we are sharing the same act. While
smoking does seem to satisfy some of this basic need
for oral stimulation and human contact, that need
never be satisfied by putting a poison in my system.

Oral Characteristics and Behaviors

When we are stuck in the oral stage of development we
manifest certain characteristics and behaviors that
reflect that stage. If my oral needs were not
satisfactorily met in infancy, I may become
or orally aggressive. Becoming orally
dependent can often arise from either being
or orally overindulged. During the latter part
of the oral stage, usually around 12 to 18 months, the
child moves through the sucking stage and on to the
biting and chewing stage. If the child gets stuck in this
stage he might become orally aggressive.

If I was frustrated or neglected I may very well
experience a high need for nurturance, attention and
affection and seek dependent relationships. I may end
up draining others with my high needs for dependency
which may ultimately result in rejection further proving
to myself that I am indeed unwanted, undesirable and
unloved. I may end up feeling
pessimistic, envious and

If I was orally overindulged ("spoiled") that is, if I was
given everything, and more, that I needed and wanted I
may come to expect that others must meet my every
need without my having to reach out and engage. I
might learn to manipulate others to give to me through
crying, acting helpless and demanding satisfaction.

If I was often punished for biting, I might have
experienced a frustration in developing my natural
aggressiveness to communicate my needs and
frustrations, to reach out determinedly and grasp my
environment and to pursue my wants. Consequently, I
might develop a "biting" (sarcastic) personality, critical of
others and trying to "get even" if I am feeling unloved.

Other behaviors reflective of the oral stage are
and acquisition of
things. By acquiring things and
material goods we attempt to satisfy a basic human
longing. We may go shopping, spend extravagantly and
pamper ourselves. When we feel unloved or unaccepted
we may seek dependencies to make our experience more
pleasurable, to remove the need frustration. We might
try to "buy" people's love through gifts and money but
end up feeling empty because they only like us for our
money or possessions. Materialistic objects become a
poor substitute for what we wanted as children -
security and love.

Experiencing Our Individuality

All of us struggle with residuals from the oral stage of
development. The process of separating and finding our
individuality, the movement from the symbiotic
dependent state of infancy to a separate identity, is
never completely resolved and is often a delicate
balance. It may express itself through our conflicting
feelings of longing to merge with someone who will meet
our needs and "give us" what we want versus our
feelings of independence--the desire to maintain our
individuality and push others away and try to "get" our
needs met by ourselves. Many people feel deep
insecurities that they may be left alone and that their
basic survival needs will not be met in old age or in an
accident. Others find it difficult to be alone and are
always afraid their loved ones will "leave them" while
others never want to risk intimacy at all.

Orality is a normal underlying factor throughout our life
and includes our basic struggle to feel secure in a world
we cannot control. Our insecurities in trusting and loving
others, our tendencies "to get" material possessions to
assuage fears and our deep desire to merge with
another person are all attempts to re-experience that
basic human connection that we had with our mothers.
In times of rejection from significant others we tend to
revert to oral behaviors which often emerge in extreme
forms. We might stuff ourselves with food, smoke packs
of cigarettes a day, cry inconsolably or numb ourselves
with drugs or alcohol. While at times it may feel that we
cannot bear the psychic pain from the loss of
it is exactly what we must learn to do if we
are to move out of the "stuckness" of the oral stage.

By learning to "be with" the uncomfortable feelings, we
give ourselves an opportunity to "process them out"
and to take appropriate actions that truly meet our
needs. By jumping in to substitute behaviors such as
smoking, drinking, drug taking or shopping we lose the
connection with ourselves which is essential for personal
growth and we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to
heal. And sometimes just
being with the feelings is
healing in itself.

Through our own personal growth experiences we can
develop a sense of "oral optimism" a trusting that the
world will provide the comfort, security and pleasure we
desire. By taking risks, by opening ourselves up to our
own vulnerabilities that we can be loved, cared for and
accepted we can gradually develop a deep lasting level of
trust, inner security and self-acceptance which is the
cornerstone of the healthy human personality. Oral
optimism, oral trust, oral receptivity and oral
reassurance form a firm foundation in the human psyche.