After three decades as a therapist, Ann chose to honor her midlife calling: helping women find and pursue their passions, through personal coaching and curated self-discovery adventures.
Tell us a little about your background…
I often say that the small Indiana town where I grew up was a scaled down version of the TV show Mad Men. My mother who had been a beauty queen in college struggled with many of the same issues as the character Betty Draper—anxiety, depression, deep-seeded anger, and an eating disorder. My strikingly handsome and entrepreneurial father, also named Dick like the Mad Men character, believed that you dealt with whatever bothered you by “putting on a good face” or doing some kind of physical labor. Unlike Sally Draper, the daughter on the TV show, I was not rebellious and held much inside while getting straight A’s and winning awards in 4-H at the state fair.
The combination of constant high expectations, lack of emotional support, and the use of shame as a motivator became too much. One day I felt I was going to die. I had horrible pains in my stomach, I couldn’t breathe right and I was shaking all over. But instead of telling my mother, I called the family doctor (incidentally, he and his wife ran in the same social circles as my parents) and told the receptionist I needed to meet discreetly with the doctor. I rode my bike to his office, parked behind the building where no one could see, went in the back door to his private office and, sobbing the whole time, confided that my situation was more than I could cope with. Of course back then, he had nothing to offer—no counseling or antidepressants—but he let me cry, and he listened. That’s the moment I decided to become a therapist. I never wanted anyone else to feel so hurt, scared, and alone.
I graduated from Indiana University, where I had trained as an Occupational Therapist, (OT) specializing in mental health and where I met my husband, Dan. For the next 29 years, I worked as a therapist and then administrator in acute care psychiatry. I also have over 20 years of extensive leadership experience as an educator and administrator in inpatient and outpatient mental health. In 2007, I co-founded a nonprofit organization, The Partnership for Mental Health, Inc (PMH). For the past 8 years, I have served as president of this organization, leading this collaborative of more than 30 organizations from the Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky region; we coordinate efforts to educate our communities and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, as well as increasing awareness and understanding of suicide prevention.
In the 1980s, I created the Cincinnati Perpetrator Treatment Network to increase the collaboration between courts and treatment providers around the treatment of sexual abuse; the goal is to ensure community safety via the use of evidence-based treatment for offenders. I have served on various advisory boards including, but not limited to, the Southwest Ohio Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I presently serve on the transitional board of the Tristate Trauma Network, an organization dedicated to creating a community-wide commitment to the prevention and recovery from trauma and toxic stress in the Southwest Ohio, Southern Indiana, and Northern Kentucky region.
When did you start thinking about making a change?
Throughout our adult lives, my best friend Shari—I’ve known her since I was four—and I have gone on what we call WW’s (Women’s Weekends/Weeks). These getaways helped us manage the demands of our busy lives by allowing us to recharge our batteries, connect with one another, and reconnect with the truest version of ourselves. We came back stronger and better women, as well as better (and happier) spouses, mothers, employees, neighbors, and community members.
During one of these getaways—in December 2011, when we were celebrating my 49th birthday—Shari and I began talking about how we wished to share this experience with other women, to create trips that would allow them to feel all the joy we do from friendship and travel.
The year we both turned 50, we went on a trip to Europe. While there, Shari and I talked more about the idea of travel with women. We were both reading a book by Martha Beck, a Harvard professor turned life coach (and made famous by Oprah). We both fully related to her holistic approach and concepts of Wordlessness and Oneness. I couldn’t put her book down, Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want. It spoke of the ancient art of “wayfinding” and seemed to call me to a new purpose. More than ever, I felt pulled to work solely with women. Back home, I began plans for my new business.
When were you finally able to start your business?
After losing both my parents within a four-month period and finding myself increasingly drained and disheartened in my job—I was an administrator over acute care psychiatric programs and had had a particularly long and stressful week—I made the decision to resign from my position of 29 years and build my company. I had researched Martha Beck’s Life Coaching Training program but couldn’t afford it. Then I received an email from my brother telling me that we kids would be receiving some money from my parents’ estate. It was just the right amount for the program.
The morning I was driving into work to resign, I started having second thoughts. Then the most incredible thing happened. At that very moment, Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” came on—a song my dad and I had danced to since I was 11 years old. I started crying because I missed my dad and because I felt this was a sign. Still, I said aloud, “Ok dad, if this is really you, and you are telling me I’m doing the right thing, I want to see a REAL yellow ribbon.” Less than a mile away, I saw a five-foot yellow ribbon on the side of the road. And on the next block, there was a yard with a bunch of little stakes with yellow ribbons. I sobbed so hard that I had to pull my car over. I went in, resigned, and never looked back.
