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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Breast and the Mouth

The mouth and the breast are two central features of human anatomy, emblematic of two vital functions: eating and feeding, hunger and a capacity to quench another’s hunger.

If we were to be somewhat fanciful and move from a literal to a symbolic reading of these organs, then we might gain a fresh perspective on two functions that lie at the core of existence: the ‘breast’ standing for a capacity to sustain, comfort and nourish others, not only with food but as importantly, with care, time, friendship and love. And the ‘mouth’ standing for an equally universal need for assistance, sustenance and provision. We are all, as it were, distinctively positioned in relation to the ‘mouth’ and the ‘breast.’

However, it isn’t necessarily easy to manage the different drives that underpin these metaphors. To take the mouth first, it may not be simple to admit to needing nourishment from an outside source. We may have had a childhood that made depending on someone intensely anxiety-inducing. We might – out of a pre-emptive fear of letdown – be tempted to declare grandiosely that we don’t need ‘feeding’ from anyone else or else we might feel compelled to wither quietly away from a sense of being undeserving and unworthy of care. Feeding requires that we experience ourselves as entitled to goodness but also can bear our envy of those who have, for the time being at least, more than we do. 

To shift to the other metaphoric domain, managing the breast side of us has its own complications. We probably need a history of having been well fed before the notion of giving precious things to someone else seems tolerable. Equally, we may be tempted to constantly provide sustenance to others not out of true munificence but out of an inability to tolerate dependence, using so-called generosity to mask a horror of reliance; as a well-disguised way of turning the world away.

Such behaviours point to the achievement of being able to adjudicate fairly between the mouth and the breast sides of our natures: to bear at once dependence and beneficence, hunger and charity.

These admittedly unlikely sounding metaphors end up giving us lenses through which we can interrogate aspects of the psyche. We might ask of people: how good are they at feeding someone else? How well are they able to stand being nourished by others? Can they tolerate the anxiety of giving? Can they bear the complexities of taking? Some people will emerge from this exercise as distinctly more breast than mouth and vice versa. We might similarly ask ourselves: What issues do I have around the mouth part of me (around guilt, greed, envy, pride, and fear about appetite)? And which ones around the breast? (around resentment or martyrdom about nurture and provision). There will, in answering such questions, always be a history to contend with: those who can nourish well will have been well nourished. Those who can’t need others will probably once have been punished for their dependence. Those who must smother others in bounty were never allowed to discover their own appetites. We can wind up asking, playfully but with serious intent: if we are all a combination of ‘mouths’ and ‘breasts’, to what extent do we know how to be solid around either?

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