Exploring the Complementary Relationship Between MBSR and MSC

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Photo by Nadezhda Moryak

Years ago I found myself in a conundrum as I was considering continuing education to add some tools to my psychology practice to better serve my clients. I knew I wanted to deepen my own practice and understanding of mindfulness as well as learn how to share it with others. The problem was, I wasn’t quite sure which of the many amazing emerging training programs I should choose. I’d narrowed it down to two, but I was having a hard time deciding.

One program that stood out to me as a clinician was the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) certification track. MBCT is a close adaptation of the iconic Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which has been demonstrated in the research to prevent relapse of depression. The other I was considering was the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) teacher training pathway, another research supported program that helps people befriend their inner critic and treat themselves with care and kindness. Both addressed common and important areas of concern for my clients.

Though both these programs seemed like they’d be very beneficial, the practicalities of my situation nudged me toward taking MBSR and pursing MBCT training. There was a rare MBSR course available in my community (in the midwestern region of the US), but I’d have to fly to the West Coast to take MSC. Since that time, I’ve had the pleasure of completing both training programs, and I’m so glad I did. It has been said that mindfulness involves asking what we are experiencing while self-compassion involves asking what we need. Both questions are so important, and both sets of practices have been transformational in my own life and very useful in my work with clients.

My MBSR/MBCT training offered a secularization and expansion of what I was learning at my local Buddhist center in stabilizing attention and decentering from experience. Learning how to switch out of doing mode takes a lot of practice because it’s reinforced (maybe even demanded) by dominant American culture. The imperative of doing and becoming was deeply entrenched in me by my years in academics. Mindfulness training helped me develop more familiarity and comfort with simply being, without needing to make the moment something more. It also helped me defuse from experience so that I wasn’t so caught up in reactivity.

MSC, on the other hand, helped me develop more interpersonal warmth as I became more understanding of the complicated causes and conditions underlying my (and others’) behavior. I’ve been much more forgiving of myself (and others) than I was in the past. Although compassion for self and others is implicit in the MBSR/MBCT programs, it was not explicitly taught. The many self-compassion practices offered in MSC offered practical ways to build this life-enhancing skill.

I’m in agreement with many others who see mindfulness and self-compassion as complementary. They are stronger together. Both invite us to turn toward difficult experiences with acceptance and equanimity. Mindfulness operates within self-compassion as the necessary step of noticing our own suffering in a balanced way so we can wisely attend to it. Self-compassion adds two important skills to mindfulness; self-kindness – the willingness to treat oneself like we would treat a friend, and acknowledgement of common humanity – recognizing that suffering is part of the human condition and we are not alone in it.

I’ve had conversations with other folks who’ve been through both the MBSR/MBCT and the MSC programs. We’ve wondered amongst ourselves, is there an optimal order for taking these courses? For me, taking MBSR first seemed to be a good match for my skills and comfort level at the time. Others told me it would have been very helpful for them to have a foundation in self-compassion before turning the focused lens of mindfulness upon themselves. Here are my humble speculations about what folks might want to consider when deciding where to begin.

Taking MBCT/MBSR first may be the best route for some people who:

  • have a relatively robust sense of self-worth, but have trouble focusing attention. Studies have shown that MBSR increases attentional control.
  • don’t have a history of serious trauma and are able to self-regulate adequately, but find themselves taking things too personally. Research indicates MBSR helps participants decenter or defuse from experience, interrupting the automatic sensation-thought-emotion-action cycle.
  • find compassion practices “cheesy” or a turn-off in some way. Many of us have been culturally conditioned to see kindness and vulnerability as soft or weak, and this can make MSC less accessible. Studies show that practicing mindfulness can indirectly increase compassion for self and others.

Taking MSC first might be particularly helpful for people:

  • who are very self-critical, highly sensitive, or struggle with the symptoms of trauma, intense shame, or reactivity and need to increase their window of presence (tolerance). MSC gives such participants the skills they need to stay with their experience without becoming overwhelmed. Keep in mind MSC is not therapy, so having your own personal therapist is probably also a good idea.
  • for whom compassion or self-compassion doesn’t naturally co-arise when practicing mindfulness. There may be some folks for whom mindfulness remains nothing more than sharpened attention, so explicit training in compassion and self-compassion may be necessary.

If you can only take one of these programs, perhaps the best choice is the one that will teach you what you most want or need to learn. Not surprisingly, studies comparing these programs have demonstrated that MBSR training resulted in significant improvements in mindfulness (and reductions in anxiety and depression) while MSC training showed significant increases in self-compassion. Fortunately, taking either course is also correlated with some increase in both compassion and mindfulness.

In addition to the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, here are some wonderful places where you can take courses based in MSC, MBSR and MBCT:

  • Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – A global leader in self-compassion training offering high quality programs to diverse populations, based upon scientific research and established teaching methods.
  • Community for Deepening Practice – The CDP offers a unique opportunity for those who have already taken MSC or MBSR to expand their understanding and embodiment through longer, deeper teacher-led dives into the concepts and practices.
  • UCSD Center for Mindfulness – Offers multi-faceted programs of clinical care, education, research, and outreach intended to further the practice and integration of mindfulness and compassion into the lives of individuals throughout the healthcare and educational system including patients, students, teachers, and businesspeople.
  • Brown University Mindfulness-Based Programs – The Mindfulness Center at Brown brings together top academics in research with leading educators in mindfulness. Dedicated to rigorous research and student-centered education, their goal is to offer programs that improve individual lives and organizational effectiveness.


Does Mindfulness Make You More Compassionate? by Shauna Shapiro for Greater Good Magazine

Garland EL, Hanley AW, Goldin PR, & Gross JJ (2017). Testing the mindfulness-to-meaning theory: Evidence for mindful positive emotion regulation from a reanalysis of longitudinal data. PLoS ONE 12(12): e0187727

Jha, A.P., Krompinger, J. & Baime, M.J. Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attentionCognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 7, 109–119 (2007).

Jiménez-Gómez, L., Yela, J.R., Crego, A. et al. (2022). Effectiveness of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) vs. the Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) Programs in Clinical and Health Psychologist Trainees. Mindfulness 13, 584–599.

Self-Compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness by Kristin D. Neff and Katie A. Dahm

The Transformative Effects of Mindful Self-Compassion – Leading experts on mindful self-compassion, Drs. Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, share how self-kindness, recognition of our humanity, and mindfulness give us the strength to thrive.

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