While in the middle of Martha Beck’s training, I learned that Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and researcher on vulnerability and shame, offered a certification in her methodology. Having worked with many women through the years (and also having dealt with these issues myself) I knew vulnerability and shame were huge barriers to women’s ability to live wholehearted and joyful lives. So I headed to San Antonio to begin that training. I use all these tools now when providing private coaching and when designing and conducting workshops and international travel retreats. I want women to have the best experiences available.
What is your next act?
I started Wayfinding Women, LLC, in April 2014, at the age of 51. Wayfinding Women is dedicated to empowering individuals to self-actualize, live their best life, and positively impact their world. We do this by creating unique and joyful experiences as well as facilitating authentic connections among women.
I coach individual women, helping them over the rough spots we all experience so they can reach their pinnacle. These are typically strong professional women who have been thrown off their path by some kind of transition or event and are seeking to regain their power. I also work with women who realize that they have not ever fully stood in their power or are uncertain about their purpose and wish to find these for themselves.
Can you tell us more about the women you have worked with?
I’ve worked with several women in the past year who have had major career transitions, being laid off or fired. They are highly invested, passionate, talented women who have given much of their lives to these organizations and then feel very lost when that leader identity is no longer there—when they aren’t running the show and sharing their amazing gifts with the world.
These clients were struggling to figure out, “Who am I now?” and “What is my worth or value without this job?” First, I helped them to grieve their loss. Then, we examined their painful or limiting beliefs about their self-worth and what their future would hold. I taught them how to recognize when their thoughts were not necessarily true or helpful and how they had the power to change their story. Instead of viewing themselves as a victim, they could find and stand confidently in their truth. I gave them techniques to use when they had anxiety around money or the future and kept them away from the “lack” mentality which made them want to run out and apply for any job that would take them. Instead, I helped them imagine and create what they really wanted next. When they were able to relax in their own wisdom and personal power, they were able to begin designing the future they wanted.
These women have since designed lives that are purposeful, satisfying and allow them to have a more balanced life and to do those things that are most important to them. For example, one has gone on to become a consultant and has gained control over her personal and professional life; she enjoys setting her own schedule and being able to spend more time with friends and family. Another has given herself permission to concentrate on being with a family member who is seriously ill, instead of pressuring herself to fight her way back into the corporate world. She is in the dreaming and scheming phase of finding her own next best act.
What trips do you have in the works?
I have several national and international events, workshops, and retreats planned for women who are yearning to connect and explore concerns and ideas in a safe, small group environment that is supportive, and judgment-free. I plan four international retreats yearly, which are designed for women to relax, renew, and experience standing in their own power as the heroines of their own life.
This fall’s retreat in Italy is the inaugural trip for Wayfinding Women and is focused on women who are facing midlife transitions. My trips provide an opportunity for exploring and learning experientially. Instead of holding “classes,” I provide prompts and activities that foster personal expansion and exploration as we are engaging in travel.
The retreats are a balance of relaxation and reflection (journal, draw, walk, nap) combined with structured discussions and experiences (such as experimenting in a variety of mindfulness practices or learning techniques for imagining and creating their ideal life) and planned excursions (tastings at vineyards and cheese farms, touring unique historical sights, shopping local markets, meeting and mingling with locals). The evenings we return to our private villa or visit a unique restaurant and, while we enjoy a Tuscan meal prepared specially for us, we relax, drink Italian wine, and discuss our experiences and discoveries.
I do extensive research to plan the trips and make it a priority to work with locals in order to provide the best, most unique experience for my clients. One of my goals is to connect women on my trips with like-minded women wherever we are. With the Tuscany trip, our group will be meeting up with women native to Florence and Tuscany for dinner and “Girls’ Night Out”. I am all about authentic connection and know that there is no replacement for the face-to-face, soul connection we all need.
Every woman has her own agenda for what she hopes for while on the retreat; I meet with each individually during the tour to talk about how this is going and follow up a month after the retreat to assist with any barriers or challenges they’ve found since returning home. At least two women going on the Italy trip this fall are looking to change their career path. Another is preparing to leave a high-powered lifelong career and recreate her identity.
