Assistant professor of Clinical Psychology Ruth Van der Hallen grew up in Antwerp. She was ten years old when she decided she wanted to study Psychology. “Studying to become a psychiatrist seemed too difficult.” Human Resources was a clear alternative. “I could see myself testing people who were seeking a suitable job and telling them the kind of work that would be a good match for them.” But when studying Psychology in Leuven, she discovered that she was more interested in clinical problems. She has been involved with how people cope with difficulties since that time.

Ruth Van der Hallen is assistant professor of Clinical Psychology at EUR. She completed a PhD at KU Leuven, the title of her thesis being Little things, big things: perceptual organization in children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder. She is a researcher and lecturer.  Van der Hallen has worked as psychodynamic psychologist since 2012.

The error she feared

Her love of therapy developed during her master’s degree, when Van der Hallen followed an internship at a psychiatric hospital in Kortenberg, Belgium. “I’d prefer diagnostic examinations to therapy,” she told them. “Things can go wrong during therapy. I was afraid that I’d make problems worse by asking questions; that I’d make someone who was suffering depression even more depressed.” Van der Hallen now knows that you shouldn’t listen to your fears. She set her trepidations aside and during her internship therapy sessions she was affected by moments of meeting, ‘the moments in which the psychologist and client make real contact’.

And those errors, yes, she made them, however minor. She sometimes became distracted during a discussion or no longer knew what to say. Her best friend had the same experience. “We drove together from Antwerp to Kortenberg every day and chatted about everything that had gone wrong. That she had the same experience as I had wasn’t entirely reassuring. We were both at the same level.”

Therapists are people

During her internship, Van der Hallen read De naakte therapeut by Peter Rober. This did reassure her. The book is composed of short stories about the writer’s experiences as a psychotherapist. He describes his internal dialogue during therapy sessions. He said what always remained unsaid. The therapist in the book makes shopping lists in his head during a session with a client and feels relieved that the client’s child is dead rather than his own child. “After reading this book, I discovered that it’s logical that I turn over everything in my mind during sessions. It made the work less fraught.”

The writer, Peter Rober, was a professor of Van der Hallen at KU Leuven. “He was someone I looked up to. ‘If even he is more affected by one session than another, then maybe it’s OK,’ I thought at the time. Then you can then learn from your thoughts instead of judging them.”

Reading habits:

Number of books per year: 25

Favourite genre: detectives

Most important motivation: the delight of the intellectual stimulus

Most recent book: the books by Jussi Adler Olsen. “I like to read series. When I find a book by an author I like, I want to read the next one too. Sometimes I save books for a few years so I don’t need to wait for the second book.”

Combining is enhancing

After her internship, she chose two directions at the same time. She started her PhD in Leuven and also became a psychotherapist, after following an additional study programme. “I didn’t feel I’d finished learning.” Now, as well as her job as lecturer and researcher at EUR, she still works as independent psychologist just over the border in Belgium. She is convinced that one role improves the other: “In my lessons I use practical examples and as a researcher I know what is important to people. In turn, I can apply my research experience during therapy sessions.”

She regularly recommends De naakte therapeut if students want to know the realities of therapy. A new version has now been published, with new stories, and Van der Hallen has a copy of that too. Sometimes she rereads the most imposing sections. “These remind me of sessions I’ve had with my own clients. I no longer need the book to reassure me. I know how fantastic and rewarding it is to be a psychotherapist.”