I’ve found from past experiences that when we are able to remove ourselves from our everyday experiences and place ourselves in different surroundings with people who stimulate us and assist us in looking at our world through different lenses, we are moved and transformed. We are better able to come back and take steps to implement changes that we have identified and explored.
Next spring, I’m taking a group to Paris for an Extreme Self Care Retreat where the group will experience self-care through all of our senses…and how to make self-care an integral part of our daily lives. Paris is the perfect city for a pampering, girlfriend experience!
The women who have signed up to go on trips so far tend to be women leaders who are interested in a broad worldview, as well as authentic and meaningful connection that extends beyond one week. They are women who yearn to make a difference in this world and who recognize that saving the world starts with taking care of themselves.
What other events are you organizing?
In addition to retreats, I also coordinate events and facilitate workshops. As a Certified The Daring Way™ Facilitator Candidate, I facilitate workshops for women leaders on The Daring Way™ which is based on the research and methodology of Brené Brown on vulnerability, shame, worthiness and courage. I am currently working with corporations in SW Ohio and Northern Kentucky to bring these workshops to their women’s leadership groups. In addition, I design and facilitate fun gatherings where groups of up to 20 women come together at trendy venues to engage in lively experiential self-actualization activities and spirited discussions—and of course enjoy fabulous food and wine! These events are currently being organized for Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Denver.
How supportive have your family and friends been?
This change just about gave my husband a coronary; we depended on the two of us working and being paid. After much discussion, we were able to figure it out. My husband still struggles at times with the unknowns of my new career but he has really pushed himself beyond his comfort zone to be supportive. My husband is an introvert and tries at all costs not to draw attention to himself (learning: never ask a group of waiters to sing happy birthday to him or put a sombrero on his head while serving him fried ice cream). He has learned over the past 31 years of marriage that I am definitely the exuberant one in our relationship. His realization that my creating wildly fun experiences for other women makes him much less likely to be pulled into the spotlight with my playful antics makes him appreciate my business even more.
My 24-year-old daughter Kate has told me she was extremely proud of me for acting on my dreams and my friends have been incredibly encouraging and supportive, offering up their time and talents to help further my success and achieve what they believe is an important goal.
Shari was definitely part of the initial planning and is still very much an advocate and supporter but, while we both would like her to have a more active role in the business, her current personal and professional life doesn’t allow it. Yet.
What challenges have you encountered?
While I had founded and led a nonprofit organization while also working a high-stress, high-responsibility and basically life-consuming job, creating an entrepreneurial business that would actually allow me to pay bills and feed my basset hound, Marvin Hamlisch, was different than anything I’d experienced before. But, I didn’t listen to the naysayers and kept facing forward and bringing people along who appreciated the value of what I offer. The tools I learned from my training and experience have kept me from going into the dark and scary places of “compare and despair” that often trip up new entrepreneurs.
Another challenge was learning about marketing, creating a website, blogging, etc. I continue to rely on my creative friends who have offered their help. One recent learning was that while the name Wayfinding Women seems fairly obvious to women, evidently it’s not been so clear to men, especially those in Arab countries who seem to believe it is a “way of finding women”! I had to disable the social networking component of my website when more than 17,000 men attempted to register. I am frequently sent requests to connect on Facebook and LinkedIn by men from Middle Eastern countries, sending pictures of themselves alone or with small children. It took a few weeks before it hit me that they think I’m a matchmaker (or something like it).
How do you promote your business?
Up to now, it has predominantly been through word of mouth. I work with someone and they tell several people they know and it spreads. I also have an extensive network from my community work, so those connections share what I’m doing with their network. Some women have found me through The Daring Way™ (Brené Brown’s training and certification site) and Martha Beck’s listing of certified coaches. I also am a connector and active on social media, connecting with women all around the world who share my vision for women. I primarily engage on Facebook and LinkedIn and I love to connect women with each other, especially where they can be of help to one another.
What have you learned about yourself through this process?
I have always believed we are lifelong learners but I didn’t realize that you can really have life-changing epiphanies after 50. I call many of these lessons “painful epiphanies,” but they are part of what is necessary to really stretch and become a newer, better, more enlightened version of ourselves.
I have learned that we are each on our own journey; while we love our spouse/partner and children, we cannot be on their journey. We have to focus on what we are here to learn and allow them to do the same. Because we live in a fear-based culture, we try to prevent others from experiencing pain or hardship, yet it is through that pain and hardship that one finds his/her strength and voice. That one was particularly hard to learn as a mother.
I have learned that there is no one right way to do anything; there are many ways. And failing is a prerequisite to success. We are so afraid of failing because of the meaning we assign to it, so we try hard to avoid making mistakes, doing it the wrong way, or failing. Another painful epiphany came when I realized that my attempts to keep my daughter from making mistakes or failing by offering her “helpful suggestions” for school projects or life challenges was actually not helping her but hindering her growth. At first it was frustrating when she would say, “Mom, I prefer to learn the hard way.” But she was so right.
I have also learned that what blocks us most often is our own set of beliefs and perceptions. Sometimes we are blind to our own situation and we need someone to help us take the blinders off. That can feel like you’ve been hit by a train and it’s easy to go into a shame spiral—“How could I have not seen that for 20 years?” or, “How could I have been so stupid?” We need compassionate witnesses to this process, who will hold space for us as we melt down our ego and rebuild as a more illuminated self.
And I know I’m not done with these lessons.
I don’t believe we are ever done evolving and growing until we die—or give up. Martha Beck talks about when you go through a change, especially when it involves your identity—career woman, mother, wife, healthy woman—it’s similar to the metamorphosis of the butterfly. As humans, we go through this process several times in our lives, having to re-identify ourselves each time.
During that process, we grieve what was, which can be very scary and painful. We feel lost and struggle to find some kind of normalcy. I have learned that if we accept that this is part of a process and that it’s ok, if we are patient and gentle with ourselves, we will not only survive but come out better on the other side. As a therapist, I have always believed that we need an impartial support system during such times because those around us, while they may love us and want the best for us, also have skin in the game and may not be objective. They may not want us to change because the way we were has served them in some way.
As I grow older, I have come to believe that we all fall apart at one or more points in our lives and this doesn’t mean we are disordered or mentally ill. Life is challenging and we can choose to evolve continuously; while some people need mental health treatment, many just need the support, encouragement, and guidance of a coach.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Follow your heart. We are here in this space and time for a short while and we have the opportunity to do great things. That doesn’t mean we have to be President of the United States or even president of the garden club, but we are president of our lives and have something important that someone needs.
Every woman is meant to live her unique journey but, to pursue any path, she will have to get still and listen closely to what her essential self is telling her it wants to do. Giving herself permission and getting clarity is also a huge part of the process and can take time.
Here are six things that have helped me through my own personal growth after 50:
- Find someone or something that inspires you and lights you up.
The book that really rocked my world and made me begin thinking big was Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder. I was blessed to meet Paul ten years ago when he came to speak at a small school near Columbus, Ohio. This was before the UN Secretary-General appointed him to be a special advisor to Haiti. He is the most humble yet brilliant visionary I’ve ever seen, let alone met. And he helped me have faith that one person can make a significant difference.
- Get an anthem.
I love music and encourage women to find songs to be their anthems and help them be strong when they are going through hell. Music is powerful for lifting us up and helping us put one foot in front of the other, especially on really challenging days. One day, in my old job, I had Jason Mraz’s song, “Living in the Moment” on constant replay the entire day. It kept me from having a panic attack and reminded me of my own power. Another one of his I love is “Make it Mine.” Find an anthem that speaks to you.
- Practice gratitude regularly.
We hear this all the time but practicing gratitude goes beyond being thankful for our families, friends, or finding one’s lost keys. It’s being aware—even when sitting in a traffic jam and late for work—how blessed we really are for things like even having a car. It’s taking the time to notice the incredible way the universe supports us (even when it’s not giving us everything we ask for). The more we practice gratitude, the more we find to be thankful for.
- Surround yourself with others who share your passions and beliefs.
Working with like-minded individuals is key. Also, make sure that you are around individuals who build you up and bring only positive energy to your space. It’s very hard to make forward movement if there are people pulling you back. By connecting with like-minded women, we get ideas, confirmation that we are on the right path, and support when taking the leaps we need to take. One of my favorite quotes is “The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be” by Reid Hoffman, Co-Founder of LinkedIn. In my old job, when I realized I was transitioning to a new me, I posted the following saying to help me set boundaries with others around me: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.” And if people didn’t honor that, I distanced myself from their energy.
- Be audacious—the bold, not the impudent kind.
This is where my love of Katharine Hepburn’s attitude comes in and why I named my daughter after her. Hepburn was spunky and went after what she wanted, even if she had to make a scene. She said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.” I was a Girl Scout Leader for 13 years and my co-leader and I believed in asking forgiveness instead of permission from our council. For example, we supported our girls (aged 13 and 14) when they researched, wrote, directed, and recorded a video on staying safe from HIV for Jamaican teens before they went to lead a week-long literacy day camp there. I’m not sure how many other Girl Scout leaders did things like having condom-tying contests for practicing the correct way to tie a condom at their meetings!
- Say yes a lot.
Sheryl Sandberg has done a great job of telling women that we need to lean in…take the seat at the table and not wait to have it offered. I will add to what Sheryl has said by suggesting women need to say “yes” and “volunteer” for the fun things (not just for who is going to bring 12 dozen cookies for the bake sales). About ten years ago, I had just started working with a woman on a nonprofit board, Rhonda Lindon-Hammon; as we were getting acquainted, she told me that she had been offered a deal to go pick up her new Volvo convertible in Sweden. The dealership was giving her two round-trip airline tickets and a night in a four-star hotel. But her husband had said he didn’t want to go as he’d been before. Before she finished that sentence, I blurted, “Take me!” At first she looked surprised and said, “You’d really want to travel internationally with someone you barely know?” We ended up going to Göteborg and Stockholm for eight fabulous days and became very good friends. This ignited my desire to say yes and volunteer more often for things that seem audacious.
What resources do you recommend?
Books and programs on personal growth and healing:
Finding Your Way in a Wild New World: Reclaim Your True Nature to Create the Life You Want and Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck.
She also has many incredible telecourses and resources you can find on my Favorites page
In addition, any in-person program offered by Martha Beck is truly transformative.
The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead and Rising Strong by Brené Brown
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach
Robert Feltner at Creative Elements Group
Design and logo branding:
Dave Winterhalter Design at email@example.com
Social media marketing:
Simply Digital: Amy Palmerton at firstname.lastname@example.org
Competitive Marketing Strategy for Entrepreneurs and Business Owners:
Karen Hoch of Market Blue Consulting at email@example.com
What about resources focused on women reinventing themselves in midlife?
I highly recommend working with a personal coach who is trained in clearing away the mindset obstacles that are blocking their best self. From what I’ve experienced, Martha Beck trained coaches are less formulaic in their methods; they do not add anything, but simply subtract what isn’t working, using many different modalities accessing the entire brain (not just the left brain), the body, and soul. As Martha says, “Our essential self that remains is far more sophisticated, intelligent, and beautiful than anything we could dream up.”
Women are notorious for insisting “I can do it myself” or “I don’t need anyone” but the reality is that, at one time or another, we all women encounter times of challenge or transition where obstacles impede our ability to achieve our goals, our dreams, and be all we are meant to be. I believe women are best able to break through barriers and effect change when receiving compassion, encouragement, and support.
I live it to give it, which means I still get coached regularly as well as self-coach.
What¹s next for you?
Not long after the yellow ribbon experience, I had another moment while driving when an idea popped into my mind about how to connect women to improve their lives and save the world. I totally understood the premise. Hundreds (probably thousands) of incredible and important women’s organizations around the world are focusing on making a difference and changing the world—eliminating poverty, hunger, abuse, inequality, literacy, and more—and yet they pretty much function in silos. I kept thinking that if they could work together on at least some of their strategic initiatives, how much more they could achieve—we could achieve—and faster. So I am connecting with women leaders around the world and talking with them about various ideas.
I’m also finishing my certification with Brené Brown’s The Daring Way™ program. I belong to a Mastermind Group that helps me when I’m stuck and keeps me accountable in my personal and business goals; they also will help me work through my WIG/BHAG (Wildly Improbably Goal/Big Hairy Audacious Goal) of bringing women together in a way that’s never been done to strategically transform the world. I just created a Facebook group called Women Wolrdwide Who Empower, Connect & Support with the goal to help female leaders to connect and expand their reach on Facebook.
I have always believed, and do more so now more than ever, that we are better together. A single twig breaks easily but a bundle of twigs together cannot be broken.
Contact Ann Hoffman-Ruffner at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Women can schedule a complimentary 30-minute coffee chat with me.
I would love to be a part of this, especially the volunteerism and Citizen Science! This really resonates with me…I’m from Southwest Ohio, from Dayton and Englewood. I will be contacting Ann!
You are already part of the tribe! I look forward to connecting with you to expand this network of engaging, passionate women and envision possibilities…plus we truly are neighbors in SW Ohio!
Okay, Ann, I’ve subscribed and joined your FB page! Looking forward to